Embracing Virtual Social Work Practice with CoI

Social Work Practice in the Virtual Realm

Although it has been four years since the onset of COVID, the pandemic continues to affect the ways social workers, educators, and clinical supervisors engage in our work. Many social workers have moved back to fully in-person services, some remain fully online, and others now work in a hybrid model. Educators at all levels continue to balance the opportunities and responsibilities of teaching in person and in online and virtual learning environments.

There are pros and cons to delivering services in the virtual realm but the question isn’t  if  we should provide services online. In my opinion, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

In March 2020, my entire professional life transitioned to and remains in the online and virtual realm. I teach in a fully online MSW program at Walden University. All of my services in my private practice are virtual. The online and virtual environment has become the medium through which I foster growth, learning, and connection.

As a clinical social worker, supervisor, and educator, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of social work practice conducted virtually.

My virtual services include individual and group clinical supervision and training on topics like supervision, groupwork, and therapeutic writing. I recently developed the Virtual Conversation Cards platform for those facilitating virtual groups, and create additional useful tools for social workers and clinical supervisors and make them available online (printables, conversation card decks, journals).

How to Ensure Effective Virtual Social Work Services

Services and tools for social workers are now more available and accessible online than before virtual options existed so readily.  However, accessibility does not ensure effective services. We must ask ourselves not if we should offer services online – we should ask  how do we ensure our online/virtual services are  delivered effectively?  

To answer this question, I encourage you to consider drawing from the Community of Inquiry framework to inform and support effective virtual meeting practices in your work. By embracing the CoI framework in our virtual social work practice, we can unlock a world of possibilities for effective virtual service delivery.

Community of Inquiry Framework (CoI) to Guide Virtual Groups and Meetings

One way to improve the delivery and outcomes of virtual services is to ensure practices are rooted in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. This framework was developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer in the late 1990s at the onset of online and distance education. Although their focus was rooted in higher education, this framework provides clear guidance for facilitating meaningful online interactions in the virtual context of social work, clinical supervision, mental health services, support and therapy groups, and professional development training.

The CoI Framework – Three Essential & Interdependent Elements:

  1. Cognitive presence refers to the ability to construct meaning, support critical thinking, and opportunities for reflection. In our virtual settings, this means creating opportunities for deep discussion, collaborative problem solving, and reflection about the content focus for the group. In social work supervision groups, this means a focus on social work knowledge, values, and skills essential to our profession. In a support group for LGBTQ+ people, this means a content focus on issues relevant to the group participants.
  2. Social presence refers to the sense of community and interpersonal connections within the virtual space. Building social presence requires intentional efforts to cultivate trust, empathy, and authentic interactions among participants and to help participants project their individual personalities in the group. Nurturing social presence is essential for creating a safe and supportive learning environment. There are many ways to do this in the virtual space, but it requires intentionality and proactive efforts on the part of the facilitator to help participants find their presence in the group.
  3. Teaching presence refers to the design, facilitation, and direction of online learning experiences. As virtual practitioners and educators, we must carefully structure our sessions, provide clear instructions, and actively engage with participants to ensure that learning objectives are met effectively.

By employing these three key elements, we can gather participants from diverse communities, foster a sense of connection and belonging, create group cohesion and inclusive spaces where everyone’s voice is heard and valued.

Whether we’re facilitating a clinical supervision group, leading an online class discussion, facilitating a support or therapy group, or delivering virtual training, the CoI framework serves as a compass, helping us foster deeper and increased engagement, meaningful connections, and transformative therapeutic and learning experiences.

Learn More Facilitating Virtual Groups Effectively with CoI

I will continue to embrace the power of virtual work and ground my work in the CoI Framework. I hope you will, too. Earlier in the pandemic, I offered an hour-long lunch & learn through the Center for Practice Transformation about how we can improve our meeting facilitation skills by drawing on the tenets of the Community of Inquiry model. 

You can view that recorded session here purchase 1 CEU after watching:  

Together, we can navigate these ever-evolving times with resilience, compassion, and a shared commitment to advancing our social work practices in the virtual realm.  You can read more about the work of Garrison, Anderson, and Archer here: