Beverly Araujo Dawson
Linda Ayscue Gupta



Distance education offerings in social work have increased rapidly in the last twenty years. The availability of quality instructional design and online course offerings becomes a social justice issue for the social work profession. Developing online courses requires that the instructional design incorporates the goals of the profession which include exemplifying the professional behaviors and values of social work. Furthermore, faculty need to have content knowledge, as well as be knowledgeable of various technological requirements and tools in order to develop innovative learning activities and assignments.  Not all schools dedicate the same level of resources to support course development; therefore, faculty may be left to develop online courses on their own. Using a review of the scholarly literature from the fields of social work, higher education, and distance learning, a critical analysis of the components of quality instructional design for optimum student learning will be reviewed. This chapter describes the use of a Community of Inquiry framework as a foundation for will provide an overview of instructional design in a social work context and provides exemplars of innovative learning activities in two M.S.W. programs.

Overview of online education and social work

Higher education has experienced an increase in online course offerings and enrollment. In 2015, at least 6 million students reported taking at least one distance education course (Allen & Seaman, 2017).  In fact, more than one in four students (29.7%) now take at least one distance education course (a total of 6,022,105 students). Most students enrolled in distance courses are from public institutions (67.8%). Between 2012 and 2015, on the ground campus enrollment has declined by approximately 1 million (Allen & Seaman, 2017).

Over the past twenty years, online course offerings throughout various fields including schools of social work have increased. The increase in distance education has been attributed to the accessibility online education offers to potential students with geographical barriers and adult students with families who may be the first in their family to pursue higher education (Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty, & Partington, 2016). Despite the benefits that online education can offer, it was initially questioned if social work, a hands-on profession could be taught effectively online.

The social work profession is committed to the pursuit of social justice to enhance the quality of life and the development of individuals, groups, families, and communities to their full potential. Social work is rooted in a set of core values including service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity and competence (NASW, 2008).  Social workers aim to enhance the social functioning of impoverished and vulnerable individuals, groups and communities, as well as help people, solve personal, group (especially family), and community problems and to attain satisfying personal, group and community relationships (NASW, 2008). Given the focus of social work, practice learning is an essential aspect of the social work education curriculum (Roulston, & Vreugdenhil, 2018). Social work education not only develops students’ knowledge of the values of the profession but also the skills to be effective practitioners (Scheafor & Horejsi, 2008). Therefore, social work students must have opportunities to practice utilizing the newly developed skills such as the techniques, procedures, and actions of the profession (Scheafor & Horejsi, 2008).  Social work students need learning opportunities to make the connection between theory and practice (Bellinger, 2010; Domakin, 2015). In face to face social work education, practice instructors incorporate role plays and group exercises to help students apply the theoretical and practice knowledge they are mastering through their coursework. In online education, some of these methods can also be applied, but instructors must develop the skills to execute these learning activities effectively in digital learning spaces.

Because human interaction is a central focus of social work, it was initially thought that social work students could not develop the knowledge and practice skills to work directly with clients in an online environment (Collins, Gabor, Coleman & Ing, 2003; Kurzman, 2013; Moore, 2005). Online education has received wider acceptance in the past decade and is now being used to deliver content across the social work curriculum (Flynn, Maiden, Smith, Wiley & Wood, 2013; McFadden, Moore, Herie, & Schoech, 2005).  A recent Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) survey of accredited social work programs found that, among 222 Master’s level programs responding, 8% currently offered the entire MSW program online, 51% offered part of the program online, and another 16% were developing online offerings. Of the 471 BSW programs reporting, 2% offered full programs online, 38% had online courses, and 14% were developing online courses (CSWE, 2013).

Initially, online courses were a replication of their face to face counterparts, focusing on delivering lectures using two-way television and WebTv (Bellefeuille, Martin, & Buck, 2005). The development of Learning Management Systems such as Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas has allowed online learning to expand the reach of its online offerings to offer students a more interactive and engaging learning experience (Vernon et al., 2013). Simply recruiting and enrolling students in online social work courses is not enough. Courses must offer learning activities and assignments that foster student engagement in order to promote success in the learning process (Suskie, 2018). Finally, creating online social work courses that address the competencies of the social work profession requires effective instructional design techniques necessary to master the dimensions of each competency, i.e.  the knowledge, values, skills, and cognitive and affective processes of the profession (CSWE, 2018).

Instructional Design

What is instructional design?

Quality instructional design is pivotal to the success of online education as it contributes to retention and students’ positive learning experiences (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Kumar, Dawson, Black, Cavanaugh, and Sessums, 2011; Ivankova & Stick,  2007; Lee & Choi 2011; Meyer, Bruwelheide, & Poulin, 2009, & Sutton, 2017; Garrett, Legon, and Fredericksen, 2019). Instructional design refers to the understanding and application of methods of instruction and the development of effective instructional resources that address the goals of the curriculum (Reigeluth, 2013). One study offered the following definition of quality instructional design:  “…teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age” (Bates, 2015, p. 1).

