Skip to main content

Director of Digital Learning and Instruction Tina Souders discusses new online MSW program

Chris Hilburn-Trenkle, UNC School of Social Work, Posted on March 25, 2024


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work welcomed its first cohort for its newly established Online Master’s of Social Work program in January 2024.

Following more than seven years of dedicated planning and execution, 44 students, ranging from stay-at-home parents to attorneys to social workers, joined the School of Social Work.

We spoke with Director of Digital Learning and Instruction Tina Souders, who played a key role in modeling, planning and implementing the online program, to learn more about the program’s conception, the important needs it will address around the state, and more.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to finally have the program ready after all that planning leading up to it?

Personally, I’m ecstatic. It took a lot of planning by many people to make it happen. I am not only ecstatic, but also relieved because it was our first time building something like this from scratch. You don’t know if everything is going to work out, but it did! Pride, relief and excitement would be the words I would probably use.

What did the process entail for laying the groundwork and beginning the transition to setting up this online program?

The process was lengthy, beginning years ago when the School first discussed adding flexibility to our MSW curriculum. Over the years, several task forces evaluated the feasibility of an online option, so the idea was not new. It had been under consideration for quite some time. We were moving toward this direction with faculty approval, but then COVID-19 hit, causing delays in our plans. However, the arrival of Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson truly reignited our efforts in this direction.

The really intense planning and groundwork began in June of 2022, initiated by Dean Ramona’s call for an ideation session with the School’s leadership. These efforts shifted into detailed planning and modeling by fall 2022, involving numerous meetings and extensive strategizing. We submitted proposals to the University and the Graduate School, which were eventually approved by the System Office. We also completed the new delivery format proposal for CSWE (Council on Social Work Education), our accrediting body, for approval. In the fall and early spring of 2023, we began modeling our implementation plans by asking questions like “What are the courses going to look like?” “What is the admissions process?” “What are some policies we have to pay attention to?” Much of our modeling work was completed in the spring of 2023. We received approvals from the System Office and CSWE in late spring/early summer of 2023 and then launched our application portal and website in August of 2023. The pace was swift and supported significantly by the Office of Digital and Lifelong Learning (DLL). They remain instrumental in developing our courses and offered considerable consultation along the way. Our successful launch in January was a major achievement. A lot has happened since June of 2022, but it went fast.

What numbers have you seen as far as the MSWs bestowed across the state every year versus the number of retiring MSWs and the growing need that this program helps to provide?

The number of degrees conferred across the state is low, and the social work profession is aging. I don’t know the exact number of retirees, but there’s not only a gap from the number of degrees that are conferred, but also an increased need across our state and country for social work services. Growth projections are set to widen this gap further, alongside the increasing number of retirees and the presence of underserved areas within the state. Multiple factors are impacting the need for more qualified and trained professional social workers.

What initial feedback have you heard from students in the first cohort and how does that make you feel as someone who helped make the program a reality?

We sent the first inaugural cohort students a four-week check-in survey and we’re still culling through that, but in general the students remarked the quality of the program was excellent. They were creating a sense of community, which is important in a program that’s primarily asynchronous, with three synchronous sessions. We really wanted to make sure there was a sense of connection. Students seem really happy with the content and the professors thus far.

The faculty teaching this first cohort solicited student feedback on a mid-semester evaluation and they’re culling through that feedback too. I believe we’ll be able to incorporate some of the suggestions faculty received into subsequent courses, and also pass along some valuable tips to the faculty who will be teaching in the summer and fall. It seems there is considerable appreciation for the amount of work that was put into the courses.

Given the initial success of the program are there any particular next steps?

The program has been launched, yet we are still developing courses. Although we just launched three courses, there’s 62 credit hours to the degree, in addition to two concentrations, meaning we have many courses yet to develop. This development will occur over the next few years. We are considering which electives and practicum placements to offer, so student feedback will be invaluable in these areas. Interim Associate Dean for MSW Education, Andrea Murray-Lichtman, along with the practicum team, is currently reviewing the practicum planning guides. So, while our initial success and launch was successful, we are actively working to build the capacity of our School to serve all students and continue to leverage our partnerships on campus with DLL.

Is there anything you would like people to know about the dedication and work of those at the School that went into creating this program?

Stefanie Panke, our digital pedagogy coach, and Rich Stewart, our instructional technologist, have been pivotal in supporting Canvas development and faculty support, from design to just-in-time assistance during teaching. Their efforts deserve recognition. Catherine MacAllister, our lead instructional designer with DLL, plays a crucial role in uniting all aspects of course development.

Sarah Naylor, associate dean for student affairs, and Carly Walters, coordinator of student affairs, have been essential in supporting student success, with Carly also taking on the role of interim student success coach. Registrar Beth Sauer ensures students have a smooth registration process and facilitates online course evaluations.

I owe much to Evi Taylor, former associate dean for MSW education, for her foundational support, alongside Sharon Thomas, assistant dean for recruitment, admissions, and financial aid, and her team, including Caroline Blessing, for their work in admissions.

Our IT and facilities support, led by IT Manager Phil Kaufman, Technology Support Technician Thaddaeus Edwards, and Facility Planner Sam Deal, have been invaluable in providing the necessary infrastructure and resources.

This initiative would not have been possible without the strategic leadership of Dean Ramona, the financial oversight by Joe DiConcilio, assistant dean for finance and administration, and the efforts of Barbara Wiedemann, assistant dean for strategic communications and marketing, and Chloe Yopp, social media content producer, in marketing and communications.

Last but not least, our faculty have been instrumental in enriching the curriculum with their feedback, tireless work on course development, guest lectures, and committee input. This success is a testament to the collective effort and dedication of so many individuals.  While this list highlights key contributors, many more have played vital roles. It’s truly a school-wide effort, and I am grateful for everyone’s contribution.

Comments are closed.