Online learners can sometimes feel like they are in a silo, following the rules, pushing all the right buttons, but alone.
Then innovative online professors bring students together and make them feel like they are part of a community. It’s what is happening in the Social Work Department at Grand Canyon University.
“You know, I am a social worker first and a teacher second,” Dr. Carin Blevins tells her online social work students. “So this is what I would share with you if you were in my office: You are not alone.”
Blevins, Master of Social Work Faculty Lead, and Linda Hash, Online Bachelor of Social Work Faculty Lead, found their Zoom interactions with students so meaningful that they created a monthly Online Social Work Series covering various topics in the field, a voluntary addition to students’ regular courses.
For example, the Friday webinar, “Utilizing Simulations as a Form of Social Work Learning,” gives students ways to use simulations to translate social work theory into practice.
It also creates an open discussion and an online community of learners who get to know one another and help each other learn.
“A lot us miss the classroom and connecting with students in more meaningful ways, so it’s exciting to see them come and get excited,” Blevins said. “It makes it more real, especially for students that aren’t in the field yet or haven’t had a chance for one-on-one experiences in the field.”
As many as 30 students will attend the sessions, which started in early spring and will continue monthly, featuring faculty from various behavioral health fields.
“Students can sense who we are, what we are passionate about and how we can help them,” Blevins said.
Students build professional relationships in the webinars. They find people in the field with jobs they would like to pursue and have another point of contact for future jobs, she said.
They also find professors who have or are working in fields of interest to them. For example, Blevins has a background of social work in correctional settings.
Hash informally labels the experience they created a “social work collaboratory.”
“That's what Carin and I call our efforts to build a robust and rich online community within and among our bachelor’s and master’s level student groups,” she said. “Hearing from the faculty as well as from one another has been so enriching for students in both of the degree programs.”
It’s working well for Rose Kutushi, an undergraduate social work student from Washington, D.C.
“I can learn from other students and connect with faculty members who can support me in my goals,” she said. “I am able to get a deeper understanding of social work principles and the skills to make a deeper impact in my community.”
Working in a social service agency that helps people with mental health issues get services, she hears what others across the country are doing in their communities.
And webinars such as “Social Work with Immigrants and Refugees” in June and “Mindfulness-Based Multicultural Consciousness in Social Work Practice” in May has brought Kutushi new perspective on students in many different places.
“It has helped me to be culturally sensitive to all people we are working with from all over the U.S.,” said the native of Kenya.
“We are getting mentored in so many ways. By the time I graduate, I will feel very strong and be strong for the people who can’t speak for themselves.”
The interactions led another student to share his interest in starting a domestic violence shelter for men.
“He gets a lot of flack, people saying this impacts women only,” Blevins said. “And it’s not true.”
So she added an additional June 29 webinar, “Discussion in Intimate Partner Violence.”
Students are not only hearing of peers at work in their communities but from professors.
“I hold a lot of Zoom calls from my classroom, especially introductory classes,” Blevins said. “You see them light up. It just creates conversations, and it gets more intimate. Social work students are not averse to sharing about themselves with total strangers.”
Hash also makes efforts to build community outside the webinars. She conducts Zoom sessions with Dr. Brandon Fields for her undergrad social work courses, an open forum to ask questions.
“We have great attendance each week, with many students coming just to hear their peers, and Dr. Fields and I talk ‘social worky’ with them, sort of like sitting around the work lunchroom and having informal yet meaningful discussions” on subjects that vary from new innovations in working with trafficked victims to best practices in trauma work or the integration of faith in social work.
Blevins said these meaningful interactions pay off in a way that sometimes can be impersonal.
“We are real,” she said. “I want them to feel they are supported at GCU.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
To sign up for the webinars go here.
2 p.m. July 7 (Phoenix time): Utilizing Simulations as a Form of Social Work Learning
6 p.m. Aug. 17 (Phoenix time): Cultural Humility and Cultural Competence