The practice of social work takes place in various spheres of the human services sector, including in areas where the primary concerns center on the implementation, administration, and improvement of social programs. This area of social work is referred to as macro or community practice social work. It involves working in and with communities, public and private organizations, and state and federal agencies to bring assistance to at-risk populations and people in need of a wide range of services. Community practice social workers conduct field research, assess social policy initiatives, and secure funding for social programs. Macro social work is different from clinical social work in that macro social workers typically do not work directly with individuals, families, and groups, or provide direct counseling services. Instead, they focus more on systems to help communities and assist underserved populations.
The majority of master’s programs in social work are Master of Social Work (MSW) programs. An MSW is a professional degree designed to provide graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to move beyond entry-level positions in the field and take on the responsibilities and challenges that come with advancing into more senior roles. Macro or community practice social work is a well-defined MSW specialization or track. Students in a macro MSW program receive general instruction in social work theory, research methodologies, and ethics, as well as in the design and implementation of social welfare and assistance initiatives.
An MSW program with a community practice specialization includes additional advanced training in the administration of social programs, community engagement and activism, the political dimensions of social policy, and organizational communication and leadership. As part of an MSW program, students apply this knowledge and learn additional skills through field education, which students in community practice programs typically complete at local, state, and/or community agencies, or in non-profit organizations and other groups that provide social services.
Online MSW programs use distance-learning technologies to offer students the same coursework and training as their campus-based counterparts. Students in an online program take all or most of their classes online and complete their field education at an approved location, usually within their general geographical area. These programs utilize what are known as learning management systems (LMSs), which are digital platforms that allow lectures and other course materials to be delivered online to students through a secure Internet connection. The LMS also provides students with a means to contact and communicate with instructors, complete and submit assignments, and participate in discussion groups with other students.
The core curriculum for MSW programs is well established and delineated by standards maintained by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is the sole accrediting body that oversees bachelor’s and master’s in social work programs. The CSWE also accredits Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) and Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) programs, which for practical purposes are the equivalent to MSW programs. These requirements include a provision for at least 900 hours of field education, as well as coursework in core social work proficiencies. Master’s programs that provide specialized training in macro and community practice provide a defined track or concentration that directs students toward courses in the administrative, organizational, and policy aspects of social work. While macro and/or community practice often appears in the names of these programs, there are a range of designations for programs that offer a macro/community practice curriculum, which include:
OnlineEducation.com researches and categorizes online MSW programs based on several criteria. Programs on the site must be offered by non-profit colleges and universities that are institutionally accredited and that have additional programmatic accreditation from the CSWE. Programs with a macro or community practice track must include advanced coursework in the organizational aspects of social work, social policy, and the administration of community-based social work. They must also provide students with field education in the area of community practice. Finally, these programs must provide all or most of their didactic instruction online. Programs that require more than two campus visits per year are not currently included on the site as they are considered hybrid programs.
Accredited MSW programs offer a core curriculum as outlined by the CSWE in its 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs. This includes coursework in the ethical and professional practice of social work; social and economic justice for diverse populations; social science research and the evidence-based practice of social work; social welfare policy; and engagement with individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations. Students in a macro or community practice program take advanced courses in organizational and administrative functions, which often includes learning about grant writing and funding initiatives; non-profit financial management; poverty relief policy; community participation strategies; and community planning and development.
In addition to required coursework, MSW programs incorporate at least 900 hours of field education in order to qualify for CSWE accreditation. Field placements in macro social work typically take place at agencies and organizations that coordinate and administer health and human services programs or in clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and residential care facilities where social work policies are deployed. Students in a macro/community practice MSW program typically complete two field education placements, one during the first year of the program and one during the second (for students enrolled full-time).
Unlike online coursework, which is accessed remotely, field education takes place in person and may require students to commute one to two hours, depending on the location of the field site. Students should also note that field education hours are typically completed Monday through Friday during normal business hours when agencies are open. Night and weekend placements may be difficult to find and should not be expected. Prospective applicants should check with MSW program administrators at their prospective schools to determine how placements are set up and structured before applying. While some schools match students to sites and field instructors, others expect students to arrange their own field placements.
