By: Gary S. Stofle, ACSW, CSWR, CASAC, and Shavone Hamilton, CSW
Fall 1998, Vol. 5, No. 4
Online Supervision for Social Workers
by Gary S. Stofle, ACSW, CSWR, CASAC, and Shavone Hamilton, CSW
In September 1997, Shavone Hamilton began a social work internship at Saint Vincent' Westchester in Harrison, New York while in the MSW program at Fordham University. Gary Stofle was assigned as her supervisor. In the first exploratory supervisory sessions, they found out both of them were “online”-they had accounts on America Online (AOL) and they regularly signed onto the service and communicated with others through chat rooms and e-mail. In addition, Gary had been providing online psychotherapy since December 1996 with a client in a chat room on AOL.
As they began to decide upon scheduling supervisory sessions, they discussed the possibility of conducting some supervisory sessions online. They both found the idea convenient, because they each spent a certain amount of time each day online. They also found the idea exciting because no current literature in social work or psychology explored an interactive, chat room model of supervision. They wanted to add to the social work knowledge base by seeing if supervision conducted online could work. Shavone sought and was granted permission from Fordham University for one hour face-to-face supervision and one hour online supervision each week. They began their online work on October 7, 1997, and met weekly online until May 1998, when Shavone completed the MSW program. The following is their account of this experience.
The Process of Online Supervision
Options included in America Online make it quite easy to conduct online supervision. AOL has an option called “Buddy List,” which can easily be edited to include the screen name of any other AOL member. We added each other' name to our Buddy Lists and so knew when the other was online. We would sign onto the service at the scheduled time. Gary would send an instant message (IM) to Shavone and ask if she was ready to start supervision. Shavone would reply in the affirmative, and Gary would send her an invitation to a chat room to begin the supervision (chat room invitations are another option on the Buddy List). We simply clicked the “go” button and we both would be in the same private chat room.
Once in the chat room, we started the work. As in face-to-face supervision, we exchanged pleasantries and then decided on the focus of the supervision session. Gary generally asked Shavone where she wanted to start and we went from there. Shavone provided process recordings weekly, and those were often the focus of the supervision, both face-to-face and online. At other times, situations would occur that were not the subject of a process, but deserved immediate attention, and we would focus on those situations. We identified clients only by their initials, in order to preserve confidentiality (which will be discussed in more detail later).
In addition to our scheduled online supervision sessions in real time, we sent e-mail back and forth regarding work assignments, clients, and other issues. We maintained confidentiality in e-mail in the same way we did in the chat room-using only initials and no identifying information.
Requirements for Effective Online Supervision
In order to derive the maximum benefit from the process of online supervision, both the supervisor and student should meet certain criteria:
• Have skill in navigating online.
• Have basic typing and spelling skills.
• Be able to express self in the written word.
• Be able to express concepts/ideas without the use of non-verbal cues.
• Have excellent communication skills.
Basic skill in online navigation is quite easy to learn and master. AOL has devised the Buddy List to be user friendly, and in a relatively short period of time a person with at least some computer background can set up online supervision.
Each participant in this process needs basic typing and spelling skills-neither of which can be quickly and easily learned if you don’t already possess these skills. Since text is the means of communication, if you must spend minutes physically typing out a response, the flow of the communication changes and could be misinterpreted as being distracted by outside elements or as a non-response. If you misspell words, your communication can have an entirely different meaning from what you intended. With the absence of the non-verbal cues, the potential for miscommunication is great and can have quite an impact on this process.
The participants in this process need to be able to express themselves well through the written word. What we’ve found is that it' not so much that you have to communicate in complete sentences; it' that you have to choose words that get the meaning you want across in the most clear and succinct manner possible.
Online interaction does not allow for the use of non-verbal cues. Many of us use our hands, voice intonation, and so on to provide important components of our communication. Online, adjustments have to be made to take into account the limitations of text-only communication. On the other hand, abbreviations and certain characters that are quite succinct can powerfully express feelings and add tone to the communication. Examples of some of these characters are listed below:
BTW By The Way
BRB Be Right Back
LOL Laugh Out Loud
OTOH On The Other Hand
SO Significant Other
TTYL Talk To You Later
In the chat rooms on AOL, there is a text box on the screen that shows the viewer all people who are in the chat room. This is an important feature and helps make online discussions secure. What is said in a chat room is not recorded by AOL; however, the discussion can be recorded by participants in the chat using the “logging” feature (another option on AOL). In spite of the security that comes from knowing no other people are in the room with us, we decided to identify clients only by initials. Of course, we both knew which clients were assigned to Shavone, so it was not a problem when Shavone would say, “I need to talk about my individual session with G. today.” We were able to talk meaningfully and in depth about this client without revealing any demographic data.
