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e Use of E-Learning in Social
James E. Phelan
E-learning is an evolutionary pedagogy in social work. E-learning technologies transform
learning so that it can be synchronous or asynchronous. The author provides a systematic
discussion of e-learning and its role in social work education. E-learning appears advanta-
geous as a hybrid or blended venue when used in academia and suitable in various formats
for continuing education. Theoretical foundations that support positive learning outcomes
should guide delivery. Distance delivery, regardless of the media or technology used, is not
by itself a contributing variable in students’ achievement. The priority of teaching and learn-
ing should be on eectiveness of the learning, regardless of the mode of delivery. Current
descriptive research on e-learning can be improved by increasing the rigor of methodology
and theoretical considerations. This information is necessary as the profession navigates the
best ways to meet the changing needs of social work students and social workers in the ﬁeld.
KEY WORDS: blended learning; distance education; e-learning; social work education;
Social work educators face many challenges
when teaching evidence-based practice skills
( Soydan, 2007). Changes in budgets, delivery
methods, and demands results in greater challenges
( Goode, 2000). Institutions seek creative ways to in-
tegrate learning within evolving technological ad-
vances ( Anderson-Meger, 2011; Buzducea, 2010;
Regan & Freddolino, 2008). Many institutions face
heightening pressure to increase online programs
( Vernon, Vakalahi, Pierce, Pittman-Munke, & Adkins,
E-learning refers to the use of electronic tech-
nologies to deliver a broad array of solutions that
enhance knowledge and performance ( Wentling etal.,
2000). E-learning may oer social work educators
ways to improve opportunities. The use of technol-
ogy and multimedia to assist in education and prac-
tice is not a new concept; however, this practice is
widening ( Satterwhite & Schoech, 1996; Siegel,
Jennings, Conklin, & Napoletano Flynn, 1998).
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
currently does not keep an exclusive database about
e-learning oered at accredited universities and col-
leges; however, at the time of this review, CSWE
listed seven undergraduate and 34 graduate social
work programs oering some form of online or
distance education options ( CSWE, 2014). In all,
fewer than 30 CSWE-accredited MSW programs
oered 100 percent online coursework ( Schroer,
2014). Interpreting a 2008 survey of 501 BSW and
MSW programs with a 27 percent response rate,
Anderson-Meger (2011) reported that four out of
10 BSW programs and ﬁve out of 10 MSW pro-
grams oered online courses.
E-learning involves the use of electronic media and
information and communication technologies, and
includes various forms of educational technology in
learning and teaching (for example, Web-based learn-
ing). E-learning technologies transform learning so
it can be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchro-
nous learning is when material is presented in real
time (for example, a live Webinar). Asynchronous
learning is when material is archived and then avail-
able anytime, anywhere (for example, a taped video
linked to a course site). A hybrid or blended envi-
ronment is when e-learning technologies and tra-
ditional education are combined ( Ayala, 2008;
EFFICACY OF E-LEARNING IN SOCIAL WORK
After a review of the social work literature, Madoc-
Jones and Parrott (2005) concluded that e-learning
is at least as eective as face-to-face learning and
257doi: 10.1093/sw/swv010 © 2015 National Association of Social Workers
more eective in speciﬁc areas such as teaching and
learning critical thinking, inquiry, and encouraging
engagement. However, more discursive strategies
were needed to facilitate critical thinking.
Thyer, Artelt, Markward, and Dozier (1998) con-
ducted a replicative study with 57 MSW students
enrolled in two dierent practice courses who were
exposed to approximately equal amounts of live, in-
class instruction and two-way interactive televised
instruction. The MSW students who were exposed
to approximately equal amounts of live instruction
and interactive television reported that they preferred
live instruction. Coe and Elliott (1999) surveyed 30
on-campus and 47 distant learners, measuring several
CSWE accreditation outcomes as well as other stu-
dent characteristics. They found that distant learners
and on-campus learners were both successful in
meeting accreditation standards. Loss of socialization
was the biggest negative outcome for distant learners.
Hu (2000) used a pretest–posttest comparison
group to determine dierence between a televi-
siondelivered class (n = 38) and a face-to-face class
(n = 24) of MSW students and found that there was
no signiﬁcant dierence in the students’ critical
thinking skills between the groups. Based on this
study, Hu concluded that distant learning was as
eective as face-to-face learning. Schoech (2000)
compared an online doctorate course given to a
small sample of social work students with a small
control group (classroom students) and found that
the e-learning environment was as rich as the face-
Petracchi (2000) reported on the ﬁndings of 142
social work students’ responses to questionnaires re-
garding their educational experiences with technol-
ogy, their learning environment, the instructor’s
teaching skills, and perceived resource availability.
Respondents at both sites were pleased with their
learning experience; 100 percent of students who
learned via interactive television and 75 percent of
the students who viewed videotaped courses indi-
cated they would enroll in distance learning again.
The opinions of remote social work student respon-
dents suggested positive learning experiences, par-
ticularly as they experienced two delivery formats.
Kleinpeter and Potts (2000) compared distance edu-
cation MSW students with on-campus students and
found there were no dierences in grades. Glezakos and
Lee (2001) also compared distant education and on-
campus MSW students and also found there were no
dierences in grades.
Banks and Faul (2007) used a pretest–posttest
comparison study (n = 18 in the experiential group;
n = 11 in the comparison group) to determine if
removing face-to-face hours in an MSW research
course would negatively aect learning outcomes.
The results indicated there were no signiﬁcant dif-
ferences in learning outcomes between the two
groups. Younger students with less social work ex-
perience were most likely to support blended course
In an evaluation of the eectiveness of interactive
television in teaching an MSW foundation research
methods course, the performance of distant students
who received instruction via interactive television
was compared with the performance of their peers
who received a blended format, and with students
who took the course in a traditional classroom. A
retrospective analysis of student performance, span-
ning a four-year period, found that students per-
formed comparably regardless of the setting for the
course. The three groups of students did not dier
statistically in terms of their grades ( Petracchi &
Oterholm (2009) used a sociocultural perspective
of learning for developing questions and found that
positive outcomes of e-learning occurred among
social work students when engagement occurred,
that is, when everyone had a voice and had an op-
portunity to reﬂect and research responses. Webber,
Currin, Groves, Hay, and Fernando (2009) compared
social work students enrolled in an e-learning course
with a control group (classroom students) and found
that the e-learning social work students met learn-
ingoutcomes to the same extent as the control
groupand were highly satisﬁed with the mode of
The major limitation of the research studies dis-
cussed previously was that their ﬁndings were based
on small convenience samples. It is dicult to gen-
eralize the ﬁndings because programs were developed
dierently and used dierent formats (nonstandard-
ization). Another problem was that these studies
operationalized the independent variable dierently
depending on the distant learning format used.
Best practices reports also provide helpful infor-
mation for social work educators. For example, the
University of Texas–Pan American social work de-
partment reported their hybrid distance education
program as a best practice because it showed how a
Hispanic-serving institution had taken advantage of
available educational technology, interinstitutional
Social Work Volume 60, Number 3 July 2015
collaboration, and knowledge of the local culture
to provide access to higher education for students
in otherwise educationally underserved and high-
poverty areas ( Longoria & Díaz, 2014).
Case reports and other reviews are also helpful
ingaining a more complete understanding of student
and faculty feedback and recommendations (see,
forexample, Bertera & Littleﬁeld, 2003; Brennan,
Rosen zweig, Koren, & Hunter, 2006; Cappiccie &
Desrosiers, 2011; Harr is & Parrish, 2006; Hisle-Gorman
& Zuravin, 2006; Hollister & Kim, 2001; Macy,
Rooney, Hollister, & Freddolino, 2001; Massimo,
2004; Weingardt & Villafranca, 2005).
Studies outside of social work have revealed that
most often e-learning is at least as good as, if not
better than, traditional instructor-led methods such
as lectures in contributing to demonstrated learning
( Ruiz, Mintzer, & Leipzig, 2006). Reviews of the
studies across disciplines indicate there is ample
evidence to support the eectiveness of distance
education in the areas of learner outcomes, social-
ization and growth of students, access to advisement,
faculty and library resources, retention rates and
cost-eectiveness ( Chacon-Duque, 1987; Verduin
& Clark, 1991).
