The Joy of Online Education: The Unexpected Moments

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Brief Abstract

COVID-19 disrupted financial, socio-emotional, and educational systems on a global scale. Educators strategized how to teach competencies while instilling joy and adhering to the program's mission. This virtual discovery session will detail leveraging technology to reimagine learning and expect the unanticipated joy from innovative learning experiences.


Kerry Doyle, MSSW, LICSW is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She received her undergraduate degree from Brown University and her Masters of Science in Social Work from Columbia University. Prior to joining the University of Southern California Virtual Academic Center (VAC) in 2011, Ms. Doyle’s clinical experience included assessment, treatment, and supervision in the private practice, medical, educational, and judicial settings. Her area of specialization includes mental health and health social work primarily with the adolescent client population. Also, a certified yoga instructor, Ms. Doyle has been an active advocate of bringing mindfulness to secondary schools in her community.
LISA WOBBE-VEIT is a Clinical Associate Professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, currently managing Master’s candidates in 13 states as the Southeast Regional Field Director for the school’s Virtual Academic Center (VAC). Wobbe-Veit has over 15 years of field education experience as a Field Instructor, Field Liaison and Field Educator. Her clinical experience covers a wide range of needs, including individual, family and group therapy in school, hospital and outpatient settings. Her passion for working with at-risk youth led to clinical services roles as a Medical Social Worker, Outpatient Therapist, School Social Worker, Behavioral Specialist and School Based Consultant. Wobbe-Veit earned her MSW at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work.

Extended Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted education from primary school to the university level worldwide. This virtual discovery session will detail how one university graduate program in the United States responded to the challenges imposed by the pandemic. Public health restrictions impacted classroom instruction and students’ ability to complete internship hours. A large national school of social work adapted its field education/internship programming to meet CDC guidelines while maintaining the learning requirements set forth by the national professional accrediting body, the Council on Social Work Education. Social work educators strategized to ensure students could complete field requirements safely, successfully and on time while adhering to the mission of the profession. Two programs using asynchronous and synchronous delivery methods evolved to meet the needs of students, the School Social Work Field Training (SSWFT) and the Experiential Learning Labs (ELLs). In the spirit of the Social Work Grand Challenge of “Harnessing technology for social good, these learning opportunities were completely virtual. However, the programs allowed for skill building and experiential learning, which are critical in field education. Unexpected outcomes for students and presenters included opportunities to expand learning outside the specific curriculum topics, exploration of passion topics and a sense of community, bringing the joy back in an educational setting challenged by quarantine and isolation.

SSWFT, a virtual program already in existence within the school for students in school social work, increased roster size and adapted the program delivery format to accommodate the specific field hour requirement. SSWFT is a trauma-responsive 12-week school social work virtual training for Virtual Academic Center (VAC) students placed at K-12 school sites. The training provides student enrichment during the summer semester when their clients, K-12 students, are experiencing summer breaks. The program's enrollment goal initially included the participation of 25 students per summer semester. The demand for student learning opportunities in the summer of 2020 was a surprising 62 students. In response, the SSWFT program began planning to offer additional engagement opportunities and learning delivery formats. Evaluations following the training reveal that despite the large roster size, students believe that SSWFT is helpful to their future professional goals as MSW school social workers. The additional asynchronous hours added to the training, in addition to the multiple avenues of community building like the use of Slack, provided a forum for connection, idea sharing, support, and enthusiasm for the content. Students were excited by the relationships that they were forming with content experts and the opportunity to integrate concepts into practice in the smaller consultation meetings.

The Experiential Learning Labs (ELLs), a program offered between May 2020 and August 2021, were synchronous learning opportunities offered to MSW students. ELLs used real-world environments developed by faculty members and content experts that were based on The Experiential Learning Cycle for MSW students to learn, observe, practice, and receive feedback (Kolb, 1984). The ELLs were offered for a calendar year and utilized multiple technology platforms to engage and inform students. The ELLs intersected with existing tools and processes to minimize disruption for the Field Liaison, Field Instructor, and MSW student. The Field Instructor assigned at the student's community-based placement could receive information about the ELL takeaways through a Reflective Learning Tool. A Reflective Learning Tool is a document that students complete based on their field placement experiences and process with their Field Instructor for professional growth. Kolb’s cycle of learning, observing, practicing, and receiving feedback (1984) provides a sense of meaning and accomplishment that exudes joy.

Many lessons were learned about best practices of virtual learning and leveraging of internal capacity for crisis response during the creation of these programs. One of the unexpected takeaways from this experience was the joy of connection in the virtual world. During the pandemic, isolation and disconnection were pervasive across professional and educational realms. The redevelopment of existing programs and the creation of new programming challenged educators to reimagine a virtual setting that could increase interactivity. SSWFT and ELLs focused on increasing connectivity while building upon the subject experience of faculty. Students had increased opportunity to interact and learn from faculty across different lines and university programs. In addition to increased synchronous time, asynchronous strategies included discussion questions, polls, and Slack boards to create a community. Students in different programs who did not have the opportunity to interact prior to the pandemic had the opportunity to form unexpected relationships with other students and faculty. There was also the opportunity to learn about content outside the standard social work curriculum customarily offered. Additionally, faculty enjoyed presenting their professional interests and meeting with students who shared their interests in the subject matter.

As the school continues to endure the COVID-19 pandemic, the SSWFT and ELL programs continue to evolve to overcome new challenges and create best practices to provide real-time solutions to field education disruptions while creating connections between students, staff, and faculty, which in turn creates a sense of belonging and joy. This virtual discovery session will provide a brief overview of the SSWFT and ELL programs followed by a series of prompts created ahead of time as well as organically during the session. The attendees of the virtual discovery session will take away the following:

· Describe multiple ways to connect online learning with joy using examples.

· Construct components of online learning and how they can contribute to joy.

· Reflect upon the responses of others to prompt questions in an asynchronous format to further expand your thinking and understanding of joy in an online environment.

During the asynchronous component of the discovery session, attendees will receive prompts such as in order to increase engagement and interactivity:

· Beyond the curriculum, how would you integrate online learning in your program?

· What opportunities are available for developing an emotional connection between students, faculty and staff?

Join these lively and fun social work faculty members as we demonstrate how to add some joy into online learning.

In the spring of 2020, the initial prediction from public health experts was that the quarantine would last for several weeks. A few weeks turned into months and eventually years of lasting impacts and challenges. The development and evolution of the SSWFT and ELL programs were born out of crisis management but blossomed into a new enthusiasm for virtual learning. The pandemic thrust upon educators the demands of reimagining the virtual learning environment and how to engage large numbers of students creatively. Initially, the desired outcome was to ensure that students met their learning goals and requirements; however, the unexpected outcome was a renewed joy in learning and teaching. The dependence on technology and isolation allowed for a wholehearted embracing of the virtual space, especially in education. Educators were provided an opportunity to reimagine their work without physical boundaries, and students were provided learning opportunities beyond the scope of a traditional curriculum.

Council on Social Work Education. (2020). Social work student perceptions - Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on educational experience and goals.

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Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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Singh, M. I., Doyle, K., Wobbe-Veit, L. (2021). Social Work Field Education: Harnessing technology to connect social work education and practice during COVID-19. International Journal of Digital Society, 12(1). 1695-1699. DOI: 10.20533/ijds.2040.2570.2021.0211