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As Placement Sites Shuttered Their Doors, 2U Launched the VFX to Ensure Social Work Students Could Continue Their Studies Uninterrupted

Written by Jessica Wang on Oct 28, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Technology, Digital Education

Many of us will forever remember the second week in March 2020 as the week the United States began to grind to a halt in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Events were canceled, stay-at-home orders went into effect and, significantly, university campuses began to shutter classrooms and dorms, turning to emergency remote learning plans that made Zoom a household name.

While many universities were able to pivot, albeit not always successfully, higher education programs that required hundreds of hours of in-person, hands-on learning experiences to graduate and, in many cases, gain licensure, threatened to shut down. This meant that students pursuing a Master’s in Social Work degree who are required to spend 900 or more hours in social service agencies supporting individuals in crisis situations could no longer secure placement and complete their degree.

At 2U, we saw this looming crisis coming and knew we could find a way to support our university partners and create a sustainable solution that would enable social work students to graduate on time. Innovation sparked in the form of the Virtual Field eXperience (VFX), an immersive experiential learning opportunity for social work students to practice their skills as counselors with live actors who simulate clients.

Developed and implemented in just 10 weeks, the VFX was designed to replace the first year of field placement required for social work programs. Built with the learning dimensions and principles of 2U’s Learning Experience Framework in mind to make it a better field experience, the simulation course combines 80% asynchronous content with 20% synchronous content.

Unique to the VFX, the asynchronous content is dynamic and adapts to the learner’s inputs as their skills grow. I describe this to colleagues using the analogy of my favorite series of books when I was a kid: “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Each student can select a different method of counseling a client but meet the same social work competencies.

Then, it’s prime time: students attend synchronous, live online sessions with a professor, their classmates, and a highly-trained actor who plays the role of a social work client presenting the same circumstances and crises an actual client would in real life. During these sessions, students also have the opportunity to do what they can’t do in a traditional scenario: practice the skills and strategies they learned with the actor in a supervised setting. The learning experience is enhanced by this safe space to shine, or at times stumble, with real-time feedback from classmates and the professors.

Having this option for beginning students has several benefits, not the least of which include the opportunity to better understand the profession, and what might most interest them in an on-site placement.
— VFX Pilot Partner

The VFX provides hard to place students with access to a quality placement experience, allowing them to continue their studies without interruption. And the controlled environment to measure and assess student competencies in core skills creates an adaptive and dynamic learning experience tailored to curricular needs. Preliminary results show that VFX students performed as well, if not slightly better, on competency measures than traditional students, suggesting it’s a viable option for the future. Students and faculty agree—the VFX is an effective, high-quality experience that ensures students gain the skills to become successful social workers. So like many innovations that took off during the pandemic, the VFX is here to stay.

Social workers are more in demand than ever as both the pandemic and social injustice have shaken people and communities across the nation. Filling these critical roles in society by providing access to a great education from world-class universities has long been a part of 2U’s mission to eliminate the back row in education. We are as committed today as we will be tomorrow to working with our partners to train social workers dedicated to service, social justice, and integrity, and providing a high-touch, high-tech way to do so creates the 2U difference.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.