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Junko Wake,
Tokyo Metropolitan University / Japanese Association for Social Work Education


Atsushi Komori,
Japanese Association for Social Work Education


Minako Sugimoto,
Japanese Association for Social Work Education


Masakazu Shirasawa,
International University of Medicine and Welfare / Japanese Association for Social Work Education

Social work education in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic

Social work education encountered unprecedented challenges and changes in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This paper describes the challenges that social work educational institutions in Japan faced in an uncertain future and the measures taken to meet the challenges of the pandemic. This study relies on data from a survey conducted by the Japanese Association for Social Work Education (JASWE) in December 2020 (JASWE, 2021).

Knowles (2007) drew up a framework for policy formulation and implementation for online teaching in social work and identified pedagogical, professional, faculty, and administrative challenges in the process. Drawing from this framework, this paper first presents an overview of Japan's COVID-19 pandemic and social work education. Then, it discusses four types of challenges, namely those encountered by educators and field instructors, the university administration, and students around introducing online education and developing a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) or Education Continuity Plan (ECP) during a crisis. Finally, the implications and directions for future education and research are discussed.

Covid-19 in Japan

A state of emergency was declared in Tokyo in April 7, 2020, and was extended to cover the entire country until May 31, 2020. Though there were no strict "lockdowns", all schools, from primary to high school levels, and universities, were closed during this period. Most of the universities switched to online classes. Since June 2020, there have been several waves of the pandemic. Although a state of emergency was declared each time, most activities returned to normal with infection control measures in place, and these continue thus to date. Quite a few universities, however, have continued to provide classes online.

The pandemic made it challenging to implement social work education's practical skills training and practicum (field education) components. On 28 February and 1 June 2020, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare (MHLW) issued a notice to educational institutions training healthcare professionals that on-campus training programs could be a substitute for a practicum when other options could not be available.

Overview of social work education in Japan

In general, social work students can qualify as certified social workers after completion of the social work educational program offered by the university. Some courses are also provided by graduate schools, junior colleges, and vocational schools. As of 2021, the officially approved programs were administered in 104 universities with graduate schools, 89 colleges, and 71 vocational schools. Of these, 264 were members of the JASWE and 121 were members of the IASSW.

Education programs aimed at certifying individuals as certified social workers at any university or institution must be approved by the MHLW. The revised curriculum introduced in 2021 requires students to study 23 subjects, including a practicum. The curriculum extends over 1200 hours, of which 240 hours are meant for the practicum. After completing the program, students will be able to sit for the national examinations. The teaching staff for social work skill training and practicum as well as field instructors must have particular qualifications, including experience, or undergo prescribed training. This ensures that the quality of social work education remains adequate.

JASWE aims to improve the quality of social work education by training educators in charge of social work skills training programs and the supervision of practicums and to compile textbooks, promoting global collaboration, and providing support and information to students preparing for the National Examination for Certified Social Workers. JASWE conducts research, consults with the national government, and trains frontline social workers through collaboration with professional organizations dedicated to social work.

In addition, JASWE has been focusing its efforts on disaster social work. In the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes and floods which occur almost every year, while gathering information from member schools in the area, JASWE provides logistical support to member schools and students volunteering for disaster relief and, if necessary, provides information and materials needed for the activities.

Challenges encountered in online education and training by educators and field instructors

The sudden spread of COVID-19 forced the shift to online education without adequate preparation. Therefore, in December 2020, all JASWE member schools were surveyed regarding online methods in the administration of social work education programs during Covid-19. The valid response rate was 35.7%.  For the practicum, about half the programs "conducted some or all of the training online," whereas a quarter of the programs "conducted only the lecture or explanation part of the training online." About 40% of the training schools and programs utilized video conferencing tools for several rounds of instruction, supervision during the practicum, and debriefing.

These results confirm both the benefits and challenges involved in online education. About 50% of the respondent educators said that online education was "less effective but acceptable." and the percentage was even higher when the total of "similar effectiveness" and "more effective than face-to-face" was added. The following advantages were cited:

The results also indicated that online education did not reduce the burden on educators. The most common response was, "I would like to use it only when it is necessary." Online education was considered an "alternative," a "supplementary" measure, or an "urgent" resource. The survey respondents evaluated the system as being at the "usable level" for pre-visits, orientations, meetings and practicum debriefing. Many of them said they would like to use the online system only whenever necessary. These results indicate ad-hoc use of online measures in situations where there is no certainty. Based on the findings of this survey, educational institutions and national organizations must thoroughly assess, evaluate and develop guidelines governing the online environment.

Challenges in the administration and management of online education

JASWE conducted in-depth interviews with four selected vice presidents on university administration and management. These people were specialized in social work and were involved in the training and education of social workers. They were committed to ensuring the quality of education from a university-wide and administrative perspective. It was found that there were two phases in their responses during the pandemic. ≈

Social work education encountered unprecedented challenges and changes in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This paper describes the challenges that social work educational institutions in Japan faced in an uncertain future and the measures taken to meet the challenges of the pandemic. This study relies on data from a survey conducted by the Japanese Association for Social Work Education (JASWE) in December 2020 (JASWE, 2021).