Specific course titles and descriptions vary by program, but the following table offers an overview of the types of classes that are common in online MSW programs with a community practice focus.
|Social Welfare Systems||An historical overview of the ideological, economic, and political contexts in which social policies and programs are created and administered.|
|Social Welfare Policies & Services||An examination of complex social problems, and the policies and programs that increase social participation, economic security, respect for diversity, voluntary action, and community and corporate responsibility.|
|Social Work Practice with Community & Social Systems||Strategies for utilizing community and social systems to support and empower individuals, families, and communities.|
|Social Change Theories||Theories of social conflict, interest groups, and social movements in the context of societal change.|
|Policy & Advocacy in Professional Social Work||Theories and practices for promoting social welfare through policy initiatives and community advocacy work.|
|Research & Evaluation for Community, Organization & Business Environments||The use of research methods and evaluation strategies in the assessment and improvement of community social programs and social welfare organizations.|
|Diversity & Cross Cultural Issues||And examination of cultural issues in social work and the challenges of working with diverse populations.|
|Grant Writing & Program Development for Social Workers||Developing the written and oral communication and presentation skills needed to obtain and maintain funding for social programs.|
Admissions deadlines and requirements vary by online MSW program, so potential applicants should examine the details carefully for programs they are considering. The basic admissions requirement is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Some programs have a minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA) that is required or preferred, although a subset of these programs may waive the GPA requirement for students who submit standardized test scores or have several years of professional experience. Programs that ask students to submit standardized test scores generally accept the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). It is also common for online MSW programs to ask applicants to provide two or three letters of recommendation and a short personal goals statement as part of the admissions process.
As with application requirements, there are variations in the formatting and structure of online MSW programs. For example, some programs may have one application deadline and start date, while others may have three or more starting dates per year. MSW programs are generally designed to be convenient and flexible enough to accommodate students who are working or who have other significant commitments outside of school, but there are differences in the way online courses are delivered and in the number of courses students may be required to take per academic term that may make some programs more suitable than others for particular students. In addition, while some programs have 100% online instruction, others may require students to travel to a campus for a limited number of in-person sessions.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: One of the main structural variations among online MSW programs concerns the method of online instruction. There are essential two modes of online instruction: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction indicates that lectures and other course activities take place in real-time, requiring students to be logged on to the LMS at designated times in order to participate. Asynchronous instruction does not include a real-time component. Instead, students are able to access lectures and other interactive materials through the LMS at their convenience, 24-7. For students who are more comfortable with a structured learning environment that provides the online equivalent of a traditional classroom experience, synchronous instruction may be preferable. For students who anticipate scheduling conflicts and who feel they have the additional self-motivation required to keep up with course lectures and assignments in the absence of scheduled meeting times, asynchronous instruction may be preferable.
Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: There are two concerns prospective applicants may want to take into account when considering enrollment options for MSW programs. The first pertains to the time it takes to complete the degree requirements. A typical MSW curriculum can be completed in two years of full-time enrollment, which often equates to taking three, four, or five courses per semester. Students who enroll part-time in an MSW program can take fewer courses each semester (one or two), which extends the time to graduation by one-to-two years. If completing an MSW degree in two years or less is a priority, prospective applicants should seek out programs with a full-time enrollment option. For applicants who are not able to or would prefer not to carry a full course load each semester, there are many online MSW programs that have flexible part-time enrollment options.
Campus Visits: Another important consideration in the application process concerns required campus visits. Many online MSW programs are offered 100% online (although field education must still be completed at a local agency). However, some online MSW programs hold on-campus orientations and other in-person instructional sessions that require students to travel to a designated location for anywhere between a couple of days to a full week. These campus sessions, also known as intensives, provide online students with opportunities to meet one-on-one with instructors, participate in seminars, and network with other students. Program with required campus visits maybe ideal for students who want some face-to-face instruction in their online program. To be included on this page, online MSW programs must require two or fewer visits to campus per year.