Dr. Amy Kapadia, PhD and Dr. Yamile Marti, PhD

Lecturer in Social Work at the Columbia School of Social Work  

Associate Professor of Professional Practice at the Columbia School of Social Work

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In Fall 2020, Drs. Kapadia and Marti collaborated with their colleagues Dr. Ellen Lukens (Sylvia D. and Mose J. Firestone Centennial Professor of Professional Practice); Dr. Katherine Shear (Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry); and Dr. Mary Sormanti, (Professor of Professional Practice), on the development of the hybrid course: Crisis in 21st Century Social Work. This course was designed to offer students field education opportunities at a time when many agencies had shut down. When describing the teaching innovation in ths course, Dr. Melissa Begg, Dean of the Columbia School of Social Work shared, “this course brought new tools and approaches to the fore, and some of those live on in our current curriculum. These changes also, in my view, wrought change at the level of the profession – with our accrediting bodies being open to more expansive ways to instill field competencies in students.” Read on to hear about this experience from Drs. Kapadia and Marti, on behalf of their collaborators. 

Design a New Hybrid Course to Leverage Technology and Meet the Learning Needs 

Field, the in vivo experience, is an important component of social work practice and learning. Early in the pandemic, we had 400 students without field placements. We were asked by our Dean to create a course that would provide students with an opportunity for field that they could engage in remotely. Given that our school offers multiple concentrations, from clinical practice to program development and policy, we designed the course with this in mind. The course brought theory and practice to the students. We came up with a curriculum that allowed students to engage in self-propelled learning and included synchronous and asynchronous online components. Students read and watched videos to acquire conceptual knowledge and engaged in live sessions and discussions. 

To ensure that students were getting the hours required for their degree program we had to have a tracking mechanism. CourseWorks (Canvas) was used to manage all the course content, attendance, participation, assignment completion, hours, etc. We expanded our understanding of CourseWorks (Canvas). We received great support from the Dean’s office and the School of Social Work IT Department in setting up the course site. 

Developing the course took a lot of our time and effort in Summer and Fall 2020, but it was a major learning opportunity for all of us. As clinicians, we want our students to be in the field but recognize that the online resources we put together could help them as they work in their field placement. The use of real-world resources beyond Columbia, examples and cases, providing collateral support while students are learning in the field, are things that we can do more often.  

Connect Students with Faculty Members Throughout the School

Students were invited to connect with Social Work faculty through live online sessions during which the faculty would share their work, their research and practice experiences, and skill sets needed as a social worker to do different types of intervention work. During these weekly sessions, students interacted professionally and personally with faculty members they may not have a class with.

Course content included timely topics and those important to the profession: power, privilege, oppression, and race; voting, because it was an election year; and advocacy, which is intrinsically linked to social work. Additionally, we offered sessions on grief, trauma, and narrative approaches given the stark realities of COVID-19. Students could choose from our asynchronous list of resources that included roughly a hundred options based on where their interest lied and wanted more skill development. We partnered with two larger entities: The Center for Prolonged Grief, where CSSW Professor Katherine Shear is the founder and director, and the Center for Practice Innovations of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. They gave our students online access to evidence-based practice, training, and the opportunity to earn certificates. 

Collaborate with Colleagues and Alumni to Support Student Learning 

It was an all hands-on deck collaborative experience. We hired a group of amazing associates. These were alums and they were our connections to the students. Our associates each took a group of students under their wing and held their own supervision-like experience every week. While students were engaged in several self-driven learning opportunities, the associates provided supervision and support. Students completed reflection-based assignments to ensure their participation and their learning. 

We would meet weekly with administrators of the Office of Advising, Student Services, and the Field Department. This holistic approach ensured that everyone working with the students was informed and shared information and discussed student feedback on the course. The Student Services and the Field Department would monitor who was being placed, who was not being placed, who was still going to be enrolled in the course, and they helped us with those logistics. 

Embrace Inclusive Moves to Enhance Student Engagement 

Make course content relevant and accessible. 

As instructors, we are committed to bringing social issues to the classroom. We made sure that our materials were up to date on issues that the students cared about and were going through and to provide resources. Issues included the pandemic, trauma responses, the U.S. election and its international repercussions, and the Black Lives Matter movement, among others. To ensure representation in creating the course, we included materials that considered multiple identities, race/ethnicity, diversity, oppression, power dynamics, and hierarchy. We were also mindful of accessibility. We worked with the Office of Disability Services to ensure that the videos we included in the course were accessible. 