Challenges to achieving quality in course development

A variety of factors have been identified as contributing to quality instructional design,  including using an iterative design approach, involving subject matter experts (SMEs) throughout the design process, educating SME’s about existing instructional tools, and highlighting the importance of addressing students’ learning needs (Roytek, 2010; Sugar, 2014). Perhaps the most important factor, however,  is the involvement of instructional designers on the online course development team. CHLOE 3: Behind the Numbers The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2019 is the report of a yearly survey by Quality Matters and Eduventures Research of Chief Online Officers at a variety of higher education institutions throughout the United States (Garrett et al., 2019, p. 4). Those Chief Online Officers (COOs) whose institutions had instructional designers on their online course development teams reported the use of engaging instructional technologies such as “live audio and video, digital simulations, and digital games” compared to COOs of schools where faculty develop courses independently (p. 21).  Similar to findings in the CHLOE 2 report, CHLOE 3 found a “positive impact of [instructional design] ID involvement on consistent use of online tools [and] student-to-student interaction” (Garrett et al., 2019, p. 22). The CHLOE 3 report recognizes the positive impact of instructional design on the quality of online courses and on student experience and outcomes (Garrett et al., 2019, p. 18). The study also found that a higher percentage of Chief Online Officers (COOs) at those institutions that require faculty use of IDs in the online course development process  “judge their fully online students as performing comparably to or better than on-ground students” as compared to COOs at those institutions that do not require the use of IDs – 70% to 58% (p. 22). In addition, 12% of those COOS from institutions that do not require the involvement of an ID “reported worse performance by online students than COOs from schools mandating ID involvement” (p.22). Another interesting finding of the CHLOE 3 report (2019)is the fact that faculty do not work independent of instructional designers at the largest online institutions. However, “faculty plus optional instructional design support is the most common arrangement” among all schools surveyed (Garrett, 2019, p. 14).

In fact, Sugar and Luterbach (2016) discuss how context influences the instructional design (2016), suggesting that course development in academic institutions is affected by faculty governance and lack of an online infrastructure (Sugar and Luterbach, 2016).  The CLHOE 3 Report noted that nearly half of the surveyed “report absent or optional ID support,” primarily because of a lack of financial resources (58%) and faculty autonomy/academic freedom (58%) (Garrett et al., 2019, p. 23). The report does suggest a “growing acceptance” of the value of instructional design but recognizes the “persistent headwinds” of cost and “entrenched faculty attitudes skeptical of the validity of educational theory and resistant to surrendering any of their autonomy,” especially in those institutions with no “centralized management of online activity” to establish requirements for online course design (p. 24).

Faculty concerns about teaching online vary from lack of institutional support (Gautreau 2011), perceived ease of use (Gibson et al. 2008), as well as increased workload demands of technical competency (Hattangdi et al., 2010). Of critical importance also is administrative recognition and provision of the time required for course building prior to instructional delivery of the course.  The scheduling of course development one-two semesters ahead of the course offering recognizes the significant investment of time required of faculty and instructional designers. Workload has been found to be a significant obstacle to faculty involvement in online teaching (Alvarez, Blair, Monske, and Wolf, 2005, p. 184). Xu and Morris (2007) note, “Congruent with previous research, each of the faculty members reported an increased workload. When developing a course on their own, they treated the process as more informal and less deliberate, and hence found it less time-intensive. However, when developing a system-wide online course with their peers, they considered each curricular element and gave more attention to student needs and varied pedagogical strategies than when they planned alone” (Xu & Morris, 2007, p. 45). In an analysis of time taken to prepare an online course Visser (2000) found that “the instructor spent significantly more time on course content development than in the traditional course. More than half of the extra time—57 hours—was needed to prepare the online lectures” (p. 24). Visser (2000) noted that it would take an instructor approximately 220 hours to completely design and develop an online curse. Of this time, he estimated that “[t]he time spent adapting the course to the distance education technologies added approximately 96 hours to the overall work effort in preparing the course. Without the graduate assistant’s help, the time expended by the instructor would have been approximately 170 hours greater” (Visser, 2000, p. 28). Flynn et al., (2013) described their process of course conversion at the University of Southern California (USC) for their Virtual Academic Center, “Production of the asynchronous content was arduous and time-consuming for faculty, requiring 3 months or longer of focused effort” (p. 348).

Instructional Design and Social Work

Given that social work students must develop the appropriate knowledge, values, skills, and cognitive and affective processes of the profession (CSWE, 2018); quality instructional design must include learning activities that achieve the goals of the profession.  Not all Since schools do not dedicate the same level of resources to support quality instructional design, therefore, faculty may be left to develop online courses on their own.

Course design is significantly impacted by the faculty developer’s knowledge and intentional use of selected pedagogical strategies, experience in teaching online, and knowledge of the learning management system and various digital tools used to achieve learning objectives.

Many universities have either partnered with Online Program Management companies to develop courses or developed Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to support faculty in their teaching and to improve student retention (Trammell & Bruce, 2008).  With the proliferation of online programs, CTLs have expanded their focus to online teaching and instructional designers within these centers assist faculty in developing online courses. Unfortunately, not all universities have a CTL, which can jeopardize the course development process, the quality of online courses, and thus, opportunities for student learning. The accessibility of quality online professional social work education is critical to the availability of social work practitioners in areas where professional social work services are not currently available.

Developing online courses requires that faculty develop new skills an understanding of online learning pedagogy (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Guasch, Alvarez, & Espasa, 2010). During the development of online courses, instructors or subject matter experts must select technologies that help them meet the course objectives, as well as address the learning needs of students. Faculty developing online courses are able to select from multiple constantly changing media (streaming video, blogs, wikis, etc.) to incorporate into their courses. The variety of choices can contribute to faculty feeling overwhelmed by the choices and not sure which technologies to incorporate in their online courses to support student learning outcomes (Shea & Bidjerano, 2008). Faculty who are new to online learning, may not feel comfortable exploring technologies that they are not familiar with, and therefore may design a course that is based on their comfort level rather than on instructional design theory and the needs of students in online learning environments.

Faculty concerns about teaching online vary from lack of institutional support (Gautreau 2011), perceived ease of use (Gibson et al. 2008), as well as increased workload demands of technical competency (Hattangdi et al., 2010). Additional issues that can occur when faculty are developing online courses and collaborating with an instructional designer include faculty’s willingness and capacity to devote time to learn – as faculty we do not like “not knowing.”. Based on our experience faculty may often demonstrate frustration and a lack of impatience regarding collaborating with instructional designers. Institutions with an infrastructure support faculty developing online courses through several mechanisms such as the Help Desk, ongoing professional development opportunities, as well as free workshops with third-party vendors such as -Lynda.com, VoiceThread, and the  Online Learning Consortium. Each of these challenges is a barrier that must be considered and addressed in the online course development process. While faculty members are experts in their discipline, a systematic plan for developing instructors’ online teaching skills may not be established in some institutions. The purpose of this chapter is to offer a theoretical framework, review appropriate pedagogical strategies, and outline the steps in the development of online courses for social work.

