Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)


Almost half of social work students enter their program with a history of mental health diagnosis and exposure to multiple childhood traumas. Over half of students at four-year institutions are enrolled in one or more courses online, yet retention in online coursework is much lower than in in-person courses. As online programs continue to grow in the field of social work it becomes a vital requirement to address the psychosocial needs of online learners. The call of this capstone is to examine how universities and colleges of social work can meet the increasing need to improve course work and service delivery so those enrolling online have the same opportunities from their university and colleges of social work as students attending in-person courses.

A systematic literature review was conducted to answer the research question "Are universities and colleges of social work meeting the needs of their online learners?". After inclusionary criteria were met a total of 12 articles were fully analyzed. The literature review revealed that building relationships and connections are essential to the retention and satisfaction of online learners. Universities are not consistently providing the same access to support services to their online learners as they are in-person learners. The review exposed a significant gap in research examining the psychosocial needs of social work students in online programs.

The conceptual paper explored Tinto's Theory of Retention and Social Identity Theory to facilitate understanding of the psychosocial needs of online learners and through the examination of the two theories, a new concept of Retention through Social Identity was developed. The concept was formulated to enable a deeper connection with peers, faculty, and the university and support from the college of social work. This concept creates a four-pronged approach for supporting, connecting, and building relationships with online learners to meet their psychosocial needs and improve retention.

The application paper identified and outlined implementing interventions informed by the information gathered from the systematic literature review and through the lens of the theories explored in the conceptual paper. Training for social work educators, course design tailored toward relationship building, adjustments to policies, and hiring of support staff through the college of social work to serve as case managers and facilitators of connection where recommended interventions aimed at meeting the psychosocial needs of online learners. While these interventions are important components based on the information that is known about retention, relationship building, connection, and the mental health needs of social work students.

The conclusions of the three works reflect the need for universities and colleges of social work to build access and specialized support services for their online learners. This is especially important given the steady increase in enrollment in online programs, the understanding that online learners are balancing multiple responsibilities that make online programming attractive, and the high rates of mental health concerns associated with social work students. Creating a higher level of need for support, relationship building, and education offered that is tailored to meet their psychosocial needs.

Available for download on Friday, May 17, 2024