Research with MSW students revealed that they
are receptive to e-learning if it is high quality and
meets stated objectives ( Okech, Barner, Segoshi, &
Carney, 2014). Not everyone feels optimistic; one
survey found that 23 percent of academic leaders be-
lieved the learning outcomes for online education are
inferior to those of face-to-face instruction ( Allen &
Although much of the research is descriptive of e-
learning, with some exception, it signiﬁcantly lacks
reﬂection of theoretical basis to inform social work
practice. In designing a Web-based child welfare
practice course in a social work program, Bellefeuille
(2006) found that critical and reﬂective processes
were well suited to an online pedagogy. The online
environment was seen as adaptive for use with an
objectivist and constructivist approach to teaching
critical thinking. The students found success in that
they were able to access an unlimited amount of
information and resources via the Web, and at the
same time had the ability to share ideas with a wider
audience, thus increasing satisfaction.
Madoc-Jones and Parrott (2005), after a review
of the social work and e-learning literature, claimed
that postmodern learning philosophy, as a theoreti-
cal framework, can help guide the design and deliv-
ery of e-learning environments. Oterholm (2009),
after evaluating the kinds of teaching activities most
eective with social work students, concluded that
a theoretical foundation for learning is one that is
built on a sociocultural perspective in which learn-
ing is an active, cognitive process that occurs via
interaction with others and the environment (con-
structivism). After all, distance delivery, regardless of
the media or technology used, is not by itself a con-
tributing variable in students’ achievement ( Russell,
In their evaluation of distance programs through
California State University, Potts and Hagen (2000)
used systems theory as a way to suggest that social
work educators make eorts to augment a sense of
community within and between distant education
classrooms. They suggested that further research
should focus on actual learning outcomes and the
acculturation of students and their socialization into
the profession in addition to more easily obtainable
parameters such as grades and course evaluations.
In non–social work literature, Liaw, Huang, and
Chen (2007) conducted a factor analysis of e-learning
and found that learners’ attitudes can be grouped into
four dierent factors: (1) e-learning as a learner au-
tonomy environment (constructivism), (2) e-learning
as a problem-solving environment (constructivism),
(3) e-learning as a multimedia learning environment
(connectivism), and (4) teachers as assisted tutors in
e-learning (objectivism). Furthermore, this study pro-
vided evidence that e-learning as a problem- solving
environment can be positively inﬂuenced by speciﬁc
factors. Knowledge of speciﬁc factors can give educa-
tors an idea on how to create plans that may provide
opportunities for success. For example, the theory,
supported by research and suggesting that student
engagement greatly improves learning, informs edu-
cators to seek practical ways to make e-learning more
engaging ( Tiernan, 2012). A question for developers
would then be, “In what ways can we make this more
engaging for students?”
Theoretical foundations in knowledge manage-
ment, historically a business concept, now recently
trickling down into applicability within the social
sciences, has also been introduced in understanding
and broadening e-learning practicality ( Liebowitz &
Frank, 2011). Integrating knowledge management
can be applicable to social work as it helps to create
a more dynamic process of understanding e-learning,
Phelan / e Use of E-Learning in Social Work Education 259
given that it helps operationalize organizational learn-
ing in its roles in knowledge acquisition, sharing,
application, and as a tool to help internalize tacit
knowledge ( Liebowitz & Frank, 2011). Even if main-
stream conceptions of knowledge do not fully ﬁt
with that of social work knowledge, a spectrum
view may be useful ( Leung, 2007).
Although some institutions may want to use e-learning
as a stand-alone solution to update or expand their
curricula, Ruiz et al. (2006) suggested that it is best
to begin with an integrated strategy that considers
the multidimensions of blended learning. In reality,
e-learning was not intended to eliminate the conven-
tional classroom, but, rather, to improve access and
oer students and sta ﬂexibility ( Garrison & Kanuka,
2004). Connolly, Jones, and Turner (2006) asserted
that blended learning and experimental subsets are
the preferred way of adopting e-learning solutions
in higher education.
There is some evidence from multidisciplines that
blended learning has the potential to be more eec-
tive and ecient when compared with a traditional
classroom model ( Heterick & Twigg, 2003; Twigg,
2003). A meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of
Education (ED) was run on 50 empirical studies
with grades K through 12. The same method was
applied with 43 studies of older learners. The most
common subject content of older college students
was health care and sciences. Results were very
similar—that is, blended instruction had a larger
advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction
or instruction conducted wholly online. The reasons
oered were that blended instruction tends to involve
more learning time, encourage more interactions
among the learners, and oer additional instruc-
tional resources (ED, 2010).
In terms of applicability to social work education,
Miller and Carawan (2009) found that hybrid or
blended learning holds promise for social work educa-
tors who seek to meet the needs of rural social work
students. In their research with social work students,
they found that the hybrid samples preformed simi-
larly to those that did not use a hybrid format.
E-LEARNING AND CONTINUING EDUCATION
E-learning can be cost-eective, therefore promising
to keep education aordable, which is vital consid-
ering that most states require social workers to ob-
tain several hours of continuing education units
(CEUs) to maintain their licenses and that social
workers are generally not compensated as well as
other professionals requiring a master’s degree
( Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). E-learning also
aords opportunities to reduce the burdens of travel
and related expenses. Speciﬁc technological innova-
tions now allow professionals the opportunity to
further their education without the worry of logis-
tics and time constraints. Many bodies of accredita-
tion are now recognizing e-learning as valid for CEUs
(National Association of Social Workers [NASW] &
Association of Social Work Boards [ASWB], 2005).
Distance courses should adhere to quality and
integrity, academic honesty and gatekeeping, and pri-
vacy and surveillance ( Reamer, 2013). The NASW
Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) is not prohibitive, only
cautionary of continuing education programs via
technology, and states that social workers shall adhere
to the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional
Education (NASW, 2003) and follow applicable li-
censing laws regarding continuing education deliv-
ered via electronic means. NASW and ASWB have
teamed up to provide guidance to social workers as
it relates to technology and social work practice. The
implication of their guidance is that continuing
education in venues of e-learning needs to adhere
to high standards, giving users access to supervision,
access to “live” support when needed, and the abil-
ity to provide feedback. The idea is that if all these
are in place, ethical concerns are minimized ( NASW
& ASWB, 2005).
Ultimately, the challenge for the ﬁeld of social work
is how to navigate the electronic environment to
eectively apply learning to an in-person practice
situation. Culture and gender sensitivity also draw
consideration to e-learning. There is some data to
support that female students assign more importance
to the planning of learning, as well as to being able
to contact the teacher in various ways. In addition,
some cultures and individuals may prefer in-person
interactional learning methods over alternative e-
learning methods ( González-Gómez, Guardiola,
Martín Rodríguez, Montero, & Miguel, 2012).
Communication and information technologies
should support applications that develop social pres-
ence and enable sociality ( LaMendola, 2010). The
human connection so embedded in social work’s
unique profession should not get ineectively
compromised in technology. It is hard to substitute
Social Work Volume 60, Number 3 July 2015
the nuances of direct human connections that may
give way to technology ( Stotzer, Fujikawa, Sur, &
Arnsberger, 2013). The technical factor, extrinsic
motivation, and learning climates are equally im-
portant. Wu and Hwang (2010) asserted that educa-
tors cannot simply prescribe a computer-based
assignment and neglect the social needs of students.
LIMITATIONS AND SUGGESTIONS FOR
Much of the research on e-learning outcomes fails
to support the superiority of any single delivery
medium over another ( Clark & Mayer, 2011). There
is also a need to ensure how courses can achieve high
quality and meet stated objectives ( Okech et al.,
2014). Research should also focus on addressing the
multiple challenges discovered from those who have
already implemented e-learning in social work
education ( Knowles, 2007).
Much of the research in social work education is
descriptive yet void of reﬂecting on a theoretical
basis to inform practice. Building on the current
descriptive research can be improved by increasing
the rigor of methodology (for example, use of larger,
less biased samples; standardization; replication; and
so on). The social work literature is scant of theo-
retical foundations for understanding e-learning
systems. There is a need to research how to articu-
late theoretical frameworks that center on adult
learning in social work. Too many plans are devoid
of a theoretical basis and, when things do not work,
we do not have a theory to inform our decision
making as to next steps. Articulating those theo-
retical frameworks and linking them to speciﬁc as-
pects in plan design are sorely needed. The evidence
gathered in existing studies needs to point to the
design features that not only reﬂect a theoretical basis,
but also point toward course design considerations.
Research should also give us more information
about what “success” means in terms of the process,
not just whether the student was “satisﬁed.” Further
research should seek to address what ways we can
increase the quantity and quality of e-learning
interactions; for example, should students be
required to attend distance education orientation
meetings and assigning group projects, as was
foundto be helpful in an experiment innovative
collaboration between two universities ( Crowell &
McCarragher, 2007)? More data on best practices
are also needed.
One of the most crucial prerequisites for success-
ful implementation of e-learning is the need for
careful consideration of how e-learning actually
takes place ( Govindasamy, 2001). Structure, delivery,
service, and outcomes for teaching e-learning can
be discovered by use of multiple methods, including
case study methodologies ( MacDonald & Thompson,
2005). Educators who choose e-learning need to be
informed about the philosophies, or theories, of
teaching and students’ desires for learning, as well
asmultidimensionality of teaching determination,
and allow ﬂexibility in both areas ( Kanuka, 2008).
Anderson-Meger (2011) argued that more research
is needed in teaching and learning critical thinking
and the roles that e-learning can take in the process.
Although today’s students may welcome and em-
brace technology, there is still a need to provide
direction to students on their formation of critical
thinking skills via the use of technology ( Frey, Faul,
& Yankelov, 2003).
The process should be taken further to under-
stand what makes engagement more real for stu-
dents. Is it by giving the students an experience for
which they can reﬂect on the experience (construc-
tivism), by transmitting the learning and providing
optimum solutions at their disposal (objectivism),
by linking them to networking that centers on
building knowledge via connectivity within the
network (connectivism), or a combination of sorts
( Driscoll, 2000; Siemens, 2004)?
It would also be helpful to do pilot studies on
learner interactivity, learners’ eciency, learners’
motivation, cognitive eectiveness, and ﬂexibility
of learning style. The personal learning experience
of students using online formats in social work needs
more careful exploration.
E-learning was not intended to eliminate the con-
ventional classroom in higher education; it was in-
tended to be used as a tool for institutions to improve
access and oer students and sta ﬂexibility. Theo-
retical foundations that support positive learning
outcomes should guide e-learning delivery. After
all, distance delivery, regardless of the media or tech-
nology used, is not by itself a contributing variable
in students’ achievement. The priority of teaching
andlearning should be on eectiveness of the learn-
ing, regardless of the mode of delivery. The current
descriptive research on e-learning can be improved
Phelan / e Use of E-Learning in Social Work Education 261
by increasing the rigor of methodology and theo-
E-learning appears more advantageous as a
blended or hybrid venue for academia and suitable
in various formats in continuing education. In-
creased research is needed to determine how e-
learning aects social work education and delivery.
A summary of some practical implications of e-
learning beneﬁcial to social work follows:
• E-learning delivery can help social workers in
the ﬁeld increase their access to information,
increase ease in updating content, personalize
instruction, and ease distribution of educa-
• For social workers in practice and in need of
CEUs, e-learning aords opportunities that
reduce ﬁnancial burdens.
• The use of e-learning to support a blended
learning environment supports the curricu-
lum to help increase students’ options, ﬂexibil-
ity, and conveniences.
• E-learning oers solutions that can provide
virtual supervision and consultative opportu-
nities as social workers become more mobile
or otherwise restricted.
• Speciﬁc e-learning delivery methods enable
educators to reach students who are remote
or otherwise disadvantaged.
• E-learning can be used to improve dissemina-
tion of standardized information to social
work students and practitioners (for example,
updated policies and laws, national current
events, current research results).
• E-learning can be used to augment social work
curricula when speciﬁc items in core curricula
are too brief or missing altogether, for example,
topics relevant to private practice and business
management, because most graduate schools
do not teach content speciﬁc to private prac-
tice careers ( Green, Baskind, Mustian, Reed,
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James E. Phelan, MSW, LCSW, BCD, is buprenorphine
services program coordinator, Department of Veterans Aairs,
Behavioral Health/Recovery Services, Chalmers P. Wylie Care
Center, 420 N. James Road, Columbus, OH 43219–1834;
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author would like to thank
Jorge G. Ruiz, MD, and colleagues for their foundational work
and for allowing him to use it to further this topic with applicability
from the medical profession to that of social work.
Original manuscript received August 27, 2014
Final revision received January 20, 2015
Accepted February 5, 2015
Advance Access Publication April 21, 2015
Social Work Volume 60, Number 3 July 2015