Virtual Field Practicum (VFP) is a new technology that is being pioneered by our partner the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Social Work Virtual Academic Center (VAC) for students enrolled in their online MSW program. Currently, VFP is only being used for students in their online MSW programs; however, there has been some discussion about expanding VFP to students who attend a campus-based MSW program at their academic centers. Since this technology is new to social work education, we decided to write up a summary for our In Focus Social Work Blog so that students can learn more about this technology.
What is Virtual Field Practicum?
When people first see the term Virtual Field Practicum, the assumption is that students are working on real cases with real clients through a type of online therapy. However, this is not the case. VFP acts more like a simulator where students get to learn practical skills in a controlled environment, and where they can learn from their mistakes as well as from their classmates’ mistakes. In VFP, students only interact with simulated clients who are portrayed by professional actors, not real clients. Therefore, students can get feedback in real-time and learn from their mistakes before working with real clients.
How does Virtual Field Practicum work?
In USC’s online MSW program, students in the traditional standing track complete up to 210 hours of VFP during their first semester and then 800 hours of community-based field placements for a total of 1,000 hours of field education. Students, in small groups of 8-10, attend two 2-hour classes per week in USC’s VAC platform. These sessions are live, real-time audio video sessions with a USC faculty member. The live sessions are complemented with in-depth multi media asynchronous content that is assigned weekly.
In one session, students spend time discussing and integrating the weekly asynchronous content, while in the other session students take turns interviewing simulated clients. At first glance, VFP may look like just another course that students take during their program, but that is not the case, notes Dr. Gary Wood (Ph.D., LCSW), former USC Clinical Professor of Social Work and current Senior Vice President of Curriculum and Academic Relations at 2U, Inc (an education technology company):
“This is not a ‘course’ in the sense of acquiring information, or learning ‘about’ something. The VFP is all about application of knowledge – it’s about skill building. It’s skill application as opposed to knowledge acquisition.”
Simulated clients are not new to academic programs. Other disciplines like medical and nursing degree programs have used simulated clients for years. The only difference is that USC’s online MSW program is doing this entirely through their online VAC platform.
Only students who enter as traditional standing students complete VFP, students entering as advanced standing students go straight into community-based field placements.
Proposed and Practical Benefits of Virtual Field Practicum
VFP is modeled after the skills any USC student (either on-campus or online) would learn during their first practicum placement at an agency. These include the basic skills of engaging, assessing and intervening with individuals. Since VFP is equivalent to the first semester of field education, it primarily focuses on individuals, although it does touch on some applications for families.
In VFP, students learn and apply skills such as decision-making about ethical dilemmas, diagnosis of mental disorders (DSM), and risk assessment. In addition, students develop skills in specific evidence-based intervention techniques like Motivational Interviewing, Problem Solving Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. VFP primes students with the skills they will need to work with real clients once they start their community-based field placements.
There are several practical benefits of VFP as well. With the demand for social workers growing (the job outlook for social workers is expected to increase 19% between 2012 and 2022 based on data from bls.gov) there is greater demand for agency placements. By starting with VFP, students begin fulfilling their field placement hours immediately upon starting the program. This gives USC more time to match students to local agencies for their community-based field placements.
VFP allows USC to introduce field education to students in their online MSW program in a standardized manner that is consistent for each student. Online MSW programs place students at different agencies across the United States, so it can be difficult to ensure that students are getting a consistent experience in their field placements.
Finally, while the program is too new to have definitive data, VFP will theoretically prepare students better to begin working with real clients once they start their agency placements. Therefore, agencies will be more likely to take MSW students for their foundation level practicum who already have experience with specific social work techniques (like Motivational Interviewing, Problem Solving Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), as opposed to students who are just beginning their MSW and have only studied these techniques.
Potential Concerns over Virtual Field Practicum
One concern with VFP, and, in general, online MSW programs (and for all online degree programs for that matter), is the reduced face-to-face interactions that are so important in building relationships. This is especially important in the field of social work were social workers must be able to interpret non-verbal and verbal communications equally. In addition, one could argue that VFP reduces the amount of time students have to interact face-to-face with real clients during field education.
Students in USC’s online MSW program still have plenty of opportunities to interact with clients face-to-face while earning their MSW. For USC’s program specially, students still have to complete 800 hours of community-based field placements. Considering some MSW programs only require 900 hours total, students in USC’s online MSW program are still spending the majority of their field education hours working with real clients. In addition, the real-time audio-visual work with simulated clients does provide face-to-face interactions over the internet, which is very similar to Tele Health or online therapy. Advancements in high-speed internet and improved audio-video capabilities have greatly improved the ability to communicate online. As Dr. Gary Wood (Ph.D., LCSW) points out:
“It’s really akin to learning many complex skills: beginning musicians practice scales and rehearse pieces before going to perform; beginning pilots are taken to a simulator. We wouldn’t put someone learning how to fly in a cockpit by themselves the first time. Why should we with social workers?”
With the growing demand for social workers increasing and more schools offering online MSW programs, it will be interesting to see if more schools start to experiment with VFP. In addition, online therapy or e-Therapy1,2 is not new to the field of social work, so it will be interesting to see if students who complete VFP are better prepared to deliver online therapy in the future.