Virtual Field Practicum Simulates Real-world Clients for Online MSW Students

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Adam Davison expected to be disappointed in the class known as the Virtual Field Practicum or VFP. Required as part of the MSW he was earning online through the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Virtual Academic Center, the class used an actor to simulate a client named Mario, a military veteran.

To Davison, a retired Marine, watching an actor pretend to be a client sounded strange and a bit silly.

Still, he wanted to learn the skills the class taught, such as motivational interviewing, problem solving therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. Doubtful and uncomfortable, he sat down in front of his computer for the two-hour online course and turned on his video camera. A dozen faces―his classmates, the instructor, and “Mario”―appeared on the computer screen, and class began.

Soon, Davison found his discomfort dissolving. This was no awkward role-playing exercise. It was a real conversation and he found himself engaged in Mario’s story and his classmates’ efforts to help him.

“Mario was just a regular guy. The scenario the faculty built around him was incredibly realistic,” Davison said.

The class Davison had dreaded became his favorite.

Preparing Students to Work With Clients

Just as medical students have internships to learn how to apply their knowledge to treating patients, social workers in training must also spend time working in the field.

For students earning their MSW online rather than on campus, the VFP exposes them to basic general practice in their first semester of field work, preparing them for in-agency work wherever they live during their second semester.

While on-campus students typically do their field work at Southern California agencies with long-standing relationships with the social work school, online students live across the country and internationally and most do their field work locally. This meant that faculty and administrators had to develop relationships with agencies all over the country, said Betsy Phillips, clinical associate professor and VFP co-founder.

While having two field placements is the norm for MSW students, for some online students living in tiny towns it is impossible. “There might be only one agency offering services for miles and miles,” Phillips said. “VFP is essential in meeting the field placement needs of those students.”

Because field experiences can vary in significant ways during a first semester, the VFP was created in part to ensure that all students receive the same fundamental education at the outset. This is critical, Phillips said, because the MSW program draws students from all different kinds of backgrounds. “We had some students who came from business or journalism backgrounds who had never taken a psychology class,” she said. “We wanted to immerse them in the social work field and help them understand what we’re all about.”

At the same time, they wanted to create a safe learning space where students could build their confidence and skills before working directly with clients.

“What VFP does so well is that it prepares students for internships with decreased anxiety, allowing them to practice with an actor in a space where they can do no harm,” said Ruth Supranovich, clinical associate professor and director of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s field education program.

How It Works

VFP may be virtual but the workload and experience are very real. Students earn 210 of the required 1,000 internship hours for graduation through completing the VFP.

With a pair of two-hour online face-to-face class sessions each week plus an additional 12 hours of extracurricular work, online students spend as much, if not more, time learning and practicing as campus-based students do when they go to an in-person internship, said Supranovich.

During their sessions with Mario, the students rotate through roles leading the session, observing or coaching. Faculty members provide guidance, mentorship, coaching, teaching, and expertise on how to apply the interventions.

According to Laura Cardinal, clinical assistant professor and VFP instructor, students build an ongoing relationship with the Mario character over the 12-week course.

“Mario is not an easy client,” Cardinal said. “There is a lot of raw emotion and pain. Part of the work is learning how to sit with people while they are suffering. It’s really uncomfortable for many people.”

Fellow VFP instructor and Clinical Assistant Professor Brittani Morris agrees.

“Students start out wanting to ‘fix’ their clients. They want to tell them to do x, y and z and they’ll be fine. But it’s far more powerful if the solution comes from the client,” Morris said. “We teach them how to help clients get to the point of wanting to change. That’s where you get palpable results.”

By the time VFP students take up their internships, they are ready to hit the ground running. They have learned evidence-based interventions, have worked to develop as professionals guided by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) core competencies, and have learned how to document client interactions.

“VFP really prepares them to enter into the work, giving them a robust, real-time experience in an environment that feels very safe to them. Students leave the class feeling confident they know what to say if someone’s angry or if they feel stuck,” Cardinal said.

VFP Instills Knowledge and Confidence

In many cases, VFP students have felt more prepared than their counterparts at their field placements.

In her internship at a San Diego-area drug treatment program, MSW student Vanessa Olson worked side-by-side with an intern from a different school who was working toward an MFT degree.

“She asked me where I got the handouts I have on motivational interviewing and other practices,” Olson said. “VFP gave me so much confidence in so many situations because I’ve seen them before.”

VFP also helps students develop the professional composure they need to gain client trust. Managing emotional responses to what clients share is an important skill for social workers to cultivate.

“One of the skills you’re learning through VFP is how to keep a poker face. I tell students that you may hear things you strongly disagree with, but you need to look neutral and professional,” said Morris.

Because VFP sessions are recorded, students get the chance to objectively see how well they maintained their composure during emotional and revealing sessions. Olson said she and other students would often go back and look at their body language. “We want to make sure we’re not responding in ways that might make the client shut down,” Olson said.

Some also believe that this kind of video interaction between clients and social workers is likely to be more common in the future. In many ways, the video sessions with Mario reproduce the experience of telehealth, a growing practice in medicine and in social work. Telemedicine technology allows practitioners to hold confidential sessions with patients from remote locations, making healthcare more accessible and removing the stigma of going to a counseling center.

Research Shows VFP Gets Results

The idea of simulation may be somewhat new to social work schools, but it’s been proven effective in medical and nursing schools and trainings for law enforcement and emergency response personnel.

In designing the course, Phillips and retired faculty member Gary Wood aimed to build an online curriculum that was just as good as the experience students had in-person through field placements.

A study conducted by Clarus Research showed they achieved their goal. On most measures, the overall performance of students in online and in-person internships was about the same, said Phillips.

“VFP has everything you wish you could have taught in the practice class but you never had time for it, because there is so much material to cover,” Wood said.

A New Way of Connecting

People who haven’t experienced online education lately sometimes believe it is less robust and interactive than the on-campus experience. But with the addition of video and the use of face-to-face sessions, online courses offer as much interaction, if not more, than some brick-and-mortar class sessions. Both Olson and Davison attest to the strong bonds they formed with their cohort in the VFP and other classes.

“We all really rely on each other,” Olson said. “There’s a real camaraderie among us. It totally changed how I thought about online coursework.”

Those impressions are not just the students’.

“I hear from field placement agencies that our students are very well-prepared,” Cardinal said. “The VFP experience is not ‘less than.’ We believe it is “more than.’”

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