Online Master of Social Work Programs: What do the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) think?

If you are considering doing your Master of Social Work (MSW) program online, there are plenty of people and institutions out there to support you. In licensed professions, program accreditation is key. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is friendly to online MSW programs -- or, according to the organization’s own published materials, neutral toward them; CSWE states that online programs are evaluated according to the same standards as traditional ones ( CSWE recently published its 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAs). Like the 2008 EPAs, curricular standards are based on student learning outcomes as opposed to content or method of delivery ( Schools may use “emerging models and methods” as well as traditional ones -- this allows for innovation. Schools do need to document their policies in some detail.

Online programs are evaluated according to the same standards as traditional ones. ~ CSWE

There are many accredited online programs. They are not identified as such in the main CSWE directory. Click here to see several of the schools offering CSWE accredited online Masters of Social Work degrees. CSWE lists these programs in their online resource of online/ distance programs if a representative requests inclusion and provides sufficient information. If they don’t, you may have to ask questions to find out how an accredited program conducts its sessions -- just as others down the line may need to ask questions to know how you attended yours. Online MSW programs are available from traditional schools, and some offer the program in both online and campus-based formats. The transcript will not always show how you earned your degree.

Capella University is now offering an online Master of Social Work that is in CSWE candidacy status. The MSW program helps prepare students to enter the general or clinical practice role (in most states). Capella also offers an online Doctor of Social Work.

There are many people-centered occupations and the standard setters have taken different stances on online schooling. Social work has taken a far more supportive stance than clinical psychology. As a social work student, you will need to make sure that whatever program you select is acceptable to your state board. By and large, though, the choice of formats will be yours.

Program Options

Online technologies are proliferating, and programs take advantage of them in different ways. Sessions may be synchronous or asynchronous. In other words, you may interact with professors live at set times or participate in learning activities on your own time. Activities may include watching presentations, listening to MP3 lectures, posting thoughts on threaded discussion boards, and videotaping yourself carrying out social work duties. Some students progress through the program with a cohort with whom they are in regular contact. There are differences in course organization, sequencing, and pacing from one program to another.

If a program is online, you can expect that most content (other than field experience) will be delivered in an online format. However, it will not necessarily be 100%. You may need to go the main campus or a regional site one or more times to interact with professors and fellow students; the campus experience may be termed “an intensive”. On the other hand, you may have the option of doing all but your internship experiences online.

Field Placement Options

There is one degree requirement that you will need to go out into the community for: your field placement(s). If you are just starting your social work education – in other words, you do not hold a Bachelor of Social Work -- the requirement is 900 hours. This is a CSWE mandate. If you have your BSW, the requirement may be as little as 500 hours.

You can meet your internship requirement in your own community. In some cases, you can meet it in your own agency. CSWE allows students to complete internships at their workplace provided that the standards described in accreditation documents are met. A professional cannot meet requirements by performing regular work duties; field experience must constitute a separate learning experience. Additionally, the experience must be supervised by a different person than the regular work supervisor. The placement will be subject to the policies of the online school -- and dependent on the willingness of the individual agency to accommodate you.

CSWE allows students to complete internships at their workplace provided that the standards described in accreditation documents are met.

If you are doing a field placement in another state, you will need to make sure that you are authorized. An accredited school will be a resource. They may, for example, provide a list of states that they have agreements with. Not every school can accommodate students in every state.

Field experience standards are discussed in Educational Policy 2.2 of the Council on Social Work Education EPA document. If the program is CSWE-accredited, you can feel confident that CSWE is convinced of its ability to create an effective field experience. This does not, however, mean that the experience will be identical from school to school. Schools have different procedures and offer varying degrees of support in finding placements. This is an area where you may want to do considerable research.

Dissenting Opinions: Concerns about Online Programs

Online is becoming mainstream, but there are dissenting opinions about whether this should be the case. The Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) has raised a number of concerns about online programs as preparation for clinical social work and has urged the CSWE accrediting agency, in an opinion paper, to place stricter regulations ( One of the central points: Social work is about "person in the environment". As an online student, you are not in the environment in quite the same way, even in a synchronous session. You do not have access to all the same social data. Nor do your professors. In traditional settings, instructors occasionally identify students whose demeanor and conduct are a concern. This is less likely to happen in an online format.

CSWA has urged the CSWE accrediting agency, in an opinion paper, to place stricter regulations.

CSWA cites two studies that found no significant difference in outcomes between students who were enrolled in online and on-campus formats through the same school. However, the organization notes that the programs weren’t representative of much of what is out there today. One program, for example, admitted only students with BSWs; the students often had a good deal of human service experience and had, in a sense, already proved themselves. One program supplemented synchronous and asynchronous online learning with on-campus sessions.

CSWA is especially concerned about asynchronous programs: online formats where students and professors don’t interact in real time (

Online or Campus-Based: A Personal Choice

Online programs are not for every prospective social worker. If you are concerned that you will drop out or stop attending, this may be more likely to happen in an online program. However, online learning can be an attractive option if you have the tools for success. You can choose from multiple innovative programs without leaving your own community.

Online students have to ask themselves the same questions that all prospective students do: costs, risks, and returns. Schools are required to furnish information about completion and placement rates as well as financial obligations.

Your social learning options are not limited by choice of format. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has an online center with everything from articles about finding a job to options for online and real-world networking ( Today’s social worker, the NASW reminds us, is both people-savvy and technology-savvy (

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