Interview with Dr. Dale Fitch, PhD, MSSW – Associate Professor and Director of the Online MSW Program at University of Missouri
About Dale Fitch, Ph.D., MSSW: Dale Fitch earned his Ph.D. in Social Work from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2001, and an MSSW from the same institution in 1984. His MSSW/LCSW work included positions in a homeless shelter, residential treatment center, private practice, public mental health and hospital social work. Experiences from those settings led him to pursue his Ph.D. to engage in research to improve the human services delivery system. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work and has taught there since 2009. Since 2014, he has served as director of the MSW Online Program and has overseen the conversion of 17 courses, with 19 more course conversions planned over the next three years.
Dr. Fitch employs both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies to investigate topics that include management of information systems in human service and social work organizations, systems theory, and decision-making. Dr. Fitch also employs systemic intervention methodologies such as critical system heuristics, soft systems and system dynamics modeling. He is the editor-in-chief for the Journal of Technology in Human Services, and serves as a consulting editor for several other journals. As an associate professor, he teaches courses in macro practice, human services management, practice within community and social systems, and design of information systems. For excellence in teaching, Dr. Fitch has received the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education, the Provost Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching Award, and the Outstanding Faculty Award from the School of Social Work Alumni Organization. Dr. Dale Fitch was compensated to participate in this interview.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Currently, there are approximately 30 universities offering fully online MSW programs. Why did the University of Missouri decide to start offering their MSW program online and how is it structured?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] The University of Missouri School of Social Work began offering the online MSW in response to our awareness that an effective education could be achieved online. Through attending conferences, reviewing the literature and consulting colleagues from online programs across the United States, we learned the various ways that an MSW could be obtained while maintaining our commitment to delivering a high-quality degree.
Our program is offered almost exclusively asynchronously. We did survey work with our existing students and prospective students and found that most had a very difficult time blocking out the 3 plus hours per week to attend classes. Students living in rural areas were compromised by inadequate access to broadband services required by online videoconferencing systems. As such, an asynchronous format that obviated the need for everyone to be in the same place at the same time is the organizing principle for our program. However, we have pioneered the use of online video conferencing for our students to perform role plays, an essential skill-building exercise that occupies a central role in the traditional clinical classroom. All of our online students have been able to find a peer with whom to perform these activities and the bandwidth requirements for the video conferencing applications have not been problematic, even for students getting together via smartphones.
Finally, all students, whether online or not, complete an internship at a local agency.
We began by offering our program to Advanced Standing students, as those classes were the easiest to convert due to their content and class sizes. We will begin admitting students to our Regular Standing program in the Fall ’16. While students are admitted in cohorts, they may end up with a different group of students because the vagaries of life simply interfere with our best-laid plans. Fortunately, our program is flexible enough to accommodate those needs.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who are just learning about the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work, can you briefly explain the program’s mission, values and goals?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] The mission of the MU School of Social Work is to promote leadership for social and economic justice by preparing students for professional excellence and leadership in practice, research and policy. Within the context of a land grant institution, the mission of the School of Social Work reflects the University of Missouri’s tightly interlocked missions of teaching, research, outreach and economic development.
In a world of sufficient resources, social and economic justice mandates minimal standards of economic and political equity. This means that no human being should die of hunger, be without access to adequate health care, be without safe and affordable housing or adequate clothing, lack access to employment, or be denied equal opportunity for education. Additionally, all human beings should be protected against violence in any form and discrimination on any basis, including but not limited to age, culture, class, ethnicity, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion and/or sexual orientation. Social workers have a professional, ethical and moral obligation to use their skills and knowledge to challenge social inequities. Social workers must be leaders in establishing just and caring communities wherein all members possess basic economic, social and psychological goods.
The MU School of Social Work teaches students to understand and evaluate the gaps between current conditions and a more just and caring society. While the University of Missouri’s land grant mission and the school’s commitment is to publicly funded and administered entities as a means of addressing the needs of poor and oppressed populations, the MU School of Social Work also recognizes the growing importance of the private sector in this regard. To this end, the school educates BSW, MSW and Ph.D. social work practitioners to facilitate change by empowering individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities. In addition, the School prepares Ph.D. social workers to establish teaching, research and professional practices that are grounded in the principles of social and economic justice.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] The University of Missouri’s online MSW program offers two concentration options: Advanced Clinical Practice, and Policy, Planning and Administration in Human Services. For students who are just starting to research online MSW programs, can you briefly describe the difference between these two program options?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] Advanced Clinical Practice includes strategies of clinical intervention with socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, families and small groups in a variety of health, mental health, family and children services, and senior citizen agencies.
Policy, Planning and Administration in Human Services includes intervention strategies that effect change at the organizational, interagency, community and societal levels to advance social and economic justice for consumers of social and human services and to empower practitioners within those agencies.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Field Education is a major component of MSW programs and requires a significant time commitment from students. Many online programs are geared toward working professionals. How do you recommend students balance field education with other responsibilities?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] The first field placement occurs during the spring or summer semesters of the second year of the Regular Standing program and during the spring and/or summer semesters at the end of the Advanced Standing program. The first field placement requires 16 hours/week in the agency and the last field placement requires 24 hours/week. However, since most online students work full-time, the last field placement can be extended and/or students can attempt to do a placement where they work. Either way, it is a time of transition for students as they are beginning their professional careers, and some use their field placement opportunity as a time to seek new employment.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who have already decided they want to pursue an MSW, but are unsure about online education, can you briefly explain the pros and cons to pursuing an MSW online?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] Time and space need to be the two operant factors if someone is considering an online program. Time — if the program is asynchronous, then there will not be weekly meetings at set times. On the other hand, our program is not self-paced. We operate under a semester system, 15 weeks, and students are expected to contribute to the discussion forums and other activities several times a week. In sum, many students view attending a class as obtaining an education. An online education, in contrast, only occurs if a student puts the time and effort into reading, studying and working on papers or projects. Space — an online program can be done from anywhere as long as you have a good Internet connection. Travel time will not be an issue, which may afford more time for study, projects and papers.
On the other hand, an online education requires much more self-discipline. Being in a classroom can allow one to absorb the energy from other learners. Some of that can be gleaned from online discussion forums, but the initial motivation, a motivation that must be maintained day-to-day and week-to-week, must come from within. Fortunately, most of our students are non-traditional, meaning they already have an understanding of balancing work, family life and school. That is even more so true for our students who already work in the human services in some capacity. They know how vital the MSW degree can be to career progression and having more skills to help people and communities. In essence, social work can be the difference-maker in the life of a person for whom life has few options. Knowing that you can make a significant difference in the life of that person can be more than enough motivation to get someone through an online program.
Finally, students who obtain a degree from our accredited program will be able to achieve licensure after passing their state’s licensing exams.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Online education requires discipline from students to stay on track and keep up with coursework and assignments. What systems are in place to ensure that online students do not fall behind? Do you have any recommendations for online students in terms of staying on track with coursework?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] Structurally we strongly recommend that students take no more than two classes per semester. Online classes take more time than the traditional classroom; however, students report increased learning outcomes — largely because of the extra work required.
Two, we tell students they cannot do online class work only on the weekends and expect to do well in their classes. Instead of waiting till the weekend, we suggest they check their online class sites daily for recent messages and discussion posts. Regarding posts, we encourage students to read the posts first, then take the time to mull over a response that can be posted later that day or at night. We have found that the mulling time allows for people to formulate responses that reflect critical thinking and are usually worded in a way that is more succinct.
Three, increasingly our instructors are running classroom performance reports that let them know when members of their class are logging into the course site and contributing to discussion forums. If we see students who are lagging in their responsibilities, we send them an email to find out if extenuating circumstances are preventing them from more fully participating.
Finally, our instructors are very good at putting a human face to our online classes. We acknowledge when difficult assignments or projects have been accomplished and we let them know that we know they are working hard.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For students who are ready to apply to the Online MSW Program at the University of Missouri, what advice do you have in terms of preparing their application?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] Most importantly, just don’t say you want to have an MSW degree. Instead, be very specific in terms of the kind of change you would like to make in the world and the kinds of skills you will need to have to bring about that change. Anyone can care about helping others, but the ways in which you can achieve that with an MSW degree are very specific. Know what those skills may entail and mention them in your application. If you don’t know, then shadow a social worker and see what they do every day. Social work is much, much more than volunteer work (as laudable as that is). Social work entails working with individuals, organizations and communities in order to improve the health and welfare of those in need, and a good application needs to reflect you have thought about what that might entail.
Two, become familiar with the social work Code of Ethics and values before you fill out the application. A good discussion of those values can be found at the National Association of Social Workers webpage. If you have a difficult time endorsing those values and ethics, then social work is not the profession for you.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Finally, with more universities starting to offer online MSW programs, why should students consider the University of Missouri?
[Dr. Dale Fitch] This response will most likely be unlike responses you will receive from other programs in that we do not aspire to be a national program. Our goal is to best serve the citizens of Missouri. To achieve that goal we believe it is important to have a thorough understanding of the communities in our state and the agencies in which our students might one day work. We aspire to have a close relationship with those agencies and to see them as partners in our educational efforts. We don’t teach from the textbook only. We augment our texts and research with our own research and the knowledge and experiences we have with those agencies. Social work is not something you learn about. Social work is something you learn by applying and doing. That’s the hallmark of our program and that’s why students should strongly consider obtaining their MSW degree at the University of Missouri.