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.