Before we explain the differences between online, hybrid and distance programs we suggest you pursue only those programs with established standards of training and education.
Any MSW program you consider should be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Accreditation by the CSWE provides the stamp of approval you need to ensure the program meets a minimum of accreditation standards. If the program is not accredited, you won’t be eligible for licensure. Because social workers are a regulated profession, you must obtain a license to practice. Without that licensure, you may find your career and job outlook to be negatively impacted.
It may be helpful to get a sense of what a traditional campus-based MSW program is like so you have a baseline for comparison. In fact, it may be worthwhile for you to visit a local campus-based program even if you have no intention of going there. A school trip may help you better understand the trade-offs in choosing an online or hybrid degree.
By design, campus-based MSW programs are delivered in a traditional format where students study side-by-side. Students attend classes in person for the duration of the program they’ve been admitted to. This can be full time or part time.
A campus-based graduate school experience is similar to that of an undergraduate experience. There are opportunities for social and professional bonding. There are shared events and activities which may help you build professional connections. Classes are usually held on a main campus, or may be offered in a satellite location. But this is a program that requires feet on the ground.
Online, hybrid and distance learning formats may offer you the benefits of a campus based program, but with greater flexibility and convenience.
Of note, students enrolled in any kind of online program must still meet the required number of field work hours as their on-campus peers. The field education requirement for CSWE accredited MSW programs ranges from 900 to 1200 hours over the duration of the program. Online, distance and hybrid fieldwork assignments are typically offered in the geographic area in which the student lives. Depending on where that is, and the type of social work practice sought, this could entail a commute. However, this would also be the case for a campus-based school fieldwork assignment.
Here’s a short guide to what each online, hybrid or distance learning program entails, and what you can expect.
In an ideal world, online social work graduate programs best mimic their campus-based counterparts. Students do not attend classes in person. But cutting edge platforms allow for synchronous learning. This means students and instructors are online at the same time in classes, lectures and discussions at specific hours. It’s like going to class, but from your own home (or anywhere for that matter).
An online program may also allow for asynchronous classes. In this case students are given a timeframe in which to take the class own their own timetable and complete more self-paced schoolwork. Many programs utilize both learning options. Some online programs may have a once or twice a year required, on-campus visit. You will need to research this.
Because online instructors recognize that many students have chosen this option for the flexibility it provides, there may be greater leniency and supports for meeting deadlines and submitting papers.
Hybrid programs are just what the name implies, a combination – or hybrid – of both online and on-campus coursework. Some schools allow for a complimentary mix of online and on-campus courses to complete the degree. These programs typically dictate what classes are available to take online.
Still other programs may simply build in an online component to their classes, allowing you some study from a far.
Because the specific hybrid features vary by school, you will need to do your homework and learn how each program works. Some hybrids operate more like an online program, but require a set number of intensive campus based visits on select weekends.
The term distance learning was once used synonymously with the term online. Now online programs are in fact called online, and distance learning is a somewhat outdated term. These days distance learning can mean many things – not all of them clear. In some cases it may be used to describe a campus-based program but with on-site instruction at regional locations. Some of these locations may not even be on a campus.
When you see the term distance learning, investigate just what that means.