Supervision of social work field practicum: A distance learning model

This article was first published in Indian Journal of Open Learning, 2012 issue.


Social work as a profession started during the later part of the nineteenth century in
Europe and in U.S.A., and training in this field, as a fulltime program in different institutions
and universities started from the earlier part of the twentieth century. Charity Organization
Society (first formed in 1869 in London, U.K., to organize charity and prevent indiscriminate
alms giving and duplication of resources) played a key role in starting the profession,
and it was influenced to a great extent by the works of Mary Richmond (Kendall, 2000).
In India, education in social work started in the year 1936 with the establishment of the
first school of social work called ‘Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work’
presently known as TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences). As the profession progressed,
many organisations were formed to set the standards for this profession, and to regulate
the education of social work as a discipline in educational institutions, like the National
Association of Social Work (NASW), the Association of Schools of Social Work in India
(ASSWI), the National Association of Professional Social Workers in India (NAPSWI) at the national level, and the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) at the
international level.
Initially the programmes in social work were offered in the conventional education system
but with the advancement of technology and the changing needs of the learners, the
program began to be offered in the open and distance learning system in the U.K., U.S.A.,
and Australia. In India, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) offers social
work program in the open and distance (ODL) mode initially at the undergraduate level,
and later at the post graduate level.

Factors favouring social work education in distance mode in India

Supervision of field practicum means to teach the learners the art and practice of effective
social work. It is a helping process in the social work profession, where the students put
their theoretical knowledge into practice and the supervisor helps them to use and apply this
knowledge skilfully and carefully. It has a specific contribution in the development of pro￾fessional capability among learners. Singh has defined supervision as “a two way process
between supervisor and the supervisee in which supervisor, instructed, enabled, guided,
supported, and communicated with the learner in his quest for developing professional
social work skills, knowledge, and attitudes.” (Singh, 1985).
Fieldwork supervision has the following two important components;
i) Supervision by faculty members
ii) Supervision by the practitioners or agency supervisors.
The faculty members guide the learners in understanding the concepts, philosophy, principles, and techniques of practice, and, the worth of social work practice. In other words, the faculty supervisors help the learners to strengthen their theoretical knowledge and conceptual clarity so as to apply these theoretical concepts during practice. On the other hand, the agency supervisors guide the students in the use of the techniques, skills, and methods in the field by providing services to the needy and in problem solving with the helpless.
According to Munson, “Supervision should be a mutual sharing of questions, concerns,
observations, speculations, and selection of alternative techniques to apply in practice”
(Munson, 1993, p.12).
Supervision in social work is a highly interactive process and its effectiveness depends on
the quality of the relationship between the supervisor and the supervisee (Cohen and Laufer, 1999). Thus, the face-to-face component in supervision becomes an important aspect which is common in the conventional system.
Many universities across the globe like Florida State University (U.S.A.), Charles Sturt
University, Australia, Cleveland State University and the University of Akron offer social
work programmes through ODL and have their own models of supervising and guiding
learners in field work. In most cases, the supervisors and learners are at a distance, and the learning is assisted by the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology). For instance, at Florida State University, the learners are given online instruction by the faculty members and are helped during their internship by local field advisors. At Charles Sturt University, the programme is offered at distance by the use of ICT through the regional centres of the university. The learners are supervised by the university staff, and, where possible, the university contracts out field visits to local universities or senior social workers.

Cleveland State University and the University of Akron, jointly offer social work programmes
in the distance mode. The supervision of field practicum is done by the faculty while administration is handled by field education coordinators at each site. At IGNOU, the learners are supervised by the field work supervisors assigned by their respective study centres of the university with the guidelines provided by the faculty.
A number of studies have been conducted related to social work education in ODL (Alston,
2007; Horwath and Shardlow, 2009; Crowell and McCarragher, 2007; Collins, 2007), and
authors vary in their views regarding the effectiveness of ICT in assisting supervision of

field practicum. Some authors advocate for it (Horwath and Shardlow, 2009; Noble, 2006). A
few have criticised it (Swain, 2007; Huntington and Sudbery, 2005); and, some have recom￾mended a balance between distance and the face-to-face aspect (Madoc-Jones and Parrott,
2005; Waldman and Rafferty, 2008; Siebert and Spaulding-Givens, 2006; Panos et. al., 2002)
in social work field education. Pawar (2000) prepared a proposal for social work program
through ODL and gave justifications for starting social work through ODL in India. The
author has explained the term ‘distance education’ and highlighted that social work insti￾tutes are unevenly distributed in the country. Further, they are mainly situated in the urban
centres, which make the affordability and accessibility of the program difficult for people
living in rural and remote areas where the profession of social work finds much scope. He
has also stressed the need for expanding social work training at certificate, diploma, and
degree levels. He goes on to make a SWOT analysis of social work education through
distance education, and, finally presents some workable suggestions to take the initiative
for implementing the proposed project.
IGNOU offers social work programmes, both at undergraduate and post graduate levels,
through the open and distance learning mode. The programmes are offered through the
university’s regional centres and study centres spread across the country. Students can
choose their own regional centre as per their convenience, and the regional centres assign
the learners a study centre within that particular regional centre where a social work program
is offered. Academic counsellors appointed by the university teach the learners through the
contact classes or counselling sessions. A field work supervisor, whose minimum qualifica￾tion is a Masters degree in social work, is assigned to each learner of social work to guide
learners in their field practicum. The learners have to meet their field supervisor at the study
centre for guidance. A minimum number of individual conferences and group conferences
(two important components of practicum supervision) are required during the period of field practicum which is 25 days per year in the case of undergraduates, and 45 days in the
Masters program. The learners are granted flexibility in completing their field practicum. The practicum can be completed along with theoretical part. This can be completed first and then, later, the practicum or vice versa, as per the learners’ convenience. The learners are
supposed to write the report of their field practicum in the field work journal provided to
them along with the printed study material. The field work supervisors assigned to learners
at the study centre check the reports in the journal and provide their comments. In ODL, the
learners get the opportunity to take the initiative for their own learning under the guidance of the field work supervisors who arrange placements in accordance with the learning needs, as well as areas of interest to the students. The field work supervisor is expected to identify the agencies, or, the learners themselves can identify the agency, which has to be a formal organisation, for their practicum. The placement of the learners in the agency is facilitated by the study centre coordinator who contacts the agency personnel for the placement of the learners in the agency for their field practicum.
Though the students are not directly supervised by the faculty at the IGNOU Headquarters,
there is external and internal supervision in field work for social work program i.e., field work
supervisor assigned by the study centre and the IGNOU faculty respectively. The guidelines
are set by the faculty members. These are to be executed by the field work supervisors at the
study centres, thus retaining the face-to-face aspect of practicum supervision of the
conventional system which has been strongly advocated by many scholars. The learners
can be in contact with the faculty at Headquarters through email, phone, or, by other means

Mail and the use of ICT have contributed in bringing the learners and the teachers in direct
contact with each other to a great extent.
Through IGNOU, students from far flung areas can be trained in social work which would
have been a challenging task for the conventional system of education. Though the system has been successful up to a great extent, it also faces some challenges in the supervision of field practicum which need to be overcome.

Challenges the for supervision in ODL


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