Encouraged by the global pandemic, the School of Social Work at Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics has tested virtual field experiences for masters in social work (MSW) students. Tracy Walker, director of field education, says: “The amount of field experience dropped significantly, so we had students who needed field placement and not enough places that would consider taking them at all.”
This was a real challenge as the internship is a critical part of the social work curriculum. “Social workers engage with some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, such as people who experience trauma or health-related issues,” she added. “Our students can not just cognitively understand the concepts learned in class; they need to know how to make professional judgments and apply those concepts that they learn in the classroom so that they can be effective and ethical in their practice. “
Walker is a dynamic presence at the School of Social Work that maintains relationships with field locations both close to the Syracuse University campus and remote locations. She says the school quickly had to devise a way for students to get these critical opportunities for fieldwork during the pandemic, and management believed the technology could provide an answer.
Building on an existing relationship with 2U, the School of Social Work and Falk College were invited by partners at 2U to pilot a Virtual Field Experience Program (VFX), which provides a platform for students to engage with standardized patients to achieve clinical skills.
Medical schools have long used standardized patient exercises to build clinical skills. By meeting someone who is trained to act like a real patient with symptoms and a diagnosis, students learn the nuances of evoking information and building relationships with the people they will ultimately serve over the course of their careers. Until recently, these experiences were hard to find outside of academic medical centers.
“The live actors simulate how the real client interaction will feel when you have butterflies in your stomach and wonder, ‘How am I going to help this person at all?’ says Walker. “The ability to deal with your own anxiety as a social worker is the key to stepping up the challenges posed by our profession.”
Students and faculty have found that VFX is a safe place to make mistakes at the moment and hear real-time feedback from classmates and professors. Students can see themselves on the video playback and gain insight into their strengths and potential areas for improvement before interacting with an actual client in the real world. “It allows MSW students to hone their skills before going out and working with vulnerable clients,” Walker says. “It also helps students get to a place where we feel confident in students’ readiness to engage with clients and they will be more effective in their jobs because of the experience.”
The platform also enables more social work students to train and earn in their hometowns by easing the cost or burden of traveling to an internship.
The School of Social Work plans to continue to offer VFX as a way to support high-quality results for students on campus. In addition, the online MSW program will begin using VFX later this year.
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