Theoretical Model Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry (COI) model provides a comprehensive framework that aligns with the learning objectives of social work education and functions as a sieve to determine effective pedagogical and andragogical strategies for online social work education. A Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a “group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding” (CoI Framework,  n.d.). The CoI model posits that effective online learning experiences occur through the development of three components – cognitive, teaching, and social presence and the relationship between them (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 1999, p. 88).

Garrison et al. (1999) define cognitive presence as “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” and note that it is essential to the development of critical thinking (p. 89). The concept of cognitive presence was based on John Dewey’s process of reflective inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2010). In our own work as online instructors, we find the dialogic process, the offering up and consideration of the various perspectives of group members, to be the key factor in the learning process.

Garrison et al., (1999) define social presence as “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people’” (p. 89).  Social presence was thought to facilitate a “sense of belonging” (Garrison et al., 2010, p. 7) and to enable positive and satisfying interactions that facilitate retention in learning communities (Garrison et al., 1999, p. 89).

“Teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.”

– Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, and Archer (2001, p. 5)

Teacher or instructor presence has been identified as key to creating those online learning communities that produce “intended learning outcomes” through “engendering an atmosphere of trust, open communication, and group cohesion” that fosters social presence (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, and Fung, 2010, p. 35) and is “a significant determinant of student satisfaction, perceived learning, and sense of community” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 163).

Originally Garrison et al. (1999) conceptualized social presence to be important primarily because it served a support function in promoting the development of cognitive presence and critical thinking. In subsequent research they determined that students progress through a developmental process to establish social presence that begins with “identifying with the [learning] community,” “communicating purposefully in a trusting environment,” and “developing interpersonal relationships (Garrison, 2009b, as cited in Garrison et al., 2010, p. 7). This is an important finding because using this knowledge, faculty can scaffold opportunities to identify with the school, the profession, and/or the small group within a class before moving to activities designed to build trust and open meaningful dialogue. Subsequent researchers have found social presence to be a “mediating variable” among other presences. In other words, each of the presences may have a causal relationship on others (Shea & Bidjerano, 2009; Garrison, Cleveland-Innes and Fung, 2010). Students in online courses that do not include opportunities to interact with the instructor and fellow students report feeling isolated (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010; Shea & Bidjerano, 2012). These experiences can impact student learning outcomes and retention in online courses.

In 2010 Shea & Bidjerano identified a fourth presence in the CoI model that they called “Learning Presence” (p. 1721). They conducted a study of 3165 students in online and hybrid courses and,  examining course documents outside discussion boards, found communications that didn’t fit within those previously identified in the CoI model (Shea, 2010; Shea, Vickers, & Uzuner, 2010 as cited in Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1723). These included “conversations about instructions and group tasks that they labeled ‘self- and co-regulation’” (p. 1723). They found students to be “metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in the learning process” (Winters & Azevedo, 2005 cited in Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1723) involved in “goal-setting, planning, acting, monitoring, self-reflection & self-assessment” (Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1721).

In subsequent reviews of the literature on self-regulation and their own research, Shea & Bidjerano, 2012 determined “self-regulation [to be] a cyclical, recursive process that encompasses goal setting, planning, executing actions, monitoring, self-reflection, and self-assessment. Self-regulated learners set proximal attainable goals based on refined self-knowledge and analysis of the complexity of the learning task; structure their own learning environment in ways conducive to learning; choose appropriate learning strategies, constantly monitor the progress made towards the task, and evaluate the extent to which goals have been achieved” (Pintrich, 2000; Zimmerman, 2001 cited in Shea and Bidjerano, 2012, p. 317 ). Self-regulation “involves cognitive, affective, motivational and behavioral components that provide the individual with the capacity to adjust his or her actions and goals to achieve the desired results in light of changing environmental conditions” (Zeidner, Boekaerts, & Pintrich, 2005, p. 751).

Shea & Bidjerano (2010) argue that self-regulation depends upon a second component of Learning Presence – self-efficacy. They describe self-efficacy as beliefs about one’s ability to perform. They note that these beliefs do not necessarily need to be accurate as overestimation of one’s abilities can increase performance and persistence while underestimation can decrease persistence and effort (Bandura, 2007, cited in Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1721). The good news is that self-efficacy is not only developed by reflection on our own experiences but we can develop it through vicariously experiencing the success of others who have done similar work (Bandura, 1997 cited in Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1724). Here then is the rationale for the importance we place on developing social presence.

Learning Presence then is what the student brings (or not) to the classroom, the capacity for self-regulation and self-efficacy. This information is important to faculty because self-regulated learning is essential for learning online (Barnard, Lan, To, Paton, & Lai 2009, qtd. in Shea & Bidjerano 2012, p. 318). In addition, Shea & Bidjerano found that learning presence serves to mediate the other presences (p. 316) and is particularly necessary when instructor and social presence are low (Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, 1721).“The findings from this study underscore the importance of quality of teaching presence and social presence, but also the fact that rankings of cognitive gains are likely to depend on the characteristics the learner brings to the learning environment when quality of teaching or the quality of social interaction are low or inadequate. We conclude that online learner self-regulation, a concept we label “learning presence,” reflects these important characteristics” (Shea & Bidjerano, 2012, p. 324). Thus, student Learning Presence will need to be carefully monitored in order to identify the supports and action needed to scaffold self-efficacy via instructor and social presence.

The benefits of using the CoI framework to guide the design of online social work courses are significant. The CoI model promotes student engagement in collaborative active learning to meet required learning goals; utilizes instructor presence not only to curate content but, to facilitate the social and cognitive presence of learners; teaches students the processes and responsibilities of participating in peer supervision and professional learning networks; helps students develop metacognition and a self-reflexive practice. Subsequent researchers have defined the Community of Inquiry model as a learning group committed to “active group knowledge building” (Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt, 2006, cited in Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1722), with “designs that gradually assist learners to develop the language and skills of a disciplinary discourse community”(Shea & Bidjerano, 2010, p. 1722). We suggest that the CoI framework has particular application to social work because our students are developing the knowledge, language, values, and skills of our discipline and will be likely be learning in peer supervision groups and on interprofessional teams for the remainder of their professional careers. The CoI framework then becomes the sieve through which we ask, “Does this structure, activity, experience contribute to instructor presence, social presence,  learning presence, and/or cognitive presence?”

Steps in Online Course Development

Step 1: Curriculum Mapping

Armed with the principles of the CoI Framework, faculty developing online courses consult their school’s curriculum map. Most schools of social work have determined which competencies and behaviors from the CSWE 2015 EPAs are mapped to or covered in, which courses. The purpose of curriculum mapping is to determine gaps in coverage, discover any unnecessary redundancy, and scaffold knowledge and skills to ensure mastery of competencies and behavior by the completion of the program. This is particularly important for online course development because programs invest significant time and resources into curating content, planning learning activities and assignments, and writing instructions, scripts for instructor videos, and text for pages within the learning management system. They may also create digital media for student viewing and other course resources. Although courses can and will be revised, it is wise to plan ahead to avoid costly mistakes and faculty burnout.

Step 2: Competency Assessment

Next, the program determines how each competency and behavior will be assessed. CSWE (2018) requires two measures of each competency. One must include demonstration [of the competency or skill] in “real or simulated practice situations” (p. 5). The other measure may assess a dimension of learning. Dimensions of learning are identified by CSWE (2018) as “knowledge, values, skills, and/or cognitive and affective processes” (p. 5). For example, Competency 1: Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior requires social workers to “use reflection and self-regulation to manage personal values and maintain professionalism in practice situations” (CSWE, 2015, p. 7). The demonstration of this skill might occur in field placement if the student, Amy, is able to maintain a professional demeanor in session with a hostile adolescent, later she would discussing with her field instructor, Dr. Sage,  the personal feelings and values triggered for her in the session. Here Amy demonstrates her ability to “use supervision and consultation to guide professional judgment and behavior” (p. 7), another behavior related to this competency. In order to scaffold this learning, however, Dr. Sage may ask the student to identify the social work values she discussed in practice class. In doing this, she reinforces Amy’s learning in the knowledge dimension. She notes that Amy was able to maintain her composure and engage the adolescent in looking at the source of his anger. She explores any conflict of social work values with Amy’s own personal values. She explores the personal feelings triggered for Amy and wonders what she did with those while in session. Amy shares the initial sense of injustice and anger she felt in being treated so rudely but then, quickly realized she was watching transference in action. This led her to recount a small group discussion in practice class of members’ feelings and perceptions of a client in an assigned video. Group members were shocked to see how differently each of them perceived the same client, and this drove home the importance of recognizing the worker’s perceptions but remaining open to alternative perspectives. Both this practice class exercise and Dr. Sage’s discussion reinforced learning in the affective dimension and made use of affective and cognitive reactions to build competency.

Step 3: Designing Online Learning Activities

Domains of Learning

Faculty determine the necessary dimensions of learning, whether they be knowledge, values, skills, and/or cognitive and affective processes (CSWE EPAS, 2018) in order to design learning activities that lead students through a series of steps to facilitate mastery of competencies. Components of four seminal higher education theories are particularly valuable in online course development. These include knowledge of the domains and levels of learning (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia, 1964; Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001), adult learning principles (Knowles, 1980; Samaroo, Cooper, and Green, 2013), active learning strategies (Eison and Bonwell and Eison, 1991), and the flipped classroom model (Brame, 2013; King, 1993; Holmes, Tracy, Painter, Oestreich, and Park, 2015).

Students new to online learning sometimes ask,

“Why am I asked to share my feelings about this case scenario?”

“What?!   . . . You want us to record role-plays online?!”

When students ask these types of questions, it is useful to share information with them about the findings of educational researchers Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues who assert that learning occurs in three domains — the cognitive, affective and psychomotor (behavioral) domains (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia, 1964; Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001). Note the parallels with the CSWE (2018) dimensions, i.e. the cognitive domain to the knowledge dimension, the affective domain to affective processes, and the psychomotor domain to behavior or skills.

When students ask, “Why am I asked to share my feelings about class material?”, we explain, “You will continually be managing your emotions and behaviors in response to what you see and hear. Self-awareness is critically important so that your personal feelings do not short-circuit alternative perspectives and derail your  professional ‘use of self.’”

When students ask why they are required to role-play online, we respond with information about the CSWE (2018) requirement that they demonstrate the skills they will use in practice. These include skills in engagement, assessment, and intervention with clients or systems. We explain that they need to practice and it is acceptable to make a mistake. In fact, we recommend allowing students the opportunity to embed a mistake. It reduces anxiety about making a recorded mistake as no one will know whether it was intentional. Also, the discussion of mistakes offers additional valuable learning opportunities.

The design of learning activities and assignments to meet the CSWE (2018) dimensions of learning extend Bloom and colleagues (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia, 1964; Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) recommendation to create learning opportunities in each domain of learning.

Levels of Learning

It is often useful to share information with students about Bloom’s levels of learning as online discussions, particularly those in an asynchronous classroom, can seem more rigorous than spontaneous responses in a traditional on-campus classroom. Students may ask, “Why can’t I just say what I think in the discussion board? That’s what I used to do on campus. Do we have to plan an APA paper every week?”