We also communicated via e-mail about clients, events that occurred while Gary was on vacation, and other significant practice/supervision issues that arose between supervision periods. Initials only were used to identify clients when sending e-mail. We found that using initials to identify clients via e-mail protected confidentiality. Additionally, each member account on AOL can be accessed only with a password. Also, AOL allows for “preferences” regarding e-mail. Individuals can choose not to save e-mail in the archives AOL offers for each account. Choosing to save e-mail in archives makes old e-mail messages available on the computer' hard drive without a password, unless they are saved in a program like Word 97, which has a password protection feature for any file.
Privacy and boundaries can emerge as issues for those involved in online supervision. The use of Buddy Lists on AOL lets anyone who has your screen name know when you are online. The Instant Message feature allows one person to send a message to another person in real time without the sender knowing if the receiver is involved in another activity online. This was not a problem for us during our online supervision, probably because of the respect we have for one another. It is conceivable that boundary issues or violations can occur in an online supervisory relationship. Both the supervisor and the student simply need to set appropriate limits and express their level of comfort regarding instant messages at times other than scheduled supervision.
Some disadvantages to providing supervision online are noted below:
- Lack of non-verbal cues. We depend, at least in part, on the sum of all the person' reactions, including all the cues that are non-verbal. It takes some getting used to in relying only on the written word and certain characters to express feelings.
- Technical problems with the online process. When signing onto AOL, busy signals may prevent one from signing on, or the network may be slow, for example.
- Typing-if either supervisor or supervisee has problems with typing, it can really slow the process down and make it uncomfortable.
- Space limitations-if the message is particularly detailed, it can’t be sent all at once and the other person can respond to only part of the message.
- Silence/inactivity between typed sentences can be interpreted as the other being distracted or not paying attention, instead of thoughtful or respectful silence.
- Distractions-if you are typing at home, your spouse or other family members can be unaware that you are in the middle of a supervision session and seek your attention.
The advantages to online supervision are noted below:
- Simplicity-online supervision is a simple and straightforward process for those who are familiar with online navigation and who have good typing skills.
- Convenience-supervision is done in the comfort of one' home or office. No travel is involved.
- Ease of expression-some issues are easier to express online as opposed to face-to-face. An example noted by Shavone was discussing countertransferential issues online. Shavone discussed the feelings that were brought up in her related to a client who was having a particularly difficult time staying sober over the Christmas holidays. As she said, “Some things are easier to write than to say.”
- Permanency-each can keep a permanent record of the entire supervisory session. This can be used as a reference in regard to information given in the session or with any follow up that is needed.
Shavone: This form of supervision was appealing and easy to adapt to because of my familiarity with AOL' online service and options. Another aspect that made this process work was the face-to-face supervisory relationship. The pre-existing supervisory relationship created a comfortable atmosphere in the online process.
When Gary offered feedback and learning material, I had references from face-to-face sessions that helped with any potential misunderstandings of content. I knew how to interpret his suggestions from previous face-to-face supervision.
Online sessions were just as productive as face-to-face sessions. Lack of non-verbal communication cues made the expression of certain emotions difficult, but where non-verbal cues were needed, words were substituted. For example, if I am having difficulty expressing a complicated situation for a client during face-to-face supervision, Gary will take notice of my facial expression, my posture, or a gesture I make with my hands and try to help me focus the presentation. However, during online supervision, this is not possible. If there is difficulty with expression, this has to be written in order for the other party to know of the difficulty. If I was confused about a particular suggestion, I typed a message asking for clarification. If I agreed with a suggestion, instead of nodding, as I would do in person, I wrote “yes” or “right.”
Finally, material gained from face-to-face sessions is often invaluable. Yet, soon after supervision, one may not be able to recall the suggestions and/or recommended model(s) for intervention. Online supervision eliminates this dilemma with its recording option.
