Innovate for Good: Social Work case simulation goes virtual


The College of Public Health at George Mason University wants every student to be able to learn through virtual reality training—and the Department of Social Work is helping to lead the way.

Working with one of the college’s five Certified Healthcare Simulation Educators (CHSE), the department created an interprofessional, person-centered virtual reality simulation for students to apply their skills to a real-time social work case in a low-stakes environment. 

Social work students in virtual reality simulation
Photo by Mary Cunningham/College of Public Health

The training, which meets the Healthcare Standards of Best Practice, was offered to 28 Master of Social Work (MSW) students in the HRSA-funded Community Academic Partnership-Behavioral Health program. The virtual reality (VR) experience was couched between pre- and post-simulation educational materials and debriefs that linked student experiences back to direct practice learning objectives. 

“VR simulation offers students the unique opportunity for interprofessional group decision-making and support in providing care, in a context where immediate feedback around decision-making, as well as the opportunity for alternative decisions, can be experienced,” said professor Holly Matto, the lead author of a paper about the learning experience. 

Department chair Emily S. Ihara, CHSE chief innovation officer Bethany Cieslowski, associate professor Denise Hines, and director of practicum education Jeanne Booth helped create and shape the experience. They were joined by other social work faculty to run pre-brief and post-debrief for the case.

In the VR scenario, students interacted with a teen in a hospital clinic after his foster parents called the police when the teen displayed violent behavior in the home after drugs were found in his room. The simulation offered a safe learning environment, encouraging student pairs to manage engagement, practice, and adjust their skills in a real-time, low-stakes scenario.  

Feedback from students suggested they learned the importance of building rapport with a client, how to adapt to unfamiliar settings, how to adapt to new information and adjust communication styles accordingly, and how to create a safe space with an ambivalent client. After the simulation, the majority reported feeling more confident with client communications and providing interventions that foster client safety.

Mason’s Department of Social Work and other social work training programs are uniquely positioned to lead pedagogical advancements in innovative skill development,” said Ihara. "This includes developing methods that build safe learning spaces in order to enhance resiliency strategies students will need as they enter an increasingly demanding and challenging workforce environment upon graduation."
Social work students in virtual reality simulation
Photo by Mary Cunningham/College of Public Health

With the success of this training case, the department plans to integrate VR simulation training into its Bachelor of Social Work and MSW curricula. In fact, the department has already developed a new custom social work VR case where social workers and other health professionals can work together with a substance-engaged family. 

Coordinators of this training simulation are excited for the future opportunities that VR can provide for students and for substance recovery and support. 

“We envision inviting peer support specialists and recovery coaches, critical to the existing behavioral health workforce, to participate in similar VR simulation trainings in the future," said Matto. "For example, VR simulations could be used to practice motivational interviewing skills routinely employed in recovery coach sessions, as well as to help peer providers understand ways to manage stigma, adhere to boundaries, assess for suicide and develop appropriate safety plans, and engage in inter-professional team decision-making around complex cases, which could offer peer providers a standardized skillset in these key domains."

The VR case simulation training was supported by funding from HRSA-22-109 Health and Public Safety Workforce Resiliency Training Program (U3NHP45404-01-00) and HRSA Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program for Professionals (M01HP41969‒01‒00). 

The team’s educational experience, “Virtual reality case simulation to build skill competencies in working with substance-engaged clients,” was published online in Social Work Education in December 2023. 

The College of Public Health has set a goal of raising $10 million so that every student in the college can learn through VR. Learn more about our VR Simulation Center here. 

Innovate for Good is an ongoing series that examines how Mason faculty in the College of Public Health are harnessing technology to improve health outcomes. If you have stories to share as part of the Innovate for Good series, email Mary Cunningham at