We explain to students that they will have multiple opportunities to spontaneously share what they think with instructors and peers. However, in developing questions for discussion boards or VoiceThread, instructors may ask questions that require students to use increasingly higher levels of thinking in the cognitive domain. Benjamin Bloom (1956) developed a taxonomy of learning that proposed six levels in the cognitive domain: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (p.18). His work has stood the test of time. In 2001 Anderson and Krathwohl revised Bloom’s taxonomy, renaming the stages with the active verbs of remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create (p. 310). If instructors use the taxonomy to devise discussion questions, students are led from lower to higher levels of learning. The questions prompt them not only to recall course concepts, but to apply them accurately to practice, field or personal experiences, to break the concept into its component parts and analyze it, to integrate it with what they already know from other courses, their life experiences, or field, to critically think about and evaluate the concept, and sometimes to create new knowledge. Instructors also may create rubrics to encourage students to engage in higher levels of thinking. For example, students are required to post at least one response to a peer that offers new information, an alternative perspective, or additional resources. This fosters social presence and engages students in substantive participation within a Community of Inquiry that prepares them for participation in peer supervision and/or professional learning networks.

Adult Learning Principles

In his seminal work on adult education, The Modern Practice Of Adult Education: From Pedagogy To Andragogy, Malcolm Knowles (1980) observed unique differences in the way adults learn. Considering adult learning styles is particularly important in online education because many of our students come to us with significant work and life experience. Many have worked in human services for several years or are changing careers in mid-late life. Some are already licensed in other helping professions.

Knowles (1980) recognizes 1) the adult learner’s desire and capacities for self-direction, 2) the experiences he brings to his learning and the effectiveness of experiential learning with adults, 3) his awareness of his own learning needs that come from his desire to solve problems or accomplish goals, and 4) his desire to obtain competencies, i.e. knowledge, skills, and abilities that are relevant to his problems/goals (pp. 43-44). Note the congruence with social work’s competency model of education.

Samaroo, Cooper, and Green (2013) proposed a model that integrates the instructor’s responsibility to create both the learning environment and the learning experiences necessary to facilitate learning, with those characteristics of adult learners that motivate them to learn. They call their approach “pedandragogy,” a marriage of pedagogical and andragogical principles (p. 84). So what does this look like?

An instructor using adult learning techniques functions as a curator and facilitator of student learning. The instructor develops the course based on a master syllabus that addresses the designated competencies and behaviors for that course. He structures the learning environment and designs assignments and activities that facilitate student development of the competencies. The instructor is present online every week, sometimes daily, creating course materials such as screencasts and VoiceThreads,  opening activities, responding to emails, monitoring discussion boards, giving feedback, evaluating work, etc. However, with adult learning, the instructor has moved from the “sage on the stage to the guide on the side” (King, 1993, p. 1).

What is not happening? Students are not sitting passively, listening to instructor lectures that spoon-feed course content and unwittingly preclude the adult learner independently grappling with course material. This is not to suggest that instructors using adult learning principles never lecture, but if they do, the lectures are shorter and often occur to introduce or summarize the primary learning activity.

The shift in instructor role may require an explanation for those students accustomed to a traditional classroom environment. Some ask, “Am I teaching myself?” . . . until they recognize the depth of learning encountered through their participation in more active learning opportunities. Also, the shift may require a period of acclimation for instructors who may feel, “If I didn’t say it, I didn’t teach it.” However, it is helpful to remind both students and instructors that the emphasis in a classroom using adult learning strategies is on the student as the learner – not the instructor.

Active Learning

Central in online learning contexts is the understanding that learners must be active in their online learning experience (Marks, 2016). Some content simply cannot be learned by hearing someone talk about it. Interviewing is a good example. You can learn about interviewing from a lecture, but you must practice interviewing to develop the skill. One definition of active learning frequently quoted in the literature is, “active learning [is] defined as anything that ‘involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing’” (Bonwell and Eison, 1991, p. 19). Active learning includes student participation in activities such as discussion boards, small group presentations, case-based discussions, drama, role-plays, simulations, and games (Bonwell and Eison, 1991, pp. 38-47). Active learning is a natural fit for adult learners with their self-direction, desire to solve problems and accomplish goals, and desire to develop competencies (Knowles, 1980).

While students actively developing competence, another goal of active learning is to facilitate the development of metacognition about learning and how they best learn.  This helps to prepare them for participation in peer supervision, professional learning networks, and interprofessional collaboration.

The use of a variety of activities in the classroom appeals to students with different learning preferences and addresses principles of  Universal Design for Learning. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 defined Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a

scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that — (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient (UDL in the ESSA, February 17, 2016).

UDL guidelines recommend providing multiple pathways for student engagement in learning, instructor representation of content, and means for student expression of knowledge (About Universal Design for Learning, 2019).

The Flipped Classroom/Flipped Learning

The Flipped Classroom is a pedagogical approach an active learning strategy that creates an expectation that students prepare for class in order to participate in synchronous or asynchronous class activities.

According to Brame (2013), variations of the flipped classroom have been used since 1998, although the term gained popularity around 2009. One definition of Flipped Learning offered by The Flipped Learning Network (2014) describes Flipped Learning as:

“A pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”

– The Flipped Learning Network (2014, para 4).

