Dr. Patrick Shannon is an associate professor in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Social Work, and coordinator of its Graduate Certificate in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. He is also Co-Principal Investigator of the Center for Professional Excellence in Child Welfare, a faculty member on the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) funded New Hampshire-Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (NH-LEND) program, and a member of State of New Hampshire’s Governor’s Commission on Disability.
Dr. Shannon has extensive direct care, administrative, and research experience working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, particularly in the areas of advocacy, policy analysis, development, and implementation. His research focus is the interconnection between intellectual and developmental disabilities and child maltreatment, and the child welfare system’s ability to respond to and support children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Dr. Shannon’s work appears in numerous child welfare, disability, and social work journals. He holds BA in Health and Human Services and Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees from the University at Buffalo, and Ph.D. in Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.
[OnlineEducation.com] The University of New Hampshire offers a campus-based Master of Social Work (MSW), but recently launched an online MSW program. Can you discuss what that process entailed? What must institutions consider when adapting a brick-and-mortar courses for online learners?
[Dr. Shannon] UNH is a traditional Land Grant university with a stated mission to “foster an educated citizenry in New Hampshire.” UNH is a Research I institution and is built on a foundation of traditional face-to-face education occurring within a traditional academic calendar. Introducing an online program challenged every student, faculty, and academic support system at the University to adapt to the unique needs of online students and the faculty instructing them. First, Student support services such as the Writing Support Center, Disability Student Services, and the library had to adapt new ways of supporting students. Because the program accepts three cohorts per year, admissions are now year-round, which has presented challenges. Student support for IT issues has had to change. For example, hours have had to be expanded because of daytime commitments for many online students, and faculty need support from Instructional Designers to develop and manage classes. Finally, the Social Work Department has had to work closely with the University’s communications and marketing department for support for marketing.
[OnlineEducation.com] More public and private, not-for-profit institutions are adding online graduate degrees. How do these programs benefit students and universities?
[Dr. Shannon] Change brings discomfort and even chaos. Yet change also represents progress and presents opportunities. While there are many legitimate concerns and challenges with moving to an online education model, there are real opportunities for improving what we do as social work educators. Some of the opportunities that our program has embraced are: 1) using the accessibility of the online environment to address social justice issues with higher education, 2) using the flexibility of online course delivery to expand the curriculum, 3) increasing revenue to expand support services for students and faculty, 4) increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in the classroom, and 5) providing more individualized instruction and enhance learning competencies.
First, social justice issues include: 1) strengthening the future of public social work higher education, 2) providing access for state residents living in remote areas, and 3) improving access to graduate education for citizens with disabilities.
Second, the online environment creates the potential to develop and offer unique online courses in disciplines that traditional programs are not able to offer because of curriculum constraints and limitations. The Department has developed and offered courses such as Adventure Therapy, Mental Health Aspects of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Person-Centered Planning, and Social Work Practice with First Responders. This strategy provides the possibility of enhancing curricula for students in all our programs by offering a wider variety of electives for students that want to specialize in unique fields of practice.
Third, adding more students to a program by expanding program reach will add new revenue for a program. However, UNH is a non-profit institution and the goal is not to make money, it is to open professional education and remove barriers. The goal is to insulate our programs from continuous budget cuts that our state (and most states) experience.
Next, converting face-to-face courses is time-consuming, but there is a positive outcome for faculty and students if the process is planned and managed rigorously. Our faculty voted to format every course the same way and use Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning to build each course’s learning modules around.
Finally, according to Madoc-Jones and Parrot (2005), the geographic reach of online learning can greatly increase diversity in social work programs. This is a particularly important issue in New Hampshire, where the state population is very homogeneous. The online program is bringing diverse cohorts together in open learning environments that benefit all students.
[OnlineEducation.com] Social work requires professionals to connect with people and read their emotions. How does UNH ensure its online students develop these skills?
[Dr. Shannon] This is the question that all social workers ask and one that we continue to ask ourselves as we are always looking to improve. We have focused on several key strategies to address the difference in the type of connectedness experienced in online interactions.
First, the field practicum requirements are the same for online students and [face-to-face] students (more on this in the next question below). Second, we still rely heavily on group work where students have to engage each other directly outside of the classroom. Third, practices courses have consistent synchronous contact using platforms such as ZOOM and Adobe Connect. Fourth, discussion boards and blogs are used to engage faculty and students in rigorous dialogue. The advantage for students (and faculty) is having time to access resources to engage in informed dialogue about social issues and social work practice.
Finally, we are experimenting with ways to integrate social media to build connectedness among students in all our programs, faculty, alumni, employers and the larger social work community. While this is truly in its infancy, it has resulted in an epiphany that the online environment has the potential to build stronger connections between all social workers to promote social justice and address critical social issues. The key is to teach ourselves and our students the skills to navigate the distractions, identify the bad information, and engage the digital world with purpose and focus. Interpersonal interactions have changed, and only time will tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Our approach is that it is just different, and the profession needs to adapt to the changes.
[OnlineEducation.com] Practicing new and refined skills is important to MSW programs. How do UNH’s field requirements work for online students? How did they impact the program’s design from an instructional and logistical perspective?
[Dr. Shannon] Field operates almost exactly the same way that our face-to-face programs do. The field department helps to identify and vet field sites, including finding qualified supervisors. Students are assigned a faculty member as an advisor who conducts two site visits per year (visits can be in-person or virtual—which is consistent with other programs). What is different is that students help to identify potential sites and refer information to the field department, and online students can start field in the fall, spring, or summer. All other process and procedures are the same.
[OnlineEducation.com] Students new to online learning might worry they will receive less support than campus-based students. How do schools like UNH deliver personalized attention, individual instruction, and support in a Web-based learning environment?
[Dr. Shannon] We discovered pretty quickly that online students probably receive more personalized attention than students in our Executive Model and traditional face-to-face programs do. Students have access to a Student Support specialist, a traditional advisor, a field supervisor, and a field liaison who all support each student. Additionally, in the online classroom, much of the interaction is student-student and student to instructor as opposed to an instructor in the front addressing all students at once. Online teaching and advising actually require more contact time than a traditional classroom-only model does. Contact occurs in the Learning Management System (e.g., online program org with discussion boards); in the classroom via discussion boards, blogs, live synchronous classroom sessions, and feedback on assignments; and advising and mentorship through live synchronous meetings.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice would you offer prospective students considering online degree programs for the very first time?
[Dr. Shannon] To think about how they learn best—online learning may not be for them. Avoid choosing a program based on convenience only. Students need to maximize learning to become competent and confident social work practitioners. Also, explore the structure of each program and how courses are delivered. For example, courses delivered asynchronous only, that may require a residency, that include hybrid classes, or deliver courses synchronous only. What will work best for you?