  1. surveying the students' online environment and taking action;
  2. inspecting the university's online system and taking action;
  3. securing the necessary funds;
  4. changing the academic year;
  5. providing full- and part-time lecturers with training and manuals for teaching using information and communications technology (ICTs); and
  6. building a consensus among the parties involved. All of this was done within a very short period of time and through collaborative efforts throughout the entire university.

The second phase was the "implementation and continuation phase," which involved:

  1. the development of classrooms with a Wi-Fi environment to help students to take online classes on campus;
  2. support for students with physical and mental health problems;
  3. the development of a system to guarantee information for students requiring reasonable accommodation;
  4. the study and implementation of hybrid/high-flexible education, and
  5. the study and implementation of additional necessary measures.

The introduction of online education was the first for many institutions. A university-wide effort was invested in providing information, training, and financial support to faculty and students who were unfamiliar with technical equipment and its use. Consensus building with various stakeholders and managerial measures, including securing the necessary funding, were actively implemented. These efforts are also related to the development of a BCP/ECP.

Students' challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic

JASWE conducted a self-administered questionnaire survey after completing the mock examinations for 8656 examinees of the National Examination for Certified Social Workers, and Mental Health Social Workers. This was administered from October 3 to November 3, 2020. The valid response rate was 86.1%. The survey asked about the respondents' career paths after graduation and the impact of their field education, and their experiences with online education. Whereas 26% indicated that they wanted to engage in "social work with older people”, 25% opted for “social work with disabled people," and 16% mentioned, "social work with children". When asked how they felt about taking online classes, 41% said they felt "tired and burdened by using a PC for long hours", and 37% said that "it was difficult to communicate with their teachers and classmates".

Although the faculty survey presented a few somewhat positive evaluations, a significant number of students were dissatisfied and negatively affected by online learning. This area needs further examination. As many as 47% of the students said they had no problem with the financial burden imposed by the pandemic, but 9.3% said that the burden had increased and was somewhat difficult to bear, whereas 3% said it was very difficult to bear.

Challenges encountered while developing BCPs/ECPs

In Japan, where large-scale disasters like torrential rains and earthquakes occur relatively frequently, highly effective BCPs have been promoted mainly for business organizations. According to the Third Edition of the Business Continuity Guidelines issued by the Cabinet Office (2013), a BCP is defined as "a set of policies, systems and procedures to ensure that important business operations are not interrupted, or are restored in the shortest possible time, in the event of natural disasters such as major earthquakes, the spread of infectious diseases, incidents such as terrorism, major accidents, supply chain disruptions, sudden changes in the business environment, or other unforeseen events."

The four components of business continuity must be addressed interactively, namely 1) ensuring the safety of life, 2) preventing secondary disasters, 3) continuing the business, and 4) contributing toward and living with the local community. Education Continuity Plans (ECPs) capture this in terms of continuity of education. The continuity of educational services should strive to prevent secondary disasters while ensuring the safety of the lives of the faculty and students, serving as an essential support centre in the community, and coexisting with service users and providers and residents.

JASWE surveyed the current status of each school's BCP development7). Only 11% of the schools in total indicated that they had already formulated BCPs, 49% indicated that they were not considering formulating BCPs, and 25% stated that they were considering whether to develop a BCP. From a review of the university BCPs available online, the JASWE research team identified six objectives:

1) safety of the students, faculty, and staff; 2) maintenance and early recovery of the headquarters and departmental functions; 3) assurance of student enrollment, graduation, and employment; 4) maintenance and early recovery of the educational and research environment; 5) prevention of secondary disasters, and 6) regional cooperation and support. It will be necessary to share information with member schools further and discuss how BCP/ECP should be developed and implemented to continue educational services.


In this paper, we analyzed social work education during the pandemic and evaluated four significant challenges. The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic posed major challenges to educators, students, and universities. With the introduction of online education, educational services were able to continue. This innovation emerged in the middle of the crisis. New forms of education should be institutionalized and universalized in the future. However, social work education, which is based on the formation of personal relationships, should be careful with digitalization since some clients are unable to fully express their emotions in an online environment, and some do not have the necessary devices. What has worked in this situation, and what has remained inadequate? We still do not know the long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic including changes evoked in social work education. Thorough and continuous evaluations and analyses must be pursued.


Cabinet Office(2013) Third Edition of the Business Continuity Guidelines.
Japanese Association for Social Work Education (2021) Report on the Survey and Research Project on the Educator Training in the New Social Worker Training Curriculum.
Knowles, A.J.(2007) 'Pedagogical and Policy Challenges inn Implementing E-Learning in Social Work Education', Journal of Technology in Human Services, 25(1-2): 17-44.