According to Brame (2013), variations of the flipped classroom have been used since 1998, although the term gained popularity around 2009.  Brame explains, “This model contrasts from the traditional model in which ‘first exposure’ [to course material] occurs via lecture [or PowerPoints or videos] in class, with students assimilating knowledge through homework; thus the term ‘flipped classroom’” (Brame, 2013, para 2). Brame adds notes, “In terms of Bloom’s revised taxonomy ([Anderson & Krathwohl], 2001), this means that students are doing the lower levels of cognitive work (gaining knowledge and comprehension) outside of class, and focusing on the higher forms of cognitive work (application, analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation) in class, where they have the support of their peers and instructor” (para 2). Other authors link Flipped Learning to Active Learning, particularly interactive small group learning strategies such as utilizes interactive active learning activities with small groups such as Activities in the flipped classroom and activities are interactive with small group activities utilizing discussion boards, blogs, wikis, case scenarios and collaborative writing assignments in Google docs (Holmes, Tracy, Painter, Oestreich, & Park, 2015, pp. 216-218). The technologies used in the flipped classroom have been shown to  “promote social work students’ learning, increasing their comfort about technology and using computers, clarifying communication, enabling higher course satisfaction, and facilitating student collaboration in completing writing assignments” (Abell & Galinsky; Allwardt; Frey et al., Wolfson et al., cited in Holmes et al., p. 216).

Students have many assignments that they complete individually, but the flipped classroom strategy privileges “collaborative student active learning” (Holmes et al., 2015, p. 216), thus contributing to the development of learning communities. The flipped classroom model is especially effective in an online environment because it fosters the Community of Inquiry norm of social presence, requires student engagement with course content and peers, and captures the wisdom of class members who often bring new information, resources, and diverse perspectives from their life experiences or work in various areas of human service.

There are many benefits to this type of group work. Research has shown that students demonstrate “increase[d] academic achievement” (Day & Foley; Flumerfelt and Green qtd. in Holmes et al., p. 216). The technologies used in the flipped classroom have been shown to  “promote social work students’ learning, increasing their comfort about technology and using computers, clarifying communication, enabling higher course satisfaction, and facilitating student collaboration in completing writing assignments” (Abell & Galinsky; Allwardt; Frey et al., Wolfson et al., cited in Holmes et al., p. 216). Finally, as social work practitioners, students will be working in groups throughout their social work careers. Working in groups while they are in school will help them develop many skills they will need to function on interprofessional teams and within learning communities. The flipped classroom model is especially effective in an online environment because it fosters the Community of Inquiry norm of social presence, requires student engagement with course content and peers, and captures the wisdom of class members who often bring new information, resources, and diverse perspectives from their life experiences or work in various areas of human service.

As social work practitioners, students will be working in learning groups throughout their social work careers. Working in groups within the Flipped Classroom model will help them develop many skills they will need to function on interprofessional teams and within learning communities. The primary benefit of the model that we have noted is the requirement that students learn to embrace responsibility for their own learning. Students must read, listen to podcasts, or view videos on their own in preparation for participating in their small group learning activities. This affords them the opportunity to move from a primary dependence on the instructor for content regurgitation and interpretation to encounter a course concept first on their own, attempting to comprehend it, think about its application, consider it in light of what they already know, evaluate its potential usefulness and meaning for their practice as professional social workers. They come to class prepared to share with others in their learning group their understanding of course concepts to date, along with information, perspectives, and questions. This is sometimes a challenge as it requires student knowledge and acceptance of the notion of bearing primary responsibility for their own learning. Sometimes they need a cognitive frame or rationale for this approach. However, as they practice this week after week, they gradually learn to bring their professional selves to the classroom and embrace their roles as contributors to a professional learning community. This is exactly the process they will utilize as professional social workers and the Flipped Classroom model establishes this expectation as a norm of the discipline.  If the successful negotiation of this process is seen as a learning outcome, it requires the instructor to design each learning activity in order to include this process.

Step 4: Course Development

Armed with a list of course competencies and behaviors, master syllabus, and knowledge of effective instructional design of online learning, instructors begin the process of developing assignments and outlining each week’s learning activities. In many ways, this process is similar to outlining a traditional course taught face-to-face on campus. Many instructors will automatically seek to “migrate” their face-to-face activities to an online format and in some cases, this may be entirely appropriate, particularly when an activity has been successful. However, we recommend that each week’s activities be reconsidered within the context of the strategies recommended in Step 3: Designing Online Learning Activities as these strategies, coupled with the availability of new technologies, create some possibilities for learning not available in the face-to-face environment. For example, students may now participate in a role-play within a virtual world assuming an identity as an avatar of a different gender, race, ethnicity, appearance, or set of abilities! This is the point at which access to instructional designers and/or course builders can be especially helpful. Instructional designers may be able to suggest fresh activities to accomplish learning objectives. and work with faculty to develop a course outline and “storyboard” course pages so that the course builder can begin to create links to the instructor’s text or video overview of the week’s activities, to lists of weekly readings and/or videos, to interactive texts, to discussions within the course discussion board, VoiceThread, or FlipGrid. They also create pages for assignments with the instructions, resources, rubrics, etc. necessary to complete the assignment. Where instructional design and course building resources are not available, faculty typically use the tools housed within their university’s Learning Management System such as Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc.

Eventually, the course is ready to be piloted, hopefully, taught the first time by the faculty member who developed it. The course development process is an iterative process so that the course can be refined and updated over time, incorporating feedback from other instructors and students teaching the course, staying abreast of current challenges and integrating the findings of ongoing research about evidence-based practices and learning strategies and technologies.

Course Design for User Interface

We realize that Course Design for User Interface is an important topic related to course development but one that is beyond the scope of this chapter on instructional design. User experience of their navigation and use of the course has been shown to have an impact on self-efficacy (belief). It is also important to consider web accessibility within the user interface. There are a number of course design rubrics, such as the California State University, Chico Rubric for Online Instruction (California State University, Chico, 2019). Quality Learning and Teaching Rubric available at https://www.csuchico.edu/eoi/rubric.shtml Information about the rubric is available at https://www.csuchico.edu/eoi/  Another respected rubric is the Quality Matters Rrubric available for a fee (Quality Matters Rubric & Standards, n.d.). at https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards/higher-ed-rubric. Information about the Quality Matters Rubric is available at https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards  Rubrics are available specifically for higher education (Course Design Rubric Standards. (n.d.). A particularly useful open source rubric is the Open SUNY Course Quality Review (OSCQR). Information about rubric standards is available online (The Open SUNY Course Quality Review, n.d.) and a specific rubric is available for higher education (The Open SUNY Course Quality Review, n.d.). The rubric may be downloaded directly from the SUNY website (Get OSCQr, n.d.). ( at http://oscqr.org/get-oscqr/

Case Studies

Case Study 1

A small private institution in the Northeast offered a handful of online and blended courses before launching a hybrid program. In this setting online courses were defined as courses offered fully online with a combination of asynchronous and synchronous activities. Blended courses were defined as courses offered partially online and partially face-to-face on campus. The terms “blended” and “hybrid” are often used interchangeably. Both online and blended courses were developed in collaboration with instructional designers from the Faculty Center for Professional Excellence. An individual instructor designer worked with a faculty member who served as the Subject Matter Expert. The instructional designer was responsible for managing the course development timeline, and introduce novice faculty members to online learning pedagogy and provide pedagogical support in creating assignments and structuring the course. During the course development process, faculty were asked to sign a course development contract and incorporate best practices for online pedagogy. The Faculty Center for Professional Excellence conducted a quality assessment of each course before approving the course for launching.

VoiceThread Assignments. The incorporation of VoiceThread, a web-based platform that facilitates cloud communication activities allows students to establish a sense of community which has been consistently highlighted as a contributing factor for student persistence and satisfaction among online students (Delmas, 2017; Stodel, 2006). Several studies have linked a sense of connection among students who completed Voicethread assignments in their online learning environments (Ching & Hsu, 2013; Fox, 2016; Parise 2015). One study found that students who completed VoiceThread assignments compared to text-based discussion boards reported feeling higher levels of emotional connection (Praise, 2015). The use of VoiceThread in online courses has also been found to contribute to social presence among both college and graduate students (Pacansky-Brock, 2010; Smith, 2012), as well as-as a sense of community (Kirby & Hulan, 2016; Koricich, 2013).

VoiceThread assignments were incorporated throughout courses to establish both social, instructor and cognitive presences. VoiceThread assignments allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the course concepts, as well as interact with fellow students when responding to their Voicethreads. When using VoiceThread, students have the option of posting a video, audio, or text response, but requiring students to post a video response helps to bridge the digital divide among students. We typically require students to respond to at least two other students.

Group Assignments. Another example of quality instructional design is group assignments. Group assignments in online courses contribute to students interacting with each, as well as taking an active role in their education. Online learners must engage in independent learning which can leave them feeling isolated. Participating in group assignments facilitates group interaction and an exchange of diverse perspectives regarding the course content which can facilitate students’ understanding of the key course concepts.

Case Study 2

A School of Social Work in a large urban, public research university located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the east coast of the United States began to offer a hybrid part-time Distance Education option in 2011. Faculty interested in teaching in the DE option applied to the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence to participate in their summer Online Course Development Initiative.  Courses were designed and built by faculty in consultation with a CTE instructional designer who was available for consultation during the year after the faculty member’s completion of OCDI. All courses were created in Blackboard’s Learning Management System. Initial courses relied primarily on the course’s text-based discussion board and the Echo 360 video platform to record the instructor materials necessary to create the social presence and instructor presence needed to engage students in learning. In 2012 Blackboard integrated the web-conferencing tool Collaborate that created opportunities for group meetings through its video, text, and phone chat features and opportunities for students to record group presentations and role-plays, just in time for their enrollment in a skills-based generalist practice class. Since that time the university has integrated a number of tools within Blackboard, including the Kaltura video platform, Zoom, and VoiceThread. It also allows linkages to several other third party approved tools such as Flip Grid, Padlet, and Adobe Spark.

Engagement Points Assignment: VoiceThread Discussions of the Application of Family Theory Concepts to Practice

Students earn Engagement Points throughout the semester by participating in weekly learning activities related to course content. In the clinical specialization practice course, students prepare for class by completing assigned readings about a selected family therapy model and watch a video demonstration of a family therapy session utilizing the designated model. They come to the week’s asynchronous discussion in VoiceThread prepared to address a series of instructor-prepared questions asking them to identify and evaluate the application of course concepts at various points in the video. They also respond to at least one other group member’s post. Significant instructor presence is required to make this a meaningful learning activity. Counterintuitively, this happens primarily during the selection of the video and preparation of the questions. The selected videos typically have at least one provocative or challenging element that will require students to engage in critical thinking about a course of action — the use of touch, a potential ethical dilemma, etc. For example, in a discussion of Experiential Family Therapy, students are asked, “Describe how Satir uses family sculpting to create appropriate boundaries and a hierarchy in the family. What specific strategies does she use? Note: She uses 15 strategies so several of you may want to contribute to this slide.” The expected number of weekly posts was 34; this included 17 original posts and at least one response post per student. Students were highly engaged in this activity, sharing their cognitive and affective reactions throughout the discussion. The VoiceThread Discussion of Experiential Family Therapy garnered 57 responses. A question about her use of touch provoked 10 responses. Students demonstrated critical thinking as they considered the norms regarding touch during the time when Satir worked, how to touch may be regarded differently in other cultures, concerns about touch with those who have been traumatized, etc. There are several places in the VoiceThread where students moved past their personal feelings to look at her work from various perspectives and then settle on what they felt was appropriate or not appropriate for their own clinical practice in 2019. Similarly, a VoiceThread discussion of Group Therapy: A Live Demonstration provoked 74 responses as students considered the ethics of the group leader’s self-disclosure about his illness and the dual relationship with his former client, now a supervisee and group participant. At the same time, it created the social presence and cognitive presence required to consider the knotty problems we sometimes deal with in clinical practice.

