School of Social Work Launches MOOC on Social Policy, Its First

February 8 @ 7:10 pm
By Communications Office

When public policy courses are taught at universities in the United States, programs that involve caring for citizens’ welfare typically get less attention—this despite the country’s enormous investment in social welfare programs. But with this week’s launch of a MOOC on social policy by the Columbia School of Social Work, a new possibility has opened up for those eager to understand how social policy works in the United States.

All societies face the fundamental issue of how to take care of their most vulnerable members—those who cannot work to support themselves: children, the elderly, the mentally ill, people who are disadvantaged or disabled in some way.

Is caring for the most vulnerable primarily the responsibility of the state, families, or individuals?

How such questions are answered will determine government expenditures and will show the values of a society.

Public policy studies in the United States tend to emphasize areas like economics, defense, security, and environmental policy, offering courses in macro- and micro-economics, crime prevention, national security, military operations, energy regulation, and the like. But programs that involve caring for citizens’ welfare are just as important—perhaps even more so as the United States spends two-thirds of its federal, state, and local budget on social welfare programs, such as health care, housing, education, pensions, and veterans’ services.

To address this deficiency in the study of public policy, the Columbia School of Social Work has crafted a massive open online course (MOOC) on social policy, providing an opportunity to learn how social policies are constructed, what values underlie them, and how they succeed or fail. Launched this week in partnership with Coursera, an online learning platform, the MOOC is designed to meet the needs of social service and health practitioners but with materials that are accessible to any citizen.

This is the first time the School of Social Work has offered a MOOC. Its curriculum is based on a popular course developed for the School by Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems Professor Irwin Garfinkel, currently the School’s interim dean and a world expert on the social welfare state, and Dr. John Robertson, who received his Ph.D. in social policy from Columbia School of Social Work under the tutelage of Professor Garfinkel.

A full-time lecturer at the School of Social Work, Dr. Robertson has taught social policy for many years, both in the classroom and online. He is both author of and instructor for the MOOC, which comprises a sequence of five units, covering:

  1. A comparison of U.S. social policy with that of other nations
  2. The development of the U.S. welfare state
  3. How demographics shape policy
  4. Income transfer policies for specific populations
  5. Health, housing, and education.

In a format Coursera bills as “an interactive textbook,” the MOOC uses video lectures, readings, and quizzes that allow learners to assess their progress. Several of the video lectures consist of interviews with other policy faculty at the School of Social Work.

Participants can audit the five units for free, or they can choose a certificate-granting honors track for $49 per unit. Honors learners complete the entire sequence and produce a graduate-level policy analysis that may help them advance in the workplace or open the door to a master’s program.

The MOOC was rolled out under healthcare-related education, a new area of emphasis for Coursera. In Dr. Robertson’s view, it could have particular appeal for interns in Washington, DC, and the 50 state capitals who are planning a career in policy. He anticipates that when some of them “get a taste of social work” through the Coursera offering, they may decide to pursue an MSW, possibly at the Columbia School of Social Work. He points out that if they do, they can consider enrolling in the School’s existing online campus, which, like the residential campus, offers a concentration in social policy. But regardless of which platform they choose for their MSW, completion of the MOOC will permit them to waive the required first-year course in social policy, he noted.

Dr. Robertson added that he hopes another audience for the MOOC will be social workers who work in government agencies. “More social workers should be involved in policy formation,” he said, “because social workers’ real-world contact with clients provides a more informed perspective on government programs than does the typical law or accounting degree.”

Anyone who participates in Dr. Robertson’s MOOC stands to benefit from its flexibility. On the Coursera platform, MOOCs are taught asynchronously, which means that learners may begin a course at any time and work through the materials at their own pace.

Throughout the month of January, hundreds of online learners viewed the course offerings, and many have already completed the five sequences, giving it high marks.

Professor Garfinkel is optimistic that this initial flicker of interest bodes well for the course eventually reaching a broad audience. “Social policy affects all citizens regardless of their interest in the study of social work,” said Professor Garfinkel. “This MOOC is an opportunity for the Columbia School of Social Work to show how our field relates to daily life in the United States. The study of social policy can create effective advocates for important social issues, and in our current political and cultural climate this is a skill set of incredible value.”


To learn more about, or sign up for, the social policy MOOC, go to its Coursera site. See also Dr. Robertson’s interview on the February 5, 2019, Social Work LIVE program:


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