BUFFALO, N.Y. — The University at Buffalo School of Social Work’s Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program is being lauded by SUNY for its innovative use of virtual reality (VR).

The DSW program won first place in the 2023 SUNY Effective Online Practices Award Program, which showcases the best online practices, strategies and teaching and learning activities across the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

Steven Sturman, instructional designer; Mickey Sperlich, PhD, assistant professor; and Louanne Bakk, PhD, DSW program director and clinical associate professor, accepted the award at the annual SUNY Online Summit earlier this month.

“Social workers need to understand and use these technologies so they can meet their clients in the spaces they inhabit and recognize the unique challenges and opportunities these spaces create,” Sturman says.

Launched in 2019, UB’s fully online DSW program integrates VR across the curriculum, supplementing the program’s overall focus on the use of emerging technologies and the application of implementation science.

Right from orientation, students are introduced to a VR-based app where some of their classes will meet and begin to understand how VR is being used by social workers in the field — and why it may be important to their future practice.

During a doctoral seminar on trauma and human rights, they explore a simulated mental health clinic and learn how an agency’s physical characteristics can affect how trauma-informed the practice is. Through their VR experience, students develop the skills to assess and make improvements to a physical setting so it will be more welcoming to clients with a history of trauma.

In another course, students analyze how VR could be used to modify and adapt interventions to better serve a particular population.

“By using VR, we encourage students to consider the implications of emerging technologies and help them develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes they will need whenever they are faced with new tech,” Sturman says. “It also provides them with an additional creative outlet they can tap into as they re-envision existing interventions or create new interventions for diverse populations.”