Group Presentation on Clinical Practice with Groups:

For this assignment, students work with fellow students to create a presentation illustrating interventions in a treatment group for their group’s chosen population at risk. The purpose of this assignment is to strengthen their knowledge and skills in planning for and conducting groups, utilizing group intervention techniques/skills, and intentionally and consciously considering their “use of self” as a group facilitator. The assignment is conducted in stages over a period of approximately one month with instructor review of interim components.

Students first conduct a review of the literature that will inform their clinical work in the group with their chosen population at risk and serve as the basis of an annotated bibliography that will be posted for the class. They must include at least six references from peer-review journals (required) and other sources such as book chapters, website sources of scholarly literature, and course texts (optional).

Next, they develop a proposed outline for their group that includes a   description of the group and their reasons for choosing this population for study,  the purpose/focus of their group, and a description of the population served and their group setting. They also include information about whether the group is open or closed, the group’s stage of development (depicted in the role-play), the goals of their interventions, their theoretical orientation(s), and 2-3 selected intervention techniques with the rationale that they will demonstrate in an online scripted role-play. Students submit their proposed outline to their instructor for review and guidance. The approved outline is used also to introduce their presentation, along with an introduction of the “clients” in the role-play of their treatment group.

Students then develop a script for their role-play that demonstrates 2-3 selected techniques, the facilitator’s use of self in the group, and each group members’ reactions to the facilitator and each other. The purpose of the script is to ensure a realistic and accurate portrayal of the techniques. However, it also models what we do in clinical practice, i.e. we design interventions based on the needs of the group, plan how we will carry these out, anticipate group member responses, and plan our responses to anticipated barriers.

Next, students enact and record their scripted role-play online. They include a brief introduction of the “members” of their demonstration role-play group and share the information from their group outline regarding the purpose/focus of their group and a description of the population served and their group setting.

Students then conduct and post a 45-minute presentation online that introduces their treatment group,  briefly summarizes the findings from their literature review, and shares additional information from their outline about the goals of their interventions, their theoretical orientation(s), and 2-3 selected intervention techniques). They play the group’s recorded role-play that introduces their “group” members and demonstrates their selected intervention techniques. They conclude with a brief summary of their learning that may be different for each student.

Students were highly engaged in this activity. Their literature searches were robust, resulting in annotated bibliographies most often with double the number of references required. Their processes of critical grappling with the findings from their literature searches were documented in the suggestions and comments on a Google document each group used to develop their group outline. The same processes were evident as each member wrote their script and responded to the instructor’s suggestions and comments. This served to reinforce comprehension and appropriate application of course concepts to their treatment group. Several students turned out to be consummate actors, which served to inspire and engage other members of their workgroup and resulted in several compelling and touching moments in each recorded role-plays. As a follow-up to this assignment, students were asked s part of a weekly Engagement Points activity to post their answers to a set of questions regarding each group’s presentation in VoiceThread. The presentations provided the opportunity for learning about the application of techniques from several theoretical orientations to specific populations at risk. Most importantly, however, it afforded students practice in the process of group development, from the search for evidence-informed practices for specific populations through the critical thinking processes necessary to design and plan for intervention.


In this chapter, we have provided an overview of instructional design within a social work context and offered a  critical analysis and recommendations regarding the components of quality instructional design necessary to support optimum student learning and the development of competencies necessary for social work practice. We have reviewed several learning theories including adult learning principles, Bloom’s taxonomy with its domains and levels of learning, active learning, the flipped classroom, and the intentional development of the instructor, social, cognitive, and learning presences necessary to support the development of an effective learning community based on the Communities of Inquiry model. We have offered exemplars of innovative learning activities in two M.S.W. programs. Online learning in social work has become an incubator for collaborative learning, engagement, competency, and creativity!


Appendix A: Exemplars of Online Learning Activities

Exemplars of Online Learning Activities

Assignment Social Presence Instructor Presence Cognitive Presence Technology/


Discussion Board (DB) Responding to classmates-identifying strengths Design of questions & DB rubric, small grp. structure Application of course concepts to videos-offering alternative perspectives VoiceThread and/or text-based DB for some topics
Asynchronous Case Assessment Learning about various perspectives VideoAnt
Group Assignment – Case Study 1 Interacting with fellow students Google slides or PowerPoint
Group Assignment – Case Study 2 Interacting with fellow students Design of assignment & rubric, feedback on interim products Engagement in Application of literature for group design Google docs for outline, Video conferencing tool (role-play); Collaborate or VoiceThread (presentation)
Synchronous role play Interacting with fellow students Embed course concepts & challenges Video conferencing tool

Key Terms and Definitions

The community of Inquiry model – “a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social cognitive and teaching presence” (CoIFramework, n.d. Retrieved from  https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/

Distance Education– “Education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor synchronously or asynchronously.” (Allen and Seaman, 2017)

Instructional Design-“…teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age” (Bates, 2015, p. 1).

Learning Management System – “Data management software systems designed to deliver and manage educational courses and programs” (Suskie, 2018)

NASW Code of Ethics– “…a guide to the everyday professional conduct of social workers” (NASW, 2008)

Online Program Management–  A company that helps institutions bring their programs online, taking a share of tuition revenue in return

Pedandragogy  – “a model that promotes and encourages the development of effective learning environments where self-engaged learning by individuals of all ages can be fostered.” (Samaroo, Cooper, & Green, 2013)

Subject Matter Expert – a person “…who knows a great deal more than most learners and is thus in a position to ‘scaffold’ learning experiences by providing direct instruction.” (Anderson et al., 2001)


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Connecting the Dots: Improving Student Outcomes and Experiences with Exceptional Instructional Design Copyright © 2020 by Whitney Kilgore and Diane Weaver is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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