Developing an Impactful Master of Social Work Program

Last updated on: January 11, 2022

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Background: A Successful Partnership Enters a New Phase

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Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota prepares students for professional success while exploring the importance of lifelong service. In late 2018, the university studied the viability of developing an online Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program to help students gain valuable career skills and provide vital social services in their community. Offering this degree would also contribute to meeting the urgent demand for social workers, a field that is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028—more than double the average rate for all occupations.

Seeking to bring this program to fruition, Saint Mary’s expanded its partnership with Wiley University Services, accessing assistance with market research into launching a social work program. The study found students had tremendous interest in this field; however, Wiley’s data indicated more enrollment potential for a graduate program than a bachelor’s degree. Based on these findings, the university began coordinating with Wiley to move quickly to develop an online Master of Social Work (MSW) program for the next fall start.

The Challenge: Empower Learners With Varying Experience to Pursue an MSW

Saint Mary’s sought to meet the escalating demand for social workers by enabling students with varying educational backgrounds to pursue an MSW. To expand the recruitment population, the university wanted to offer tracks for students who earned a BSW as well as college graduates interested in transitioning to social work. As a result, the program development process would need to create introductory and advanced courses for the first fall start—and ensure all curriculum provided a seamless learning experience.

Developing two tracks to an MSW would be challenging in part because Saint Mary’s did not have an on-campus program to use as a framework. Even so, preparing students for social work roles would require the university to integrate hands-on learning experiences into the newly created online courses and connect students with fieldwork opportunities early in the program. Readying the program on time demanded careful planning and flawless execution—challenges that Saint Mary’s and Wiley were ready to meet.

The Strategy: Build an Immersive Online Program on an Accelerated Schedule

Wiley’s Academic Services team developed an approach for accelerating the program design process, outlining all tasks to complete to launch on time. During this process, the team collaborated closely with Suzanne Shatila, Program Director for the MSW program, to explore how to incorporate practices into courses that often get overlooked in social work education, such as practitioner well-being.

“We wanted to be intentional about incorporating lessons for self-care to make sure students get in the habit of caring for themselves,” Shatila said. “This would help students manage the difficult situations they encounter in clinical practice.”

Wiley committed to this goal while mapping a plan for developing courses for students with varying levels of experience. For the fall 2019 start date, the team needed to build courses for students in the advanced and traditional tracks—five courses in all—followed by another 10 courses for the rest of the program. To ensure the program followed a seamless progression, Wiley developed a matrix spanning the interconnected knowledge that students would gain during courses, along with a prototype course to establish a uniform learning experience.

The course matrix and prototype paved the way for an expedited instructional design process. The partners paired learning designers and faculty members who worked on syllabi and course design tasks in tandem, and they prioritized the workflow based on when cohorts of students were scheduled to take each course. Once the learning designers completed courses for the initial fall start, they quickly tackled requirements for the subsequent semester.

“We were fortunate to work with the talented and skilled instructional designers at Wiley,” Shatila said. “Had it not been for their expertise, we definitely would not have been able to launch this program so quickly.”

The university aimed to do more than launch the program quickly—online courses also needed to provide immersive learning experiences. One way Wiley supported these efforts was by building exercises around VoiceThread, a platform that allows students to simulate what it’s like to engage clients through interactive videos. Coupled with faculty guidance, these exercises empower students to develop communication skills and emotional intelligence needed to succeed as a social worker.

The program’s hands-on training goes even further, as it also includes field practicum opportunities. In online learning, establishing fieldwork assignments can be difficult because students may live in locations throughout the country. The university overcame this challenge by hiring a field education director who focuses on building a network of internship options with the dedicated support of a Wiley team member.

“We work closely with students to set up their field practicum near home and in their preferred specialization,” Shatila said. “So, if students want to work in a social welfare capacity or a hospital setting, we strive to find placements that will help them build the right skills to secure employment after graduation.”

The Result: The University’s Most Successful Online Program Launch

Through this partnership with Wiley, Saint Mary’s developed course content and curriculum on time for the fall 2019 start. At launch, the program offered multiple paths to an MSW with active learning experiences in online courses and practicum opportunities scheduled to begin during the second semester.

“This is the most successful launch we’ve had in an online program,” Shatila said. “We will have well over 100 students enrolled in the program by our second semester, which is unheard of. And this was only possible because everyone got together and did the work that it took to get the program off the ground.”

Shatila credited much of the program’s success to the strong partnership that Saint Mary’s has formed with Wiley. “Having that expertise is what helps make this program strong, because the university and Wiley come to the table with different skills, talents, and knowledge, and we collaborate to figure out what will work best. Because of that, we were able to develop a program that is benefiting our students,” she said.

Saint Mary’s and Wiley continue collaborating on ways to deliver a quality student experience and grow the program. Wiley’s support spans every stage of the student journey, and Shatila values the resources that Wiley provides to ensure the program runs smoothly.

“I communicate with my Wiley colleagues once a day, and we have weekly meetings for deciding how to tackle tasks together,” Shatila said. “It’s been wonderful having their expertise and resources available to make the program a success.”

To access additional insights about the program development process, including what it’s like to work with a learning designer, visit our Resources page.

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