Creating Opportunities to Engage and Collaborate with a Geographically Diverse Virtual Faculty

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

Technology has changed the landscape of higher education, creating opportunities to build diverse faculty teams while introducing unique challenges for virtual engagement and collaboration. This workshop considers opportunities for innovatively harnessing technology to develop a geographically diverse, engaged and productive virtual faculty to train the next generation. 


JENNIFER PARGA joined USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work as full-time regional field faculty in 2015 teaching Virtual Field Practicum, field seminar and serving as a point of contact for field liaisons assisting students placed with agency partners in Southern California. She has since assumed lead role for the creation, design and execution of the course conversion for three field courses to the Virtual Academic Center. She is currently a part of the Social Change and Innovation Department and is on the Committee on Information Services with the University. From 2005 to 2015, she served on the board of directors for the National Association of Social Workers-California. Parga is currently a member of Online Learning Consortium, NASW and Council on Social Work Education, and gives strategic support and consultation to the Trauma Informed Task Force of Greater Los Angeles.
Stephanie George is a Clinical Associate Professor and Regional Director of Field Education with the University of Southern California's, Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Virtual Academic Center. Ms. George has been with the University just over four years. Prior to joining USC, Ms. George was the Clinical Project Manager with the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans, Department of Veterans Affairs. Currently Ms. George is pursuing her Doctorate of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership with USC Rossier School of Education. Ms. George's dissertation focuses on homeless and poverty education in MSW programs.

Extended Abstract

Advances in technology have rapidly changed the landscape of traditional college campuses over the last decade. The growth and expansion of technology- supported programs have uprooted the conventional development of place-based relationships between faculty and students as well as peers and colleagues. With faculty collaborating in environments that no longer share a physical space, virtual programs represent a paradigm shift in the way that we consider work environments and professional peer relationships.

An early adopter of technology-supported social work education is the University of Southern California, who launched its fully Virtual Academic Center (VAC) nearly seven years ago, in October 2010. The VAC offers students living around the country an opportunity to earn their MSW from USC’s highly ranked program (Flynn, Maiden, Smith, Wiley & Wood, 2013; U.S. News, 2012). A unique feature of USC’s VAC is that it recruits and hires instructors and field educators residing in diverse communities around the country; reflecting the geographic diversity of the VAC’s student body. VAC faculty span across 30 states across the nation with the VAC student body having touched all 50 states.   

The geographic representation and professional expertise that USC’s faculty brings is an asset to curriculum development and execution in the online classroom. Faculty located around the country share their unique experiences and perspectives on a shared virtual platform. According to Schwartz, Wiley and Kaplan (2015), faculty largely appreciates this form of diversity and the opportunities for classroom learning. However, having a faculty that is so dispersed from the central campus creates challenges, specifically related to building relationships with peers, informally connecting with colleagues, and collaborating across departments (Smith, 2015).

A matter that is not often represented in the literature pertains to the person-in-environment experience of educators in virtual education workspaces. In the case of the VAC, its faculty are largely full and part-time non-tenure line faculty. This is a faculty line that previous research has found too often feel disconnected from their professional peers and the learning community; particularly in the case of female instructors or faculty of color (Pankin & Weiss, 2011; de Saxe Zerden, Ilinitch, Carlston, Knutson, Bledsoe & Howard, 2015; Vakalahi & Hardin Starks, 2010).

A small body of research suggests that such feelings of isolation or alienation experienced by educators are compounded in virtual education (Dolan, 2011; Madoc-Jones & Parrott, 2007; Rovai & Wighting, 2005). The ability for a school to meet its learning objectives and successfully prepare a future workforce depends on the talent, ability and motivation of its instructors to educate, train and mentor students to incorporate technology into clinical interventions. This workshop uses one unique program, USC’s VAC, as a launchpad for discussing the challenges and many opportunities associated with developing an engaged virtual workforce.