March 27, 2024

Virtual practicum pilot project at UCalgary delivers long-distance value to small Alberta town

Innovative remote work experience placement with Beaverlodge agency opens doors for students in faculties of social work and nursing
Online practicum
Nursing and social work students in the innovative online practicum at UCalgary meet over Zoom with the community partner and course staff. Riley Brandt, Unversity of Calgary

A group of UCalgary students is working to support the health and social needs of a small Alberta town hundreds of kilometres away, without ever stepping foot in the northern community.

The students, undergrads from the faculties of Social Work and Nursing, are part of an innovative pilot project. For their practicum placements, the setting is entirely virtual. The students are working remotely with the local Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) agency in Beaverlodge, a town of about 2,500 residents located a five-hour drive northwest of Edmonton.

The practicum project has broken new ground on several fronts since its launch in fall 2023. For the students, it’s been an eye-opening introduction to how community health services are delivered in a rural setting. The interdisciplinary model of the practicum is a first for the two faculties, dramatically expanding the students’ perspectives. And even as the practicum pilot — now in its second semester — moves ahead, a three-year study supported by a University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grant is exploring how this innovative, flexible online model of work-integrated learning can be supported and made sustainable. 

Appreciation for rural health challenges

The practicum’s blend of social work and nursing perspectives appealed to Rachel Pennell, who was part of the inaugural cohort during her fourth year of studies. She’s now employed as a family network facilitator for the Greater Foothills Family Centre in High River. 

“I only have a social work perspective, that’s my background in education,” she says. “So it was interesting to learn about community nursing and some of the tools they use in their assessments.”

A highlight for Pennell was witnessing a heartfelt response from more than 150 youth to a survey designed by the students, asking what new services they would like to see in their town. 

I think that there’s a real need for access to mental health services in small towns,” she says. “There are so many small towns and rural areas who could use the help of students doing the work of surveying and planning, for example. And especially being virtual, it’s great we have this opportunity we wouldn’t have had before.”

Reanna Stockman, FCSS program services co-ordinator in Beaverlodge, welcomed the students’ help and energy identifying and supporting local needs in a setting very different from the big city. “In rural communities, you might not be able to see the doctor when you want to, or you might not be able to go to a shelter, or you might not be able to get a free meal. The FCSS is a one-stop shop and often you’re the only support the community has.”


Beaverly is the name of Beaverlodge’s town mascot. The giant roadside attraction #WorldsLargestBeaver goes by Justin Beaver.

Courtesy Beaverlodge FCSS

Technology supports growing need for practicum learning

The project has its roots in the two faculties’ experiences during COVID and post-COVID, which opened the door for virtual practicum opportunities to emerge out of necessity, explains Dr. Patricia Samson, PhD, associate professor in the Edmonton campus of the Faculty of Social Work, and principal investigator of the study supported by the Teaching and Learning Grant. 

“And we recognized the value of supporting rural, remote communities across the province, where students can have engaging learning experiences in the field and have opportunities to apply theory onto practice.”

The faculties see rising demand for experiential learning even as local workplaces grapple with fewer resources and increased complexity, explains Amanda O’Rae, associate professor (teaching) in the Faculty of Nursing, and co-principal investigator. “So, we have to be creative and not overburden the system,” she says. 

“With that lens, utilizing one practicum placement for two programs, we were going to be able to reach partners we had never been able to reach before through the virtual.”

The first practicum saw eight students working remotely with Beaverlodge FCSS; the second practicum has a dozen students. The faculties’ interprofessional field teams provide structure and supervision, giving them a front-row seat as students embrace new perspectives, learn from one another, and collaborate with the community partner. 

Connection points and relationships

“There are so many connection points through this practical opportunity that might not be available to students in a typical social work placement,” says Stephanie Grant, a registered social worker, practical development specialist and field co-ordinator in the Faculty of Social Work. “They’re working with other social work students and a cohort of nursing students. They’re connecting with a leader in a rural community. They’re getting supervision from multiple professions, building and working in relationship.

“That is so huge, I think, to this,” Grant adds.

Watching students learn to navigate a team has been rewarding for Amanda Loates, a registered nurse and sessional instructor in the Faculty of Nursing. “You’re not just one person trying to take on all these issues and concerns," she says. 

"You have a whole team of people you can turn to, leveraging each other’s skills and strengths and awesomeness.” 

“But we’re not from the community. We’re very intentional about coming alongside the community and not trying to tell them how to fix things or tell them what to do, because we really don’t know,” Loates adds. “Having Reanna as the local partner has been a key piece of being able to learn about Beaverlodge and learn about the things happening there.”

Journey of learning from each other

The first practicum class focused on a needs survey of youth, helping FCSS identify priorities and ideas for future programs. The first class also set in motion a needs survey of senior citizens, which continues in the second cohort. More ideas for FCSS emerged as the students met online, reviewed the data, and gathered additional resources, Stockman says. 

“During our cold spell when it was -51C, we had a homeless individual who had nowhere to go. The students started working on an infographic of resources I can connect people to, should that happen again.”

Learning how community nursing impacts lives came as a pleasant surprise to Kwame Blackman, a second-year student who says he always equated nursing with working in hospitals. “Working with Beaverlodge FCSS really showed me the breadth of what nursing can be.”

Emily Williams, another second-year nursing student, reports a “180-degree flip” in her understanding of health care during the practicum. “I went into nursing thinking it’s about curing people,” she says. 

“Working with social work really gave me a more empathetic view of nursing. It’s not just being there by the beside. It’s actually sitting down and taking the time to get to know the person before you diagnose anything medically. It’s been really amazing.”

UCalgary Nursing is committed to providing community experiences for students that aim to strengthen rural and remote health care. Through experiential learning, students build confidence and resilience as they become advocates and change agents in health systems. Learn more 

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