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Expanded on learning paradigms in online education. Updated and revised to include trends such the movement of online pedagogy from teacher-centric and management-oriented strategies to more student-centric and interactive e-learning approaches.

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date: 23 February 2017

Social Work Education: Electronic Technologies

Abstract and Keywords

The growth in technological advances in recent years has revolutionized the way we teach, learn, and practice social work. Due to increases in educational costs and the need for students to maintain family and work responsibilities, an increasing number of social work programs have turned to today’s advances in technology to deliver their courses and programs. This change has resulted in the creative use of new multimedia tools and online pedagogical strategies to offer distance web-based educational programming. With increases in technology-supported programs, recent research studies have identified a number of areas needing further investigation to ensure that quality distance education programs are developed.

Keywords: technology, e-learning strategies, simulations and games, assessment, distance education, instructional designs, educational paradigms

With the Continuing Growth

With the continuing growth, development, and globalization of our profession, one of the biggest changes in social work education has been advanced by the technological revolution. We currently have a new generation of social work students, many who are digital natives, born into a technological environment populated by a constantly changing and growing array of media. They are increasingly well-versed in the use of computer technology and advanced communication networks. This has been accompanied by a steady growth of online technologies in social work programs (Siegel, Jennings, Conklin, & Flynn, 2000). In 2005, over 2.6 million students took at least one online course (Allen & Seaman, 2006). This phenomenon continues to grow. A list of graduate level distance education programs updated by the Council on Social Work Education in 2011 (CSWE, n.d.) identified 20 online programs with the caveat that the list was incomplete, as programs continue to be added.

A major report released by the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (2009) provides additional support for the expansion of online education. This steady growth is an indication that online courses will remain a part of the academic landscape for years to come. The growth in technological advances and the increase in online degree programs in recent years have revolutionized the way we teach, the way we learn, and the way we practice social work. The integration of technology for teaching the social work curriculum has the potential to make social work education, and ultimately direct practice, more effective, more widespread, and less expensive.

Since the 1990s, the needs of students in social work and other disciplines have changed, due in part to the rise of technology, increased educational costs, the high costs associated with low graduation rates (Schneider & Yin, 2011), and the need for students to maintain family and work responsibilities as they pursue their educational goals. Studies have indicated that social work students would not have been able to pursue their degree without distance education opportunities (Coe & Gandy, 1999; Reardon, 2010). As a result, an increasing number of social work programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have engaged in the development and implementation of technology-supported courses and programs (Coe, & Elliot, 1999; Raymond, 2005). A distance education survey conducted by the Council for Social Work Education Commission on Accreditation found that 41% of the respondents of Bachelor of Social Work programs and 52% of the respondents from graduate programs deliver courses using some form of technology (Vernon, 2006). Since the 1990s, the integration of technology used to deliver courses has included two-way video classrooms (Ostendorf, 1994), television (Petracchi & Patchner, 2000), and computers (Blakely, 1994). In the first decade of the 21st century, the continued enhancement in course management software systems, improved access to broadband computer networks, and the creative use of a number of new multimedia tools—such as online animations, streaming video, web-based audio–video presentations, and social media—have provided educators with a variety of new tools to offer distance education programming to students (Coe, 2005; Godwin-Jones, 2003; Sloan, Shea, & Lewis, 2010). Multimedia tools have also permeated the social work practice field with the increased development of online intervention strategies to reach underserved and high-risk populations (Ouellette & Wilkerson, 2008).

Although concerns still permeate the field with respect to negative faculty attitudes toward distance education (Freddolino, 1996; Haga & Heitkamp, 2000), some studies have revealed that technology-supported instruction and programs are comparable to, if not better in some cases than, traditional face-to-face instructional formats (Macy, Rooney, Hollister & Freddolino, 2001; Seibert, Siebert, & Spaulding-Givens, 2006).Even practice courses, which have been viewed as being the least amenable to the electronic medium, have been found to have no significant difference as to learning outcomes when taught using a technology-supported environment as compared to traditional classroom-based instructional formats (Khaja, Ouellette, Barkdull, & Yaffee, 2008; Ouellette & Sells, 2003 Elliot, 1999; Ouellette, Westhuis, Marshall, & Chang, 2006).

Online Instructional Strategies

As computer technology and communication networks continue to improve, so do the growth and quality of e-learning opportunities and instructional strategies:

  • With the advent of more powerful processors, high-end graphics cards, and animation tools, computer-assisted and web-based simulations have become powerful new instructional e-learning tools for teaching and learning a variety of skills such as leadership (Aldrich, 2004) and basic counseling skills (Ouellette et al., 2006; Seabury, 2003).

  • Skill building benefits from the continued development and inclusion of simulations in online instructional environments have the potential of improving the quality and outcomes of e-learning (Thomas, 2001).

  • The use of online games for teaching purposes is increasingly being used to facilitate the engagement of the online learner as well as enhancing the quality of the e-learning experience (Raymer, 2011).

  • Rapid e-learning course authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline or Adobe Presenter facilitate the development of high quality learning objects that can easily be embed into web-based courses. These tools have helped online course designers, developers, and subject matter experts to create engaging and performance-based online training content without having extensive programming skills (Unrein, 2012).

  • Despite the lack of in-person interaction, some have found that students in online social work courses can engage in a process of mutual aid through online discussions groups and prompt instructor feedback to help foster a sense of connection between participants (Wilke & Vinton, 2009).

With the proliferation of online courses and online degree and non-degree programs, studies focusing on what constitutes effective pedagogical strategies have also increased.

Since the mid-2000s, suggestions on effective instructional e-learning strategies based on researched-informed guidelines have contributed to the continued growth in studies pertaining to the science of online instruction (Clark & Mayer, 2011; Dirksen, 2012; Ko & Rosen, 2010). For example, some studies have found that learners who received a multimedia lesson with animation and audio narration alone performed on average 79% better than learners who received a lesson containing animations, audio, and redundant text (Moreno & Mayer, 2002). Other studies have found that the degree to which promoting aspects of learner reflection in a web-based environment improved learning outcomes (U.S. Department of Education & Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2009).


As technology tools become easier, new challenges for social work educators in the coming years will be twofold: (a) a shift in educational paradigms and (b) the assessment of processes and the outcomes of this shift. This new educational era evokes new roles and educational paradigms for social work educators. As the use of electronic technologies for teaching and learning expands, the role of the educator moves from being the sole provider or source of information to students to one in which the educator acts more as a facilitator and enabler in the learning process. In a technology-supported learning environment, students take on a more proactive role assuming increasing responsibility for their own learning. As a result, the teacher–student relationship becomes more egalitarian (Ouellette & Rank, 2000).

The second challenge for educators is the need for increased research to adequately assess the processes and learning outcomes for students acquiring their training in a technology-supported instructional environment. Researchers have identified a number of areas that need further investigation. Some have suggested that future research should take into account variables such as the specific technology being used, specific learner characteristics of students, faculty concerns and characteristics, online pedagogical strategies, content areas of courses, and administrative and broader community issues. (Westhuis, Ouellette, & Pfahler, 2006). Others have discussed the importance of forming a community of learners and how it can affect student satisfaction, retention, and learning (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990; Johansen & Ouellette, 2006). Brown (2001) suggests that the instructor build in opportunities for students to learn about each other and discover commonalities. Other studies have suggested the following pedagogical strategies as important elements impacting effective online instruction: the instructor’s visibility to the students; the instructor’s modeling of how the electronic discussion model works; frequent, consistent, and timely feedback by the instructor; instructor evaluation of student discussion processes; providing a template to students on how to give feedback; presenting course content in an orderly and consistent manner; and assisting students who encounter technical issues related to hardware and software (Bischoff, 2000).

Additional research needs to be directed at determining what the optimal elements are for student learning for each pedagogical strategy and determine if what Bischoff (2000) suggests is valid. Further research should explore how much instructor visibility is needed in a technology-supported environment. What technology should the instructor use to create that visibility? What technology-supported format (audio, written, or video) should the instructor use to optimize student learning? Future research studies also need to focus on determining how online courses and programs meet the competency standards and practice behaviors recommended by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE, 2012).

Potts (2005) has provided a conceptual framework for evaluating distance learning that includes inputs, throughputs, and outcomes and recommends a number of issues for further investigation. Specifically, there is a need to evaluate how institutional infrastructure impacts the success of distance education (DE) programs. What are the characteristics of effective DE faculty? What training is needed for distance educators? What type of student recruitment efforts are effective in helping students determine if they are appropriate for DE programs? What needs to be provided to students during the orientation process of a DE program to increase the probability for their success?

Future Trends

The increasing adoption of technology for teaching and learning, coupled with profound technological advances, will continue to challenge not only what we know about what constitutes good teaching and learning but also to provide exciting new opportunities for social work education. For instance, what future trends can we anticipate in areas like pedagogy, types of courses, differential use of media, doctoral education and full online degree programs in social work? While there may be countless innovations, the pathways to future development will be based within a continuum of delivery systems. Will more of these be based in teacher-centric or university-centric models that make use of a learning management system (LMS) or will they be based in more open and collaborative models of community learning (Murphy, 2012), as represented in a massive open online course (MOOC)?

The use of the LMS by universities for both face-to-face and online delivered courses has become so widespread that it is a ubiquitous aspect of undergraduate and graduate education. It is now a standard tool used for course management tasks including communication by announcement, email, discussion forums, chat rooms; assessment with tests and surveys; content sharing of syllabi, assignments, grades, schedules, student drop boxes, student rosters, linkages to university libraries, writing centers, information technology assistance, and various knowledge bases; as well as repository for content and materials that may be used within a course. Indeed, Lonn and Teasley (2009) report that 90% and 95% of United States and United Kingdom universities, respectively, employ this tool. Their 2007 randomized survey of faculty and students in a large Midwestern university suggested that “these systems are valued most by faculty and students for the ways they improve instructors’ ability to push out information to students rather than general support for teaching and learning…” (p. 689).

Murphy (2012) provided a critique of “LMS teaching,” as a pedagogy that is essentially teacher-centric, information-driven, regulatory, and management-oriented. He contrasted “LMS teaching” with “community learning,” which is student-centric, information-pulling, liberatory, and interactive. His community learning pedagogy is illustrated in the MOOC model, where learning is no longer regulated by a teacher, but instead emerges from the network of connected students that pull and apply information using a variety of open online resources and technological tools.

For social work education, and most especially for online courses and programs, the continuum of delivery systems has profound implications. The world of MOOCs is creating a challenge for educators to improve their pedagogical strategies, as well as revising their methods for measuring leaning outcomes. With social work’s emphasis on adopting educational policies for competency-based learning, we can predict the future trend will be to move towards designing online learning environments that are less teacher-centric and information-driven and more learner-centric, interactive, and focused on learning outcomes and skills performance.

In any case, the continued improvements of course authoring software products, desktop videoconferencing tools, streaming video capabilities, and social networking sites and services, offer new and improved opportunities to design effective e-learning environments for training social work practitioners. These improvements will require that social work educators who teach in an online environment to become increasingly sensitive to issues related to the importance of instructional design when developing online educational contexts. Creating and implementing effective online educational programming will demand that social work educators work collaboratively with a variety of colleagues including other colleagues with subject matter expertise, instructional and graphic designers, digital video experts, and other technical consultants to create quality e-learning environments. As the quality of online instruction and programs continue to improve, we can anticipate that new teaching and learning paradigms will emerge and have a positive impact on the social work profession.


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