The Future is Now: Can Online Education Effectively Teach Social Justice? by Gabriela Acosta

When it comes to social justice education, I am a firm believer in community development and collaborative learning experiences — the kind of learning I used to believe could only happen in a traditional classroom. So when I was offered an opportunity to work for the USC School of Social Work’s online MSW program, I was skeptical. Can an online program truly provide a deep and meaningful experience that challenges and transforms a student? After meeting the inspirational May 2013 graduates and learning more about their experience learning online with USC, the answer is resoundingly yes.

One graduating MSW@USC student, Jennifer, described her life-changing placement experience working with Alaska Natives. For months she traveled from her Alaska residence by floatplane to provide mental health services to a marginalized community. “That experience was something that I could not have been a part of if I had studied on the ground in Los Angeles,” she said. Jennifer, also a military spouse, would not have been able to earn her MSW degree due to the constant change demanded of a military family if it had not been for this online opportunity. “The USC School of Social Work gave me the opportunity to go to a challenging graduate school while living in an isolated region. Now I’m graduating and can follow my passion!”

Jennifer is not the only one who has sought out an online graduate school experience. The Sloan Consortium’s report, Learning on Demand, reveals that online enrollments have grown at rates far that exceed the total higher education student population. Academic leaders at all types of institutions report increased demand for online offerings that exceed the demand for the corresponding face-to-face offerings.

Students and teachers alike may be concerned that online learning environments do not allow for the collaboration that has historically been present in face-to-face academic settings, especially in social work programs. But USC’s Virtual Academic Center has established itself as a leader in the use of digital technologies and created an online classroom that features live interactions that foster collaboration and meaningful relationship building. These experiences  provide students increased reflection and teamwork in their studies. 

A distinguishing feature of the social work profession is its emphasis on social justice. In the MSW@USC program, social workers are trained to see the relationship between policy and the reality of people’s lives. Students work closely with USC faculty, all of whom have worked “on the ground” tackling  social justice issues such as sex trafficking, anti-militarization, exploitative migrant labor, affordable housing and civil rights. Through live, online office hours, students work with faculty to delve into their own social justice concerns as well as to hear about professors’ first hand experiences addressing oppressive policies, and conducting research to understand the origins of some of our toughest social problems. 

The 2010 article “Teaching and Learning Social Justice through Online Service-Learning Courses” provides an illustration of the value of learning about social justice in programs like the MSW@USC. The report describes “social justice, civic engagement and leadership can become a joint focus for collaborative discourse and action in an experientially based learning process.” The authors further suggest that virtual learning environments provide an exciting dimension with geographically separated peers, allowing some anonymity. Students find this empowering to help discover their own voice in the intense dialogues that result. The study suggests that working with a diverse group of participants naturally creates opportunities to compare and contrast a range of experiences occurring within local cultures and communities.

When instruction in the virtual classroom is coupled with on the ground field placement experiences, as in the MSW@USC program, a healthy marriage of learning activities can produce highly qualified social workers to fill the demand for their particular skill set in the future.

Gabriela D. Acosta is the community manager for the University of Southern California’s Masters of Social Work and manages the social work blog for Social Work License Map. While attending Smith College, she was in the NASPA Undergraduate Fellowship Program (NUFP) and is currently in the process of applying for a Masters in Higher Education Administration. She is passionate about social justice, community organizing and leadership development. Connect with her on Twitter @Gabyacosta101


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