William H. Snow, J. Kelly Coker
Distance education has become a mainstay in higher education, in general, and in counselor education, specifically. Although the concept sometimes still feels new, universities have been engaged in some form of distance learning for over 20 years. In the field of distance counselor education, it is imperative to understand where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going. This article will lay the foundation for the special section of The Professional Counselor on distance counselor education and will explore the history of using technology in education, recent research about distance education in counseling and counselor education, and topic areas discussed throughout this special section. This special section will bring clarity to current and emerging best practices in the use of technology in the distance education of professional counselors, clinical supervisors, and counselor educators.
Keywords: online, distance education, counselor education, technology, best practices
Counselor educators have become comfortable and adept over the years at fostering students’ development in clinical skills in traditional residential formats. For many counseling faculty, in-class, face-to-face (F2F), personal encounters are foundational and irreplaceable. For educators with this mindset, distance learning is not an opportunity but a threat to what they consider the best teaching and learning practice (Layne & Hohenshil, 2005). No matter one’s personal preference or belief, the advent of distance learning is challenging the sovereignty of the purely residential experience.
For the purposes of this discussion, we are using the term distance education versus the more prolific term online education. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) has officially adopted the broader term of distance education, which focuses on the physical separation in the teacher–student relationship (OPE, 2012). This is in contrast to the term online education, which emphasizes the internet-facilitated communication that supports the teaching relationship at a distance.
The number of students in distance education programs has been increasing each year (Friedman, 2018). By 2016, over 6 million students in the United States were engaged in distance education, and nearly half were exclusively taking online classes (Seaman et al., 2018). Over two-thirds of the students were enrolled in distance learning courses at public universities (Lederman, 2018). In contrast, the total number of residential students dropped by over 1.1 million (6.4%) between 2012 and 2016 (Seaman et al., 2018). The growth in enrollment and the future of higher education continues to move toward distance education.
The same trends have impacted counselor education. At the time of this writing, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) reported that there are 69 CACREP-accredited master’s programs that are considered distance education, 34 of which are clinical mental health counseling programs (CACREP, n.d.). Over 25% of counseling students are now enrolled in academic programs defined as distance education (Snow et al., 2018). Because an increasing number of programs are including distance education opportunities, the need for an exploration of efficacious deliveries of distance education content is imperative (Cicco, 2012).
The growth in distance education programs is often based on mixed motivations. One motivation is the desire to provide greater access for traditionally underserved populations (Bennett-Levy et al., 2012). For example, distance education can benefit students in rural areas as well as those living abroad (Sells et al., 2012). Remotely located service providers can benefit as well. Agencies that lack immediate physical access to counselor education programs now have the online tools to train members of their community locally in advanced mental health skills through distance education so they can continue serving their communities while in school. Distance education programs also can better support working adults and caregivers who in theory are within geographic proximity of a campus but are constrained by complex schedules, responsibilities, and mobility-related issues (e.g., disabilities, difficult travel). The ability to engage in academic studies from any location around the globe, within a more flexible scheduling model, is a game-changer (Bennett-Levy et al., 2012). Additionally, adult learners increasingly prefer the autonomy and self-direction found in these distance education formats (Ausburn, 2004).
Distance education programs allow access to a greater pool of qualified, diverse faculty. Qualified counselor educators anywhere in the world with access to a computer and an internet connection are prospective instructors. Most importantly, distance education programs eliminate the constraints of geographic proximity, worsening traffic commutes, and parking concerns. For the distance education program, it is all about access for any faculty member or student in the world (Reicherzer et al., 2009).
A more pragmatic motivation for universities is to view distance education programming as a source of revenue, growth, and efficiency (Jones, 2015). For example, distance education courses eliminate the costs and limitations of brick-and-mortar classrooms. Unfortunately, students may not benefit when universities increase online class sizes and hire less expensive adjuncts to increase the bottom line (Newton, 2018). Some universities might even tack on special technology or distance education fees.
It is our belief that the counseling profession should take the lead in proactively investigating the promise of the distance education experience, including the technologies, pedagogies, and methods. We must determine which best practices create excellent educational experiences for the ultimate benefit of our counseling students and the clients they will serve. This special section of The Professional Counselor is an essential step in that direction.
A History of Learning Technologies and Their Impact on Distance Counselor Education
If we take a step back, we can see that there has been a continual movement toward infusing technology into the general educational process and, more recently, specifically in counseling and counselor education. We have moved from a strictly oral tradition in which vital knowledge and skills were passed on in F2F interactions to a present-day, technologically mediated set of interactions in which teacher and student may never meet in person and where dialogues are reduced to bits and bytes of information transmitted across the internet.
In ancient times, essential knowledge, skills, histories, and traditions were only preserved in the memories of those able to experience events directly or to receive critical information from others. People were living repositories of essential skills of survival, cultural insight, and wisdom. If they failed to pass it on orally or through example, what they knew and embodied was lost forever. It is a surprise to many that Socrates did not pen a single word. His choice of influence was through discussions with his followers and came to be known as the Socratic method. Socratic concepts would have been lost forever, but fortunately, followers such as Plato put them in writing.
The Written Word
Socrates’s ideas on teaching and learning lived through an early technology: the written word. The technological advancement of written language, writing devices, and the availability of parchment and paper as a set of communication tools was revolutionary in furthering information sharing and learning. Scholarship became associated with the ability not only to think critically, but also to read about the thoughts of others and respond in writing to contribute to the public discourse. Written documents were copied and distributed in what was the earliest form of distance education. During the medieval period, the copying of important texts often fell to those within monastic religious life, usually as a compulsory duty. Copying books for six or more hours per day for years was a noted source of drudgery (Greenblatt, 2011), but the printing press removed the need for such anguish.
The Printing Press
The limitation of scribes hand-copying documents meant that access to readable material was for society’s select few. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in approximately 1438 increased access to print (Szabo, 2015). For the first time in history, the works of scholars, philosophers, and artists could be printed in books and made available to a wider public. With written materials available, the literacy rates in Europe rose from approximately 10% in the 1400s to over 90% by the middle of the 20th century (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2018). The printing press laid the groundwork for innovation in education as well. In the 1720s, the printing press allowed for the first distance education correspondence courses in Boston, representing the “written era” of technology-enhanced education (Drumbauld, 2014). More technologies would eventually revolutionize progress in educational methods.
