Steven Tzvi Pirutinsky, Ph.D.
Graduate School of Social Work, Touro College
Here at the Graduate School of Social Work we are in the process of developing fully-online courses, both asynchronous and synchronous, to supplement our traditional in-class offerings. Social Work, like other human service professions, requires not only didactic facts and information but also practice skills, appropriate dispositions and attitudes, and practical experience. I was very concerned, even anxious, that these important “soft skills” may not be able to be effectively taught online but I was eager to explore. Accordingly, I developed and taught an online clinical practice elective over the summer semester and would like to share my experiences.
First some background: The course was an elective practice course designed to teach student basic cognitive-behavioral therapy skills and their application to a variety of disorders. It is a “hands-on” course that emphasizes clinical skills over didactic information and involves modeling, practice, and feedback. The format was fully-online, synchronous-asynchronous hybrid, as the class met once per week through Zoom and also included 50% asynchronous content such as theoretical background in cognitive and behavioral psychology, demonstrations of psychotherapy, quizzes, and interactive practice assignments. All students were required to attend via audio and video from their personal computers and most joined from home.
Despite my misgivings, students loved this format. Feedback was exclusively positive, and students identified several specific advantages to the synchronous online format such as more instructor control over interactions, less distraction when engaged in practice exercises, and more effective presentation of visual material such as slides and articles. I also conducted a formal poll asking students to select their preferred format for similar courses and 14/14 specifically requested Zoom. Written feedback included: “Our zoom class was fantastic. Thank you. I love zoom!”, “I loved this format, style, and specific class. I specifically enjoyed 2 things: The need to raise the hand and the fact that you can end the comments. The fact that zoom provides the opportunity to be alone and focus without any people around distracting me.”, and “I really like how you had the technology so well worked out with the screen in screen for your pp presentation. I also like how you controlled the conversation with the muting everyone and making people raise hands. In a way I think it helped the discussion more than would be possible in regular class as it keeps people more on point, avoids interruptions, and makes people think before they decide to blurt something out. I especially liked how you were able to use the technology to your advantage, for example, splitting the class into separate groups for discussions amongst themselves. I thought that portion helped the learning experience and it was something not really possible in real time. Thanks again for the material, preparation, and creativity in the class.”
I too found the course relatively easy to manage and teach. Students appeared to be learning the material in depth and acquiring and demonstrating the applied skills through various interactive tasks. I particularly liked Zoom. It is an excellent platform and has a lot of high-quality features for managing the online class and allowing a balance between presenting and interacting such as instructor control over mute/unmute, raising hands feature, breakout groups, screen sharing, file sharing, chat, interactive surveys and quizzes, and recording classes. In addition, I want to share some recommendations based on my experience.
- Effectively teaching a synchronous online class requires strong general technology skills and knowledge of the platform used. I strongly recommend that lecturers receive appropriate training and evaluation before teaching an online class.
- Online classes seem to require additional preparation. The class needs to be very organized and well planned and should include significant interactive elements adapted for the online environment.
- I believe my course only worked because each student is on their own computer in their own location. I do not think videoconferencing an instructor into a room full of students would be effective.
- Instructor needs to be clear and firm in terms of attendance, attention, background environment, technology, video use etc. During the first 1-2 classes some students did not have their video on (which I require and recommend all classes require), left the room, had kids in the room, or experienced technology difficulties. However, I provided written expectations on CANVAS, reviewed them during the first 2 classes, and then assertively enforced them. This seemed to work well as these issues have largely disappeared, and students clearly appreciate the decorum.
- I want to emphasize that my current students are unique in a few ways. First, they have attended traditional classes together for the past year. Second, I have previously taught this cohort 2 classes – one traditional and one fully asynchronous online.
- Finally, there is a large leap from a single synchronous distance class embedded in a larger traditional program versus a fully distance program. I am not sure if this course would go as well without all the support students receive elsewhere on campus and without them having known each other and myself previously.
In summary, despite my initial hesitation, online courses with significant synchronous video conferencing components appear to be a very viable option for high quality practice classes. Students liked the format and appeared to learn and demonstrated “soft” and clinical skills embedded within the course. However, the instructor should be well prepared, comfortable with technology, and effective in managing a classroom in that environment. Given proper preparation, training, and evaluation, I would support the use of video conferencing in social work and other human services professions.