Gary: I saw the potential for online supervision as a natural outgrowth of my work online with a client. In this online psychotherapy, I saw that I could establish a relationship, teach, role model, and help the client develop self awareness using only text. If psychotherapy could be done in a chat room, then surely supervision could be done as well.
I have supervised a number of MSW students since 1989, all of which were supervised face-to-face. All of these students were able to learn skills in helping clients, to increase their understanding of chemical dependency and its treatment, and to learn more about themselves as helpers, especially how they are affected on a feelings level by this work. Shavone, the first student I’ve supervised online, was able to learn and accomplish in all of these areas as well through a combination of face-to-face and online supervision.
While we utilized face-to-face to establish the supervisor and student relationship, the relationship was deepened during our online supervisory sessions. It was deepened through Shavone' increased openness online regarding certain issues, particularly countertransference. As she felt more comfortable opening up online, I got to know more about her as a student and a worker, which moved our work together further along.
Our face-to-face interactions were duplicated online in the sense of style of communication, tone, words used, and tempo. I did not see online work as limiting the issues/topics we could discuss.
For teaching, online supervision is ideal in the sense that the student has a verbatim record of the teaching that can be referred to in the future. A technique I call “Segmented Biblioteaching” can be used in online supervision. This technique is described below:
- The student asks a question or presents an issue from a process recording that stimulates the supervisor to provide specific information or teaching.
- The supervisor types a segment of a teaching (such as affect management or cognitive behavioral therapy) which directly addresses the student' question/issue.
- The supervisor and student discuss the teaching and how it applies specifically to the situation, and what changes may be needed on the part of the student or other interventions that can be implemented in the future.
This process (and online supervision in general) requires the supervisor to be knowledgeable about a variety of interventions and theories, and to have a good sense of what a student needs to know in various situations with the population being served by the agency. It is very important that the supervisor be experienced enough to be able to “fill in the blanks.” By that, I mean the supervisor needs to be able to recognize themes from what the student is typing and respond to those themes. If the supervisor can quickly understand the issues being presented because of his or her clinical experience, the student feels understood and the online communication process is enhanced.
Summary and Implications
The essential components of supervision in social work-establishing a relationship between supervisor and student, teaching, modeling, discussing feelings, managing countertransference, and skill building-can all be completed in online supervision. The supervisor and student both need to have some degree of comfort navigating online and be able to communicate accurately through the typewritten word in order to make this process work. In addition, the supervisor needs to be experienced in supervision in order to be able to function as a supervisor without the visual cues available in face-to-face interactions.
It is clear that online supervision can easily be an adjunct to face-to-face supervision for social work students. Gary plans to continue providing online supervision to MSW students in the future.
Online supervision can possibly replace ongoing face-to-face supervision if the need exists, such as when the supervisor and student are separated by a great distance. It is recommended to begin any online supervision with sufficient face-to-face supervision in order that both the supervisor and the student attain some degree of comfort with one another. As is said in much of the literature about supervision, the relationship is the thing. If a solid, trusting relationship can be established between the supervisor and the student, and both are motivated to participate in online supervision, then it can work.
For Further Reading
Fox, R. (1989). Relationship: The cornerstone of clinical supervision. The Journal of Contemporary Social Work, 70(3), 146-152.
Keller, J. F., Protinsky, H. O., Lichtman, M., Allen, K. (1996). The process of clinical supervision: Direct observation research. The Clinical Supervisor, 14(1), 51 -63.
Lowey, L. (1983). Social work supervision: From models toward theory. Journal of Education for Social Work, 19(2), 55 - 62.
Rich, P. (1993). The form, function, and content of clinical supervision: An integrated model. The Clinical Supervisor, 11(1), 137 - 178.
Ross, J. (1992). Clinical supervision: Key to effective social work. Health and Social Work, 17(2), 83 - 85.
Gary S. Stofle, ACSW, CSWR, CASAC, is Program Coordinator of the Alcoholism Outpatient Services at St. Vincent's Hospital, Westchester. Shavone Hamilton, CSW, recently completed her MSW at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services. She works at the Alcoholism Outpatient Services at St. Vincent's Hospital, Westchester.