We have this phrase “there are many ways of knowing” that we abide by. We ensure that we’re expanding the opportunity for students to acquire different kinds of knowledge. We provide students with options to go beyond looking at the evidence, to critiquing the evidence in terms of clinical interventions, and discuss in the classroom what needs to be done to meet the specific needs of the people we are working with. The students are craving to learn about up-to-date information, not only evidence-based scientific practice, but things that are tangible and real. As instructors we need to make sure that we are always bringing that into the classroom and considering this when we develop our course syllabi. 

We draw on a variety of course materials and engagement strategies: we use videos, roleplay, ask students to work through cases in small groups and have discussions. When we have students complete hands-on classroom experiences, it’s beneficial to their learning and a great segue into what they are doing in practice in the field. 

Offer choice and flexibility in student learning. 

The importance of being flexible and offering our students choice in their learning came to the forefront during the pandemic. This was especially true when students were faced with loss, caring for family members, or dealing with sickness themselves, and we needed to support them. Administrators and faculty are very attuned to the need to have a flexible classroom or syllabus, and to be as person-centered as possible in the way that we help support the needs of our students.  

While some courses have required readings, some faculty have provided options for students to choose from a list of what they would like to read. As we develop our syllabi, we can ask for student input on some of the topics. For instance, in our Human Behavior and Social Environment classes, we ask students to collectively choose a couple of topics that they are interested in and would like to focus on. Another way choice shows up is in assignments. Instead of assigning a literature review we might ask students to create a video assignment, or to work in small groups together and collaborate.

Foster community and presence online. 

In a world of teaching and learning with technology, there are certain things that you have to talk about with students. We created a guide to enhance the Zoom learning experience. This emerged as a need given that students were joining remotely from various spaces and conditions (e.g., trying to learn and be present given varying circumstances). We co-created community guidelines to create an environment balancing flexibility with the rigor of respecting learning from each other.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Communicate transparently with your students. 

Transparency in the process and communication with students is really important. Students were disappointed when they were not able to be in the field but it was beyond our control. Being able to communicate that on time and transparently, acknowledging that the course is not a full substitution for field but that it will address learning objectives and contribute to their learning experience, was important. 

Having the humility to say “I don’t know” in higher education is such a hard thing for many. As we developed the course, we didn’t always have the answers; we were doing this in a moment of crisis – it was a work in progress. Hybrid teaching was outside our comfort zone but became a labor of love. It was a lesson in humility. 

Collaborate and communicate with stakeholders. 

Pandemic teaching was a lesson on crisis preparedness. While it took us by surprise, it has given us an opportunity to plan ahead and to work as a collaborative community across faculty, administrators, and staff – all those that work with our students on a daily basis. Our work on the course reminded us of the importance of communication across all these actors and collaboration in support of student learning. 

Provide flexibility and be mindful of the needs of the learning community. 

Be attuned to the larger context and the way that might relate to students showing up in a classroom. Be mindful of where students are at, and check-in with them and with one another to make sure that self-care is happening. We needed to reinforce that through the course. Faculty and administrators needed to be flexible and supportive of the students, one another, and mindful of their own needs. 

Remember that our students and our faculty are real life human beings that have lives outside of their work, and that what goes on beyond the classroom impacts the work. It was valuable for us to keep this in mind and develop the course in a more humanistic way, where we allowed space for discussions that were difficult. We provided students with flexibility and academic rigor which were keys to their learning and success.

Leverage technology to expand and support teaching and learning opportunities. 

Technology can provide opportunities and choice in the way learning happens and also bridge the gap between in class learning and practice. We need to expand upon the technology piece. While it may not be our forte, it is something we are constantly working on, bringing more into the classroom to support student learning. 

The CTL does amazing things around instructional technology, and a number of our instructors have used the services a lot. All instructors can take advantage of these opportunities because it will allow us to provide more of the things our students need: flexibility, choice, the opportunity to expand knowledge, and engage in multiple ways of learning. This will prepare our students to be lifelong learners. 

Connect with others in the community across campus. 

Connecting with each other was important early on in the pandemic because everyone was so isolated. In the field course, we set up opportunities for students to connect. For example, students were encouraged to use Whatsapp groups, Slack, and other tools. A lot of students continue to work in groups for projects virtually which is beneficial because it helps them with scheduling. 

Another piece that could benefit learning is to have a larger footprint within our community, and be more deliberate in working with the community that surrounds our campus, acknowledging the strengths and assets within that community, and tapping into those resources and vice versa – giving back in a lot of ways that enhance learning in the real world.