This free, online social work course from the University of Michigan inspired me to apply to grad school. Here's why I recommend it to anyone considering a degree in social work.

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  • The University of Michigan has the top-ranked Master of Social Work program in the US.
  • U-M offers a Social Work Coursera MasterTrack certificate, making a degree more affordable.
  • My experience taking the intro course of the program encouraged me to apply to graduate programs.
  • Course structure
  • Timing and cost 
  • Enrolling in the MasterTrack and applying to the MSW: 
  • The bottom line: 

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I enrolled in the free, self-paced introductory course to help me decide if I wanted to commit to the full MasterTrack, which takes about 6-8 months to complete. Three weeks later, I flew through nearly the entire intro course in two sittings — and felt ready to apply to part-time graduate programs in social work. 


I’d been entertaining the idea of grad school — and MSW programs specifically — since I graduated from U-M in 2019, and this course was the push I needed to finally submit applications to MSW programs. It was a small preview into the history and importance of social work, an opportunity for self-reflection and understanding my role in promoting social justice, and a test in balancing a full-time job with part-time learning.

If you’re considering a career in social work, I highly recommend taking this course. While working through it, I entered a much sought-after flow state of engagement, empowerment, and confidence that confirmed my suspicion that social work would be the right path for me.

Course structure

Social Work Practice: Advocating Social Justice and Change breaks its instruction down into four main sections, with expanded versions of the following Coursera descriptions included in the syllabus: 

What is Social Work?

  • This module focuses on defining social work as a profession, exploring roles social workers perform across settings, examining core social work skills at the micro, mezzo, and macro system levels and addressing social work professional ethics.
  • Objective: Have a greater understanding of the breadth of social work and the range of roles and skills social workers develop in their work.

Integrated Themes of Social Work

  • In this Module, you will have the opportunity to learn about the core frameworks and approaches the guide how social workers engage in change efforts.
  • Core frameworks: The ecological systems perspective, the strengths approach, and empowerment, the use of a social justice lens, a cultural humility framework, and an evidence-informed practice perspective

A History of Social Work

  • This module explores the history of social work as a field. You will have the opportunity to engage with an interactive timeline that outlines how different people, events, and policies have helped shape U.S. based social work over the past 100 years. 

Privilege, Oppression, Diversity, and Social Justice

  • Module 4 explores the connection between social work and social justice. Indeed, some social workers maintain that social work is social justice. You’ll learn about a framework for centering justice in social work: Privilege, Oppression, Social Justice, and Diversity (P.O.D.S.), as well as the key concepts of intersectionality and praxis. 

All four modules include videos from practicing social workers, alumni, and faculty from Michigan’s School of Social Work. This, for me, was the selling point of the course: hearing firsthand how each speaker has used their experience in social work to better understand others’ perspectives, empower those they work with, and advocate for the communities they care so deeply about. Seeing them talk about their professions with such passion was what compelled me to finally look into part-time degrees in social work.

However, it’s important to note that the vast majority of the course is presented through these video accounts. The videos are accessible and include captioning, but there are far more of them than there are discussion opportunities, quizzes, or interactive materials (although there are multiple occurrences of these other learning tools as well). Since everyone learns differently, it’s understandable that much of the course taking place via video could be a pro for some and a con for others. 

Timing and cost 

The course is estimated to take about 12 hours to complete, and when I enrolled, it was suggested that I dedicate one week to each module — or three hours each week — to learning. In actuality, I completed two and a half modules in four hours on a Saturday night. The remaining modules were completed in two smaller chunks on weeknights. I’d carve out about 8-12 hours for the course, but it will depend on your learning style whether you’d rather spread it out over the course of a few weeks or fly through it in larger blocks. 

Coursera/Emily Hein/Insider

The course is free to audit, though you can also pay $49 for a certificate of completion to add to your LinkedIn or resume. I appreciated having the graded quizzes and certificate for accountability and career development, and the assessments were pretty straightforward — I enjoyed the quizzes and didn’t find them particularly challenging.

If you’re looking to pursue the Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research MasterTrack, then the certificate is worth it because its cost can be applied to the MasterTrack. If not, then the value of the certificate will depend on your career ambitions and learning style — it might just be worth it to audit the course for free.

Enrolling in the MasterTrack and applying to the MSW: 

If you finish the course and would like to take the entire MasterTrack, you can enroll directly through Coursera with no required application. The MasterTrack is $2,000, and a detailed FAQ page explains the enrollment process.

If you’d like to apply to Michigan’s School of Social Work, you can submit an Eligibility Review Request to the university before enrolling in the MasterTrack. This form, which requires uploading your resume, is used to assess whether you’d be eligible to apply the MasterTrack to an online or in-person Master of Social Work degree at UMich. It is not automatically supplemental to an MSW application and MasterTrack students are not guaranteed acceptance.

The completion of the MasterTrack certificate reduces the master’s degree from 60 credits to 45, potentially saving a significant amount of time and tuition costs. However, it’s important to note that the MasterTrack certificate is only applicable to Michigan’s MSW programs — it can’t be applied to other schools or programs.

The bottom line: 

If you’re curious about others’ professional experiences in social work, passionate about social justice, and considering social work as a career, I’d highly recommend this free course as a starting point. The engaging videos, varying perspectives, and powerful takeaways have already left a lasting positive impact on my future.

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