Sound Recordings and Film
The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 as a device to both record and play back sound (Thompson, 2016). It did not replace writing and books but could record and preserve the sounds of music, events, and the words of famous people and other languages. For example, when people could hear what foreign dialects sounded like from the lips of native speakers, language instruction was transformed.
The development of celluloid film recording and motion pictures in 1895 led to newsreels and documentaries in the early 1900s that provided the public with information about current affairs and historical and cultural events. For the first time in history, people could experience significant events in recorded sight and sound versus only reading about them. Moreover, they could now learn by seeing (O’Shea, 2003).
Radio, Television, and the Telephone
Relatedly, the advent of commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920s provided the first live reporting of events (University of Minnesota, n.d.). For example, radio audiences heard powerful first-hand emotions in the reporter’s voice as he watched the Hindenburg disaster unfolding before his eyes. In the 1920s, colleges and universities began to take advantage of this new, powerful medium. For example, Pennsylvania State University was the first university to be granted a broadcast license to begin offering college courses over the radio (Dawson, 2018).
The “radio era” quickly transitioned to the “TV Era” in the late 1960s when televisions were in most homes in the United States. People could both see and hear world events at a distance. Stanford University was one of the first institutions to capitalize on this burgeoning technology for educational purposes. The Stanford Instructional Television Network was started in 1968 and offered instruction for part-time engineering students (LeDesma, 1987).
Radio and television broadcasts were significant innovations. Their drawback from an educational perspective was that they were primarily one-way mediums and the audience was merely a passive recipient of sights and sounds. It was the telephone that provided the masses with the first means to engage in two-way conversations at a distance. For the first time in history, the average person could not just listen at a distance, but also could talk back. An early telephone-based education using this two-way communication medium was offered by the University of Wisconsin in 1965 (Drumbauld, 2014). Computers and the internet would soon become the next revolutionary communications medium.
Computers and the Internet
Computers were useful as standalone information processors, but it was the unifying ability for computers to communicate that set the stage for the next revolution in information dissemination since Gutenberg’s printing press—the internet. The internet is in actuality a shortened version of the term internetworking, which was born in 1969 when the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) successfully sent the first message between computers (Leiner et al., 1997). That was followed by the standardization of the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) to give all researchers a standard computer language in order to talk together on this small but growing assemblage of internetworked computers (Leiner et al., 1997). Technical advances continued to follow, but the fledgling internet was not accessible to the average person. Defense researchers, academics, and early computer buffs with the drive and savvy to understand and write in computer languages like Unix to execute functions like domain name system lookup, file transfer protocol, and simple message transfer protocol dominated the internet (Leiner et al., 1997). The basic networking foundations were developed, but the average person was waiting for the time when the internet would move from the researchers’ lab to broader computing access.
For decades, computers were costly in price, massive in size, and difficult to maintain, and required a dedicated, specialized operating staff. This meant computer access was only for select university personnel, government employees, larger businesses, and electronic hobbyists. Access changed with the advent of the Apple II in 1977, the IBM PC in 1981, the Apple Macintosh in 1984, and the Windows operating system in 1990 (Allan, 2001). The era of the personal computer (PC) was born and it soon became a must-have technology and home appliance for an increasing number of individuals in society. Functional, affordable, and easy to operate, computers were now available to the general consumer, opening up a worldwide network of information sharing.
The World Wide Web
Early PCs were standalone machines, and few connected to the government-dominated internet. In the 1980s, there began a movement for PCs to connect to proprietary, fledgling dial-up modem-driven services like America Online (AOL; Rothman, 2015). These computer connection services allowed dial-up modem access, information sharing, and file uploading and downloading for a monthly subscription (Haigh et al., 2015). Email communications could be sent but only for those on closed, proprietary networks.
Some universities began their own networks or used services like AOL in order to connect faculty, staff, and students. These online services were far more comfortable to use than the more complex internet, which still required a level of technical sophistication. Although these services were accessible, they were somewhat isolated as each service provider had an exclusive dial-up modem for access and an entity unto itself.
In 1990, only 2.6 million people worldwide had access to the fledgling internet (Roser et al., 2020). A significant breakthrough occurred with the development of hypertext language in 1991 and the first integrated web browser, called Mosaic, in 1993 (Hoffman, n.d.). Access to the internet and its wealth of resources suddenly became available with a point and click of a computer mouse. The term World Wide Web accurately described internet connectivity that spanned the world and connected smart devices to include computers, tablets, gaming consoles, and phones. If a device had a central processing unit, it could connect. By 2018, 4.2 billion people, or 55.1% of the world population, had internet access (Internet World Stats, 2019). In response, the number of digital websites grew from 130 in 1993 to over 1.9 billion today (InternetLiveStats.com, n.d.).
The Digital Age
Digitization has created a world library and communication platform where text, audio, and video recordings are available to anyone with a computer, tablet, gaming console, or smartphone connected to the internet. Anything that can be digitized can be stored and transmitted in real time. The internet merely has taken our previous modes of physical and analog forms of communication and moved them into the digital stream. Internet publishing is a simple extension of Gutenberg’s printing press. The local library is now a part of the World Wide Web library. Text messaging is the modern-day telegraph, and cellular phone services have cut out the need for copper wiring. Streaming audio and video are what radio and television were. Cutting edge videoconferencing platforms are the new F2F communication mode. Reality has now become a virtual reality. For the counselor educator, all of the world’s accumulated technological advances and resources can rest in the palm of your hand. All of the technologies have come together to support progress toward what we call the distance learning era.
Even though we tend to think of distance education as a recent development, Pennsylvania State University offered correspondence education to rural farmers using U.S. mail in 1892, over 125 years ago (Dawson, 2018). Correspondence courses were the precursors to the more sophisticated distance education approach offered by the University of Phoenix in 1976. The 1990s brought about the most significant changes regarding online educational delivery, with the University of California-Berkeley offering the first completely online curriculum in 1994, and Western Governor’s University, established in 1997, helping Western states maximize educational resources through distance education (Drumbauld, 2014). Today, the distance education student population has grown to over 6 million students in the United States (Seaman et al., 2018). Counselor education programs have developed along with this national trend. Today, 69 counseling programs are offering CACREP-accredited distance education degrees (CACREP, n.d.).
Web-Facilitated Faculty–Student and Student–Student Interactions
In the early 1990s, Moore and Thompson (1990) and Verduin and Clark (1991) defined the core conditions that distance education should achieve to become as effective as F2F instruction. These conditions were timely instructor feedback to students and regular student-to-student interactions. Almost 30 years later, those conditions have been fulfilled. Secure audio- and videoconferencing platforms, such as Zoom and Adobe Connect, now allow faculty and students to connect F2F in real time, synchronously (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011).
E-learning platforms, such as Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle, now provide an integrated solution for faculty to asynchronously post syllabi, assignments, and instructional resources for instant download by students. Students can then respond to faculty questions via threaded discussions, upload papers, and take online assessments. Faculty, in turn, can review student work and provide feedback as fast as they can type.
It is now clear that with the combined power of the PC and facilitated technologies, timely instructor feedback and regular student-to-student interactions are possible. The future is here, and all that remains is for counselor education instructional pedagogy to catch up, as well as keep up, with the technological advances that are driving changes in education.
Clarity of Focus: What Is Distance Counselor Education?
Terms like online education, distance learning, and hybrid program, without a clear understanding of their proper use, are problematic. The determination of an academic program as distance education, online, hybrid, or residential has implications for federal financial aid, regional accreditors, and CACREP. So, what is distance education, how is it linked to advances in educational technology, and how does it relate to counselor education?
In practice, various terms, such as distance learning, online learning, and online education, are used. The OPE (2012) has officially adopted the term distance education and further defines distance education as instructional delivery that uses technology in courses for students separated from their instructor to support “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously” (p. 5). The technologies referred to by the OPE are generally internet-based and may include the use of email, audioconferencing, videoconferencing, streaming videos, DVDs, and learning management systems.
Januszewski and Molenda (2013) defined educational technology as “the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (p. 1). Simply put, educational technology is about the physical tools we use in education and the processes that we implement to intentionally shape the relationship of the tools to the subject matter, teacher, student, and social learning environment. These tools and processes combine to form the educational pedagogy to support learning and the OPE (2012) mandate for “regular and substantive interaction between student and instructor” (p. 5).
The OPE (2012) categorizes programs as distance education if at least 50% or more of their instruction is via distance learning technologies. In contrast, residential programs, as categorized by the OPE, CACREP, and federal financial aid regulations, are allowed to infuse significant distance education elements into their instructional coursework as long as they do not exceed the 49% threshold. As an example, a 60 semester unit (90 quarter units) residential program could still offer 29 semester units (44.5 quarter units) of distance education coursework and technically remain residential by OPE standards.
The Continuum of Residential to Distance Education Programming
At one end of the spectrum are purely residential programs, offering 100% of courses in person. The next step along the spectrum is residential hybrid programs. These are still considered residential in providing the preponderance of courses in residence, but they can contain up to 49% of their credit units online and technically maintain their residential classification. Next along the spectrum are limited residency distance learning programs. These provide 50% or more of courses online but require some level of on-campus participation. A 2018 study by Snow et al. found that 90% of CACREP-accredited distance education programs were considered limited residency. They required students to attend a campus residency at least once and up to four times during their degree program. Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum is a small but growing number of programs offering entirely distance education formats. These offer 100% of their coursework at a distance with no campus residency requirement.
The Infusion of Distance Education Technology in All Education
It is difficult to imagine any counselor education in 2020 to be technology-free and without some integration of distance education elements into individual class sessions, full courses, or programs. In concept, one could argue that there is a bit of online educator in the majority of faculty members today, whether they realize it or not. Most universities now require faculty, even the most technophobic, to have access to a computer and read and respond to email communications. Critical information is commonly only accessible on institutional web pages. Confidential information, such as student advising information, is often available online via secure portals—no more hard copy student files. Grades are now commonly put online. All of these widely used technologies support students learning at a distance.
The advent of the modern learning management system in the form of web-based platforms, such as Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle, has added a level of access and interactivity to all programs in the teaching spectrum, from entirely residential to entirely online. Faculty engaged in all formats can use these educational platforms to post text, audio, video, and recorded lectures. Students can view materials, upload their papers, and post responses for review and grading. Discussion groups can interact using asynchronous, threaded discussions within these portals. Embedded grade books keep students informed of their progress at all times. These learning platforms, along with other educational technologies, are now commonly employed in both residential and distance education courses, making the programs look increasingly more similar than different.
Reducing the Distance in Distance Education
Assuming the presence of residential courses with as much technology infused into them as many distance education courses, what is the difference? Both formats require “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor” (OPE, 2012, p. 5). The key word in distance education is distance. The OPE (2012) refers to distance education where students are physically separated from their instructor. Academic programs are required to support, facilitate, and ultimately ensure that regular and substantive interactions occur between students and instructors. The implicit assumption is that residential faculty in close physical proximity to their students have adequate if not superior amounts of regular and substantive interactions with students and thus greater connection and engagement. But, is that necessarily true?
We suggest that rather than focus on whether a class is considered residential or distance education, the concern should be about the amount of regular and substantive interactions, which decrease the social distance between students and faculty and thus help foster community and quality student engagement. Reducing social distance, a measure of relationship and connection, is a significant factor in promoting student engagement. The Great Schools Partnership (2016) defined student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education” (para. 1). There is ample evidence that students who feel a sense of community and connection, no matter what the delivery model, demonstrate better academic performance and higher levels of satisfaction and retention (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Chapman et al., 2011; Rovai & Wighting, 2005). The decreased social distance between faculty and students is a good indicator of “regular and substantive interactions” and thus greater student engagement in the learning process. The physical proximity of faculty and students within residential learning programs can certainly provide opportunities for direct interaction and decreased social distance, but without appropriate faculty desire to connect and engaging pedagogy, there is no guarantee. Numerous studies involving residential programs document cases of student disconnect, alienation, and reduced graduation rates on college campuses (e.g., Feldman et al., 2016; O’Keefe, 2013; Redden, 2002; Rovai & Wighting, 2005; Tinto, 1997). Helping students feel connected to their faculty, fellow students, and campuses is an important task for those operating in both residential and distance learning arenas. Distance education faculty using the appropriate technological tools and pedagogy can overcome the obstacles of physical separation and facilitate meaningful, regular, and substantive interactions.
As we reflect on our educational careers, the authors remember auditorium-style classes in large lecture halls. The physical distance to the instructor might have been 50 feet, but it might as well have been 50 miles as it was difficult to connect with an instructor when competing with 99 other students for attention. Conversely, we have experienced an online class where faculty and students were geographically scattered, but small class sizes allowed us all to make stronger connections. We have come to believe that online education done right can take the distance out of distance education.
The ability of students and faculty to connect at a distance is ever increasing. What was once almost purely an asynchronous model of instruction (i.e., threaded discussion posts and emailed assignments) now has evolved with the addition of interactive videos and training modules, recorded lectures, “real-time” synchronous classes, and live videoconferencing for classroom experiences, advising, and clinical supervision. These tools are allowing students to watch expert counseling role models demonstrate and practice clinical skills themselves while getting real-time feedback from instructors and fellow students. For many counselor education programs, distance education and online learning experiences are now better characterized as virtual remote classrooms.
The Special Section: Distance Counselor Education
This special section reviews the historical context of distance education, seeks to understand the critical elements and best practices for effective distance education, and makes modest projections about future trends. Six additional articles can be found in this issue that provide greater focus on the following areas of consideration: (a) student selection, development, and retention; (b) challenges and solutions of clinical training in the distance environment; (c) distance education pedagogy similarities and differences compared to residential instruction; (d) legal and ethical considerations for distance counselor education; (e) opportunities and challenges of multicultural and international distance education; and (f) student perceptions and experiences in distance education.
Student Selection, Development, and Retention: Who Can Best Succeed?
There are several measures of student success, including retention, academic performance, and graduation rates. Researchers have examined the success of students enrolled in online programs or classes to better understand those factors that lead to or impede student success. Sorenson and Donovan (2017) sought to explore why undergraduate students at an online, for-profit university were dropping out. The authors determined that attrition could be attributed to several factors, including a perceived lack of support by the university and faculty, difficulty balancing multiple priorities, a lack of awareness of how much time is required, and academic issues (Sorenson & Donovan, 2017).
How do we determine the best “fit” through our student selection process? A student’s undergraduate college grade point average does seem to serve as a significant predictor of success in graduate distance learning programs (Cochran et al., 2014). Graduate Record Exam scores, previous work experience, and application essays also are commonly used to select students, but Overholt (2017) did not find them useful in predicting student success among non-traditional graduate student populations. Gering et al. (2018) determined that more salient factors for predicting success included initiative, the ability to take responsibility for one’s education, and time management. Yukselturk and Bulut (2007) have described these factors as representing self-regulated learners.
Gering et al. (2018) also found some external student success factors to be crucial, including a supportive family, strong social connections with other students, strong teaching presence, and receiving prompt and regular feedback and guidance. It is clear then that student success in distance learning courses is partially dependent upon student attributes but also on their level of external support, the actions of the instructor, and a supportive institution.
Clinical Training in the Virtual Remote Environment: What Are the Challenges and Solutions?
It is one thing to offer didactic learning at a distance but quite another when we think about how to conduct engaging clinical skills development in the distance education environment. How do we support the development of appropriate knowledge, skills, and dispositions to help counseling students succeed? The virtual remote classroom allows students to observe faculty experts and student volunteers engaged in clinical role-play simulations. Students can team up with other students in virtual breakout rooms to practice skills they have just watched remotely. Videoconference tools with embedded recording features can capture verbal and non-verbal interactions. Faculty can subsequently observe student role plays live or via recorded sessions.
According to Reicherzer et al. (2012), online and hybrid counselor training programs using a blend of asynchronous, synchronous, and in-person training can produce counselors capable of meeting site supervisors’ expectations of clinical skill preparation before entering practicum and internship. Other researchers found that student learning outcomes are higher for hybrid or blended programs than for fully online or fully residential programs (Means et al., 2010).
Graduates of such programs have an advantage over residential students in their experience with the technologies required for implementing telemedicine and online counseling in their practices—a necessary competency for future practice in the 21st century. With their background in distance learning, these students will have firsthand knowledge of what it takes to properly implement online tools for facilitating strong therapeutic connections. Their remote experiences will provide valuable insights to mental health agency leaders who eventually need to integrate telemedicine into their work to keep pace with future trends and demands (Zimmerman & Magnavita, 2018). This will set these students apart from other clinicians graduating today who lack the training outcomes to participate competently with the proper ethical safeguards in the online world (Barnett, 2018).
Virtual Remote Educational Pedagogy: Similar or Different From Residential Instruction?
In education, the preferred relationship of balancing course content, pedagogy, and technology will vary by institution and instructor. One example is the philosophy of José Bowen (2012). He prefers the live classroom experience, creating more value within the live classroom experience and using technology outside the classroom (Bowen, 2012). He is not against technology, but he believes it is best used outside the classroom to free up more time for richer in-class dialogue. Other programs may adopt a model with more reliance on technology for primary content delivery with the instructor taking a backseat to the online delivery systems. In the context of online and technology-enhanced counselor education, how do those of us who work and teach virtually maximize the available technology to create a vibrant, interactive experience? Can we leverage technological tools to provide the resources needed for success while still creating an impactful and compelling experience? What is the appropriate balance?
In a study of online courses with demonstrated effectiveness, Koehler et al. (2004) determined that three components must dynamically constrain and interact with each other: content, pedagogy, and technology. Faculty must demonstrate expertise in their subject matter, skill teaching in an online environment, and an understanding of as well as effectiveness in utilizing technology in dynamic ways. If all three are present in a course, students report having a better learning experience.
Total distance learning, blended learning, and fully residential learning approaches share another common success—the importance of a positive, supportive learning community. In a study by Murdock and Williams (2011), distance learning students who felt connected and a part of the university community reported more satisfying learning experiences. At least in these cases, successful connection was more important than any particular teaching pedagogy or technology.
Legal and Ethical Considerations in Online Delivery
Online educators are subject to the same statutory and regulatory compliance concerns as their residential counterparts. Online educators have additional complications, challenges, and risks because of their reliance on web-based technologies and online communication. Security, privacy, and access are some of the considerations faced by educators teaching at a distance.
Cybersecurity is now an overarching concern in higher education (White, 2015). Most, if not all, of the student’s personal information, academic record, and submitted course materials are stored in computer files in cloud-based storage. Increasingly, physical student records do not exist as backups. We are moving toward total dependence on reliable, secure access to internet-based storage and retrieval solutions. Distance educators face a level of risk each time student and institutional information is stored, accessed, and shared across cyberspace. There are plenty of bad actors in society focused on disrupting and exploiting these kinds of private information.
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2018) requires the protection of the student’s personally identifiable information and education records from unauthorized disclosure. Protection requirements apply to the institution in general; educational service providers providing outsourced services; and every administrator, staff member, and faculty member with access to student records. Although cybersecurity is an important security component, there are other simple, practical questions for the individual educator to ponder. For example, when involved in asynchronous communications via email, how do you know it is the actual student? When a distance learning faculty member gets a phone call from an online student they do not know well, how do they verify identity? In 2007, a residential student impostor lived on Stanford’s campus for 6 months, ate in the cafeteria, and lived the campus experience until finally caught (Novinson, 2007). If it can happen in a residential setting where we interact with students directly, it can surely happen in an online environment.
Compliance regulations for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) govern the security of communications that clinical site supervisors, clinicians in training, and faculty supervisors maintain about client cases (HIPAA, 2015). Clinical faculty conducting individual, triadic, or group supervision via telecommunication must verify that technologies meet HIPAA compliance. There also is the requirement that student clinicians must not be discussing confidential issues within earshot of friends, families, and roommates—and not doing so via the local coffee shop’s wireless hotspot.
Online education provides access to students at a distance, and in many respects, it provides access and opportunities for those who previously had few options to extend their learning. Online courses may not prove accessible to people with disabilities as the reliance on embedded web technologies may present challenges (Edmonds, 2004). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires educational institutions to make their physical campuses accessible to people with disabilities and the virtual campuses as well. The ADA government website provides guidelines of what is required to make web-based information accessible to those with various disabilities (United States Department of Justice, n.d.).
Issues of student sexual harassment can occur, necessitating Title IX investigations and interventions (Office for Civil Rights, 2018). University administrators must learn how to handle these and other related issues at a distance with students who may be physically separated.
Online educators must comply with federal statutes and regulations, those in their institution’s home state, and those in the state in which the student resides. State-by-state approval is possible but cumbersome. There are initiatives, such as the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, to establish a state-level reciprocity process (National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, n.d.).
Multicultural and International Distance Education: What Are the Opportunities and Challenges?
Another important consideration is how well distance counseling programs effectively attract, retain, and support students from diverse backgrounds. Since its rise in availability, distance education has been a strong draw for people from diverse backgrounds, particularly women of color (Columbaro, 2009). Walden University, one of the largest online universities in the country, reported in 2015 that of its almost 42,000 graduate students, 76.7% were women and 38.7% were African American (Walden University’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2015).
In addition to the strong representation of students of color in online education, there is a growing number of international students who also are taking advantage of opportunities to learn at a distance (Kung, 2017). Kung (2017) reported data from the Institute of International Education that showed a 7.1% increase in the number of international students studying in U.S. colleges and universities. Distance learning can accelerate this increase as online students do not require an F-1 visa to participate at a distance. With this rise, Kung calls for an increase in cultural awareness, sensitivity, and preparation for working with international students in online settings.
Counselor Education at a Distance: Student Perspectives
Given the rise in the number of distance counselor education programs, it seems that there would be a wealth of literature to help us understand the real experiences of students training to be professional counselors in online formats. Although there have been studies examining general student perceptions of engagement, social presence, and outcomes in online learning environments (Bolinger & Halupa, 2018; Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2018; Murdock & Williams, 2011), specific experiences of online counseling students across the wide variety of delivery methods has not, to these authors’ knowledge, been conducted. As technology improves and options for learning management, videoconferencing, and student assessment platforms increase, programs training counselors at a distance have a widening variety of ways in which this learning can occur.
Asynchronous, synchronous, blended, hybrid, and fully online are just a few modalities that counseling students use to experience their education. A glimpse into the experiences of students will shed light on how our most important players in this ever-changing game of distance counselor education view the efficacy of their respective training, now and in the future.
The Future of Distance Counselor Education
As we examine emerging technologies and near-future possibilities, it can seem like science fiction. The use of avatars and other simulation and gaming technologies in counselor training, for example, have been examined for potential substitutions for counseling practice with peers and real people. Walker (2009) studied the use of avatars in one virtual platform, Second Life, for skills training among master’s-level counseling students. Counseling students’ attitudes regarding the effectiveness of this medium to enhance skills development were measured, and findings suggested that this technological enhancement was efficacious to student learning, engagement, and overall skill development.
Virtual reality (VR) is already used in counseling and is being explored as a way to create environments that can help address trauma and phobias and enhance mindfulness training and techniques. Riva and Vincelli (2001) contend that the use of VR in clinical settings can serve as a “sheltered setting” (p. 52) where clients can explore distress-producing stimuli in a safe and controlled environment.
What potential does this technology have in the training of the next counselors? Might we have “virtual” clients that counselors interact with, in real time, in a VR environment? Buttitta et al. (2018) of California State University, Northridge’s counselor education program are already doing so in training their counseling students. They recently presented initial findings at the 2018 Western Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (WACES) Conference where they demonstrated how they could change the avatar’s voice and physical look to become a person of any age, gender, or ethnicity. Their initial impressions are that student learning is as good with avatars as with role-playing students.
We see this idea tested in training programs in other fields. Plessas (2017) conducted a study of the effectiveness of using VR “phantom heads” for dental students to practice their skills on. Findings suggested that along with concurrent, augmented feedback from supervisors, this training method creates a level of efficiency and safety. Additional platforms for virtual counseling are being developed, necessitating enhanced training of counselors who are equipped to work with new technologies and environments.
As counselor training programs become more technologically savvy, different models and methods of online pedagogy are available to them. What once was almost purely an asynchronous model of instruction (i.e., discussion posts and assignments in a learning management system like Blackboard or Canvas) now has the ability to add interactive videos and training modules, recorded lectures and discussions, and “real-time” synchronous classes and supervision groups using platforms such as Zoom, Skype, or GoToMeeting. The opportunity–capability gap between distance education and residential classrooms is shrinking. According to Cicco (2011), there is greater efficacy of training when online learning includes opportunities for counseling modeling by experts using videos and podcasts as well as opportunities for students to engage in the practice and demonstration of clinical skills. Today’s distance education classroom can do all that and more.
Students in online core counseling skills courses have reported higher self-efficacy (using the Counseling Self-Estimate Inventory) than their counterparts in traditional F2F classrooms (Watson, 2012). Repeated studies draw similar conclusions regarding gains in self-efficacy using online instruction (Smith et al., 2015). Higher levels of internal motivation, student confidence, and self-efficacy are due in part to the structure of online courses and the requirement for students to engage in independent, autonomous learning exercises (Wadsworth et al., 2007).
The evidence we have examined leads us to the conclusion that not only is online and distance education here to stay, but there also are excellent reasons and justifications for its current use and future expansion. We trust that this special section will help to shed light on those aspects of distance counselor education programs proven effective and provide information to the benefit of all counselor training programs—no matter what delivery methods are utilized.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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William H. Snow, PhD, is an associate professor at Palo Alto University. J. Kelly Coker, PhD, NCC, LPC, is an associate professor at Palo Alto University. Correspondence can be addressed to William Snow, 1791 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Savitri Dixon-Saxon, Matthew R. Buckley
This article reviews relevant research that provides context for a commentary by two long-time distance counselor educators and supervisors with over 35 years of combined professional experience. The authors explore factors that support successful outcomes for graduate students within distance counselor education programs, which include how students are selected, supported in their development, and retained in the program. Discussion targets how distance learning promotes open access to students who historically have been marginalized, who are living in rural areas, and who have not had the same access to educational opportunities. We focus on the roles and responsibilities of institutional and program leadership and program faculty in the areas of building and sustaining a learning community, faculty engagement in and out of the classroom, and retention and gatekeeping of students. Finally, we discuss considerations for building and sustaining credibility within the university culture, supporting the specialized needs of a CACREP-accredited program, and managing the student–program relationship.
Keywords: student selection, student development, student retention, distance education, counselor education
Distance counselor education has evolved from a place of skepticism to an accepted and legitimate method of training master’s- and doctoral-level counselors and counselor educators and supervisors. Snow et al. (2018) noted that “Changing the minds of skeptical colleagues is challenging but naturally subject to improvement over time as online learning increases, matures, and becomes integrated into the fabric of counselor education” (p. 141). A foundational driver in this evolution has been the necessity of program stakeholders to be creative and innovative in using distance technology to achieve similar or sometimes better results than traditional, residence-based programs. In this article, we will address characteristics of students in distance counselor education programs, their specific needs, the concept of andragogy and adult learners, considerations for selecting and retaining distance learning students, the importance of supporting the development of digital competence, and orienting students to the distance program. Additionally, we will discuss the roles and responsibilities of institutional and program leadership and program faculty in three key areas related to optimal student development and program efficacy: community building, faculty presence and engagement in and out of the classroom, and student retention and gatekeeping. Finally, we raise considerations in building and sustaining credibility within the university culture, supporting the specialized needs of a program accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and managing the student–program relationship (Urofsky, 2013). In this article, we use the research literature on distance counselor education to support insights we have gained over 35 years of combined experience teaching and administrating online counselor education in a large for-profit institution. To avoid confusion, throughout this article we will be using the term distance counselor education as encompassing online learning, virtual learning, online counselor education, or other terms denoting distance learning in counselor education.
The thought of training counselors using distance education has stimulated incredulity in many counselor educators because of the nature of counselor education (Snow et al., 2018). The underlying concern was that students trained in distance education programs could not be adequately prepared because of the high-touch, interpersonal nature of counselor preparation in which students encountered faculty and supervisors in traditional face-to-face settings. For those venturing into this new frontier, the challenge was to create an effective combination of academic and experiential learning that would provide students with the appropriate foundation for practice to ensure that there were sufficient opportunities to observe and evaluate skills development and comportment. An outcome of distance counselor education was also the realization that offering students a more flexible higher education format was one of the best vehicles to increasing opportunity and access for students (Carlsen et al., 2016). Over the years, we have recognized that facilitating distance learning opportunities was one of the counseling profession’s greatest opportunities to create a more diverse workforce of counselors equipped to provide services in a myriad of traditionally underserved communities, strengthen and support counselors using a variety of technological tools in their work, and enhance students’ exposure to diversity, thereby creating a counseling workforce better able to practice cultural humility (Fisher-Borne et al., 2015; Shaw, 2016). This enhanced cultural competence happens in part because students engage with a widely diverse set of colleagues and faculty that represent various regions of the United States and the world and touch on the areas of socioeconomic, sociocultural, ethnic, spiritual, and religious domains in learners, practitioners, and clients. Essentially, we have recognized that distance education benefits both student and educator, consumer and provider, community and profession.
There have been significant advancements in best practices regarding student selection, development, and retention for distance counselor education. These advancements and modifications, however, need to align with the expectations and guidance of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014) and the accreditation standards of CACREP, which also changed to accommodate distance counselor education preparation programs. Many of the best practices for student selection, development, and retention in distance education emerged from what counselor educators gleaned from traditional educational environments. In addition, curricular activities evolved and have been developed with a healthy respect for the interpersonal nature of educating counselors, while developing and utilizing technologies that could accomplish the same objectives achieved in traditional programs, even though the activities to accomplish those objectives are distinct. We have found that developing best practices for selection, development, and retention of counselor education students at a distance has resulted from working with and observing students and responding to their unique needs while balancing where we have “been.” Additionally, engaging in continuous dialogue with program stakeholders and using essential assessment data has helped us become better at meeting students’ needs in a distance education environment. An important aspect of developing best practices is understanding who our students are and what specialized needs they bring to their graduate work when enrolling in a distance counselor education program.
Understanding Our Students in Distance Counselor Education
The first generation of students who pursued distance counselor education were mostly older students, women, people with disabilities, working adults, and students who were more racially and ethnically diverse (Smith, 2014), and although those distinctions are not as clear now as they were a decade ago (Ortagus, 2017), responding to the needs of early distance education students informed counselor educators in creating a model of educating these students that met their educational and developmental needs. Programs committed to facilitating student access and inclusion discovered the need to adjust outdated thinking from traditional criteria as the basis for selection and admission into graduate counseling preparation programs (Bryant et al., 2013) to broaden access. One area of focus essential to program success was looking carefully at the needs of non-traditional and minority students.
Choy (2002) defined non-traditional students as students who either are enrolled part-time, are financially independent, have dependents other than a spouse or partner, or are single parents. In addition, we know that non-traditional students are likely to have delayed enrolling in higher education, work at least 35 hours a week, and be over the age of 25. These circumstances contribute to non-traditional students being much more career-decided than traditional students, and we find that these students are very disciplined, with non-traditional female students having higher grade point averages than their peers (Bushey-McNeil et al., 2014). However, we also know that these students have challenges. For example, non-traditional students are more likely to have a history of academic failures in their past, which may undermine confidence in their ability to succeed. They also have significant time constraints and family responsibilities (Grabowski et al., 2016). We know that although students in distance education succeed overall at a comparable rate to students in traditional residential institutions, students from underrepresented groups do not perform as well in distance education (Bushey-McNeil et al., 2014; Minichiello, 2016). While there have been some changes in the demographics of distance education students in higher education, with an increasing number of traditional student consumers of online education (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2016), the majority of students in distance education counseling programs are still non-traditional students, precipitating the need for admissions policies that may not mirror traditional graduate admissions practices but allow for consideration of work and service activities in the process. The importance of understanding the demographics of distance counselor education students is in being responsive to their needs on a situational, institutional, and dispositional level.
Responding to the Needs of Distance Learning Students
Effectively engaging distance learning students and creating learning experiences responsive to their specific needs requires understanding that factors impacting success are situational, institutional, and dispositional (Bushey-McNeil et al., 2014). As mentioned earlier, at any one point in the student’s academic career, a non-traditional student can be a parent, a partner, an employee, a caregiver, or some other significant and time-consuming role, which constitutes a situational factor (Bushey-McNeil et al., 2014). These competing responsibilities have a significant impact on student success (Grabowski et al., 2016).
There also are institutional considerations that impact a student’s success. Institutional considerations include programmatic policies and practices, limited course offerings or offerings that are only available during the day, lack of childcare, and lack of financial assistance (Bushey-McNeil et al., 2014). Students in brick-and-mortar environments often feel that they are not receiving the support they need from their educational institution (Grabowski et al., 2016; Kampfe et al., 2006). The distance learning environment certainly makes managing childcare, work responsibilities, and inflexible schedules less of an obstacle in pursuit of higher education. Finally, there are dispositional concerns related to the limits that non-traditional students place on themselves based on their perceptions of their ability to succeed and their lack of self-confidence (Bushey-McNeil et al., 2014). Institutional and program leadership and program faculty must be sensitive to what these students bring to their educational experience and respond productively to these concerns by providing the kind of flexibility necessary to help them develop the skills and professional dispositions needed for professional practice. This support also requires programs to be alert to the skills needed to be successful in a distance learning environment, including and especially andragogical elements within the curriculum.
Andragogy and the Distance Learner
Students in distance learning programs need flexibility, hands-on laboratory experiences, in-depth orientation to technology, greater access to instructors, competency assessment and remediation designed to refresh skills and knowledge, and opportunities for self-reflection and support (Minichiello, 2016) in order to be successful. These needs are aligned with what we understand about the learning principle called andragogy, which is “the art and science of helping adults learn” (Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy Center, 2011, p. 1). According to Knowles (1973), adults learn best in situations that allow them to apply information and problem-solving techniques to experiences and situations that are relevant to their own lives. In addition, adults look for opportunities to immediately apply newly acquired knowledge (Yarbrough, 2018).
Consistent with this need, instructors in an andragogical learning environment see the learner’s experience as valuable and are willing, in the process of acting as subject matter experts, to allow the learner to guide and customize the learning process (Palmer, 2007; Salazar-Márquez, 2017). Adult learning theory should be the foundation of the online learning experience, and the online learning environment should be reflective of a partnership between subject matter expert and facilitator and the adult learner, who is a personal life expert and leader in the learning experience (Clardy, 2005). The teacher as facilitator helps the learner apply the knowledge and skills to situations relevant to the learner’s experiences and evaluates the application of that newly acquired knowledge. In distance counselor education, faculty members also enact the roles of supervisor, mentor, and gatekeeper, which adds to the complex nature of orienting students to what these roles mean and how they are related to the teaching role. Faculty members also need to consider how they enact these roles throughout the learning process in meeting the needs of distance students.
In distance counselor education programs, program faculty and administrators have discovered that student success is rooted in providing students with support throughout the program, finding ways to engage them and giving them the opportunity to benefit from their faculty and peers’ experiences and expertise, getting them connected to university support services early, and, consistent with andragogical learning principles, identifying opportunities to affirm or support them in developing their own sense of self-efficacy and sense of agency (Clardy, 2005). There are significant opportunities to incorporate these elements in the selection, development, and retention activities of the program.
Selecting and Retaining Distance Learning Students
The goal of the entire educational process in counselor education centers on offering students experiences, education, and skill development that provide a firm orientation to the profession and the expectations of the counseling profession. Each step, from admissions to graduation and even alumni relationships, should be designed to inform students’ understanding of the profession. Although programs demonstrate flexibility in the way they meet professional standards with the admissions process, the processes must reflect professional standards like those described by CACREP (2015, Standards 1.K–L and 6.A.3–4). Supporting counselor education students at a distance begins with the selection or admissions process.
Historically, graduate admissions policies have focused on undergraduate grade point average, standardized test scores, personal interviews, and personal statements (Bryant et al., 2013). However, there are criticisms of these practices in that, although they are perceived to be race-neutral and objective, they do not account for the fact that there is differential access to quality pre-college education based on race and socioeconomic status (Park et al., 2019). Traditionally, low-income students and many students of color are denied access to the most prestigious graduate programs. Many online institutions, both public and private, are employing broad-access admissions practices for their online programs to increase access, opportunity, and fairness (Park et al., 2019).
A broad-access admissions policy differs from an open-access admissions policy. Open admissions typically means there are no requirements for admissions beyond having completed the requisite education before entering a program. Broad access generally means that requirements such as grade point average are designed to give potential students opportunity to participate in the experience, and consideration is given to factors other than academic performance. Broad access provides an opportunity for higher education to people who have been traditionally left out for a variety of reasons, such as the inability to access higher education or because less than stellar undergraduate performances have made it difficult for students to access graduate school. There are some variations to broad-access policies for many online institutions that have as their goal educating adult learners and increasing access and opportunity for people who have traditionally been excluded from higher education.
Although many online programs do not require standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination or the Miller Analogies Test, and may have a lower undergraduate grade point average requirement than other institutions, a robust process for evaluating a candidate’s readiness for a graduate counseling program is essential. In addition to ensuring that the admission decisions are based on the applicant’s career goals, potential success in forming effective counseling relationships, and respect for cultural differences as described by the CACREP standards (CACREP, 2015, Section 1. L), programs also consider the candidate’s professional and community service as an indicator of their aptitude for graduate study. As important as it is to assess students’ readiness for graduate work through their previous academic performance and professional and service activities, programs also need to assess students’ digital readiness or competence for the tasks required in an online program (da Silva & Behar, 2017).
Developing Digital Competence
In the online education environment, it is imperative for students to either have or quickly develop digital competence. Digital competence is essentially the knowledge, attitudes, and skills required to effectively use the instructional technology found in a distance education environment. Students in the online environment have varying degrees of digital competence. Some students in the distance education environment are digital natives and others are digital immigrants (Salazar-Márquez, 2017). Digital natives are those who have always been a part of a highly technological world and are accustomed to accessing information quickly and easily. Their optimal functioning occurs when they are connected and receive immediate gratification. By contrast, those who are not disposed to technological mastery or have had little exposure to technology are digital immigrants and are forced to learn a new language and perpetually demonstrate this new language (as a second language), always speaking or behaving relative to their first language. For the digital immigrant, the requirements of navigating the course classroom and the university resources and creating assignments that require them to use technology can be very challenging.
Although digital natives can navigate the distance education environment with relative ease, they also can be very critical of the speed and efficiency of online systems. Digital immigrants, on the other hand, must navigate instructional content and the learning platform. As one might expect, it is much easier for a digital immigrant to communicate with a digital immigrant and a digital native to communicate with a digital native. But education is not homogenous, and there are both students and faculty who are natives and immigrants trying to partner with each other for an effective learning experience, which can pose a challenge in developing a productive learning community. Although digital immigrants can provide useful recommendations for improving technology and the learning platforms, we encourage program faculty and administration to focus on creating and maintaining systems that are universally beneficial and can be used easily for both natives and immigrants. If an assessment of digital competence is not part of the admissions process, it should be a part of the enrollment and on-boarding process to ensure that students know how to use technology required in the program, and should be an ongoing part of the educational experience.
Orientation to the Program
Critical parts of the admissions and retention processes for counselor education students include the full disclosure of what will be expected as students move through the program and the activities designed to make sure that students are fully aware of what they will be able to do with their degree after its completion. The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management Governing Board (2009) indicates that best practices for graduate enrollment management professionals include making sure that students understand the requirements of their degree program early. This is particularly important to students in distance education programs. Distance learning students, who are still largely non-traditional students, must be informed of program expectations early so that they can decide their ability to manage the different program requirements. For many distance education students, one of the greatest challenges is planning time away from work or family for the synchronous requirements such as group counseling laboratories, residency experiences, supervision, and field experiences.
Helping Students Plan. In addition to being informed of these requirements, administrators and faculty must make sure that students understand not just the requirements but also the relevance and timing of requirements. Non-traditional students need to understand how the timing of programmatic activities impacts their development and progression in the program. One of the best ways to retain students throughout a program is to encourage them to plan appropriately so that they can appropriately manage their personal responsibilities during the times they are engaged in experiences (e.g., field experience or residency) required for the academic program.
Providing Credentialing Information. Pre-admissions orientation also should include information about the credentialing process. It is quite common for students in distance counselor education programs to reside in different states with varying regulations regarding licensing and credentialing for practice. The pre-admissions process should include sharing as much information as possible about students’ opportunities to practice and their credentialing opportunities, but students also should be informed that the laws and requirements for licensure vary by state and can change during the time the student is enrolled in the academic program. Helping students invest in being responsible for monitoring licensure and credentialing laws in their state is essential. Finally, the program faculty and administration must ensure that students understand the expectations for student conduct and comportment throughout the program. Students must understand the evaluation process that will occur for specific program milestones. Throughout the program, the program should make information available about support that is designed for student success.
Faculty, Program Leaders, and University Administrators as Agents of Student Development
As with traditional brick-and-mortar counselor education programs, distance education programs are supported by two sets of institutional personnel. First, they are indirectly supported by a hierarchy of administrators, support staff, and program leadership, and secondly, students are directly supported by program faculty, who often become the primary, student-facing representatives, models, and mentors for both the institution and graduate programs. The challenge for distance counselor education programs becomes to lessen the impact of physical distance between faculty and students by facilitating meaningful, productive, and collaborative learning experiences for students with the use of distance technology as students matriculate through the curriculum, ensuring that students feel fully supported in the process (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Carlisle et al., 2017; Lock & Johnson, 2016; Milman et al., 2015; Sibley & Whitaker, 2015; Suler, 2016; Whitty, 2017). Success in this endeavor requires that institutional administration, program leadership, and faculty create and sustain a shared vision of how to train and support students consistent with institutional values, accreditation standards, best practices, and professional credentialing and licensure board requirements, which support student success beyond the graduate degree. We have found that these reciprocal relationships are essential to the process of enacting such a shared vision and, ironically, call upon counselor educators to utilize their counseling and conceptual skills, emotional intelligence, interpersonal expertise, and advocacy to inform and persuade institutional stakeholders in how best to train and prepare master’s- and doctoral-level counselors and counselor educators. Essential to the process of building and sustaining a successful program is nurturing productive relationships with invested stakeholders, which is within the scope of professional preparation and the experience of counselor educators. Faculty and program leadership are well-advised to perceive themselves as program ambassadors not only to students and other external constituents (e.g., prospective students, colleagues outside of the institution, licensure boards, professional organizations, accrediting bodies, the public), but also to their internal constituents. (e.g., university and college administration, colleagues in related disciplines, other essential decision-makers).
As previously noted, numerous factors impact students’ ability to be successful in distance counseling programs, including personal factors related to work and family circumstances; personal history related to success in school and self-efficacy (Kampfe et al., 2006; Wantz et al., 2003); and programmatic factors related to timeliness and efficacy of student support, online course platforms and curriculum development, technological support, and faculty engagement (Wantz et al., 2003). Although educators cannot control or predict students’ personal circumstances, they can control what occurs within the program in how they respond to supporting students. The reciprocal relationships between institutional and program leadership and program faculty constitute a foundation upon which to build a successful program. We have introduced the importance of developing a shared vision between these groups and specifically wish to address both institutional and program leadership and program faculty responsibilities in three critical program areas, namely building a community of learners, faculty presence and engagement in and out of the classroom, and student retention and gatekeeping.
Building a Learning Community for Student Development
Having a sense of community and belonging is essential to students’ success and retention (Berry, 2017). Many students in the online environment report feeling isolated (Berry, 2017) and are challenged to be resourceful, organized, and creative in ways they might not if they were enrolled in a traditional counselor education program. Time management, developing an intrinsic motivation to self-start, and strategically applying creativity in problem solving often become part of the skