Introduction to Online MSW Programs: Standards, Ethical Issues and Educational Limitations

                                INTRODUCTION TO ONLINE MSW PROGRAMS

                           Standards, Ethical Issues and Educational Limitations

                                             F. Douglas Stephenson, LCSW, BCD

Former President, The Florida Society for Clinical Social Work

There are over 20 MSW online programs offering CSWE approved degrees which require minimal face-to-face, in-person interaction. Some of these programs serve only a few dozen students in a small geographical area; others, like The University of Southern California (USC) has over 1500 online students nationwide plus international students. The number of such programs is growing annually and now, Walden University, a for-profit online corporation is offering a MSW degree and  seeks full CSWE accreditation.

Alarmingly, CSWE does not currently review the content and procedures of the online MSW programs.  If CSWE accredits the School or department, then its online program is automatically accredited. The CSWE accreditation standards emphasize the importance of each MSW’s “implicit curriculum” which are described as “The culture of human interchange; the spirit of inquiry; the support for difference and diversity; and the values and priorities in the educational environment, including the field setting, inform the student’s learning and development.” The CSWE standard goes on to state that “the implicit curriculum is as important as the explicit curriculum in shaping the professional character and competence of the program’s graduates.” 

                  It is apparent that this aspect of MSW education is significantly impaired in online programs, yet CSWE does not address this in enforcing its own accreditation standards.  Similarly, CSWE diversity standards can hardly be addressed in programs where students and faculty have little or no in-person contact.

                 Acknowledging that some educational content can be conveyed effectively with online technology, we need to insist on realistic and strong standards for social work accreditation and licensing that recognize a limited role for online courses.  The American Psychological Association and American Bar Association already have such guidelines in their own accreditation requirements.  The “online education” issue does not need to be an all or nothing dichotomy.

The American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, State clinical societies, CSWA, the (new) Coalition for Excellence in Social Work Education, SJS and all other interested individuals  & groups  need to immediately assist state boards and CSWE to develop new standards that reflect these challenges.



1. That 75% of all academic content in MSW programs be delivered in face-to-face, in-person classroom settings, including all required courses in social work practice and intervention.

2. That all MSW programs address issues of diversity in face-to-face, in-person classroom settings.

3. That all field internships transpire in community agencies and institutions where students can interact face-to-face and in-person with clients, relevant social networks, colleagues and community members. Client contact via videoconferencing should comprise no more than 25% of direct practice internship experience.

4. That all field internship supervision be conducted in-person and face-to-face with qualified supervisors who are personally familiar with the agency and community.

5. That field internships settings located more than 50 miles from the home campus of the department or school be visited in-person by faculty of the department or school.

6. That, reflecting the importance of transparency in the “implicit curriculum”, all corporate personnel affiliated with the program who are involved with direct contact with applicants or students in admissions, student support, and supervision be forthrightly identified as such.

7. That all programs clearly disclose to the public, via transcripts and other sources, which aspects of their education and training utilize distance or electronically mediated delivery formats.

8. That there is full disclosure of each program’s relationships with corporate partners involved in the educational activities of the program. This will enable students and concerned parties to monitor compliance with Section 1.06 of the NASW Code of Ethics that states that “social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest”.


“The relational skills and integrative knowledge essential in social work practice are difficult, if not impossible, to convey in distance education formats where there is little or no in-person dialogue between faculty and students.  Social work is an essentially relational enterprise; social work education should entail this same relational quality to achieve consistency and quality.”

From the accreditation standards of the CSWE:

“The implicit curriculum is manifested through policies that are fair and transparent in substance and implementation, the qualifications of the faculty, and the adequacy of resources. The culture of human interchange; the spirit of inquiry; the support for difference and diversity; and the values and priorities in the educational environment, including the field setting, inform the student’s learning and development. The implicit curriculum is as important as the explicit curriculum in shaping the professional character and competence of the program’s graduates (bold added). Heightened awareness of the importance of the implicit curriculum promotes an educational culture that is congruent with the values of the profession.”


And the CSWE accreditation standards on diversity:

The program’s commitment to diversity—including age, class, color, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, political ideology, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation—is reflected in its learning environment (institutional setting; selection of field education settings and their clientele; composition of program advisory or field committees; educational and social resources; resource allocation; program leadership; speaker series, seminars, and special programs; support groups; research and other initiatives; and the demographic make-up of its faculty, staff, and student body).”

(From the CSWA report):

“ Exposure to diversity is not achieved when students and faculty see only remote visual images of each other on a computer screen; genuine exposure to diversity entails in-person interactions, dialogues, and the formation of meaningful relationships.”


“The lack of integration between CSWE’s standards and educational policies in a world where faculty and field instructors may never meet in-person; where students may never meet in-person; where students and faculty may never meet in-person, is not the world that CSWE handed over to schools of social work to effectively educate social work students.”


“The NASW Code of Ethics states explicitly, “Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.”  Sherry Turkle, a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the impact of technology on relationships, has noted:  “Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology….. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.” (Turkle, 2011).”

“In social work, as much as any other field of professional study, the nuances of human relationships are essential, involving non-verbal, verbal, vocal, and contextual cues, which are highly limited in text-based communications and substantially diminished in real-time video interaction.  In an online class, relationships between students are nearly impossible for faculty to discern and faculty modeling and socialization is greatly impaired.”

“When students are taught in-person, instructors can see and react to their facial expressions and such subtle nonverbal cues as whether eyes are focused on the instructor or looking away, hands are raised to contribute a point during an animated discussion, or whether facial expressions of quiet student convey engagement, confusion or irritation.  Classroom discussions can continue in the hallway, cafeteria or offices with faculty or fellow students.”

“Social work educators know that classroom discussions provide regular, ongoing opportunities to observe students’ conduct and comportment; occasionally instructors note questionable behaviors in class—such as making inappropriate comments, eye rolling, leaving the classroom for extended periods of time, engaging in sidebar chats, and passing notes—that warrant attention. At times, social work educators who meet regularly as faculty members need to have confidential discussions among themselves to review student progress and develop plans to address and remediate concerns about troubling student conduct. Instruction offered exclusively online greatly reduces opportunities to observe, monitor, and address such “red flag” behaviors. This compromises social work educators’ ability to fulfill their ethically prescribed gate-keeping function.”


The NASW Code of Ethics highlights integrity as one of the six core values of the profession and states, “Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.”  According to the Statement of Ethical Principles adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers, “social workers should act with integrity” (statement 5.3).  Further, the Clinical Social Work Association Ethics Code states that “clinical social workers maintain high standards in all of their professional roles, and value professional . . . integrity” (section I) and “public statements, announcements of services, and promotional activities of clinical social workers serve the purpose of providing sufficient information to aid consumers in making informed judgments and choices. Clinical social workers state accurately, objectively, and without misrepresentation their professional qualifications  .  .  .” (section VIII).

“The personnel and websites of some online MSW programs claim their official transcripts are indistinguishable from transcripts from their university’s on-campus MSW program. This raises complex ethical questions about the extent to which online programs have an ethical duty to be transparent and forthright about how students earned their degrees (whether in face-to-face programs or online programs) so that potential employers and others can consider this information as they see fit.  This is especially important given published studies citing employers’ lack of confidence in degrees earned online (see and and  All programs offering online MSW degrees and social workers with such degree should disclose this information to the public, honoring social work’s ethical standards for transparency.”

Section 1.06 of the NASW Code of Ethics state that “social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment” and “should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others to further their personal, religious, political, or business interests”.  While this language is primarily directed to worker-client relationships, the opening section of the Code of Ethics says the Code “is relevant to all social workers… regardless of their professional functions (and) the settings in which they work…”   As such, in an increasingly entrepreneurial academic environment, the aggressive marketing practices of some online MSW programs must be carefully scrutinized.

“These aggressive marketing practices largely emerge from the corporate partners of the social work schools and departments, not from the educational institutions themselves.  2U Corporation, the partner of the University of Southern California’s “virtual” MSW program, explicitly seeks “admissions counselors” on its website who have “an energetic and strategic approach to inside sales”, “a proven track record of successful inside sales” and “1+ years sales experience”.  Deltak, the corporate partner for Boston University, states that they want their “program managers”, the “first point of contact for prospective students”, to meet “specific student recruitment goals”.  Similarly, Pearson Embanet, the partner of the University of New England wants “enrollment advisors” to have “Two to three years sales experience (in an outbound calling environment preferred)”.”

“Some online social work education programs are rapidly expanding and the economic motives of many colleges and universities in expanding online offerings has been discussed at length.    This has particularly been true in for-profit online programs.  While, with the exception of a new, as yet unaccredited MSW program at Walden University beginning in Fall, 2013, the existing online MSW programs are all at “non-profit” traditional educational institutions.  The largest (online MSW) programs all have partnerships with for-profit corporations which do much of the marketing and student recruitment for these programs.  These partnerships raise important questions concerning conflict of interest and informed consent.   CSWA could not find information about whether marketing corporations are being used to recruit MSW students for residence programs but found the use of such corporations to be a common practice in recruiting students for online programs.  If this marketing practice exists for residence MSW programs, we would have the same concerns that we are expressing about this kind of recruiting for online MSW programs for the following reason: recruiters for educational programs have a conflict of interest, i.e., they have a vested monetary interest in getting as many students as possible to attend a given program.  These recruiters are therefore not focused on making sure that potential students have complete information on the risks and benefits of enrolling in a given program and/or pursuing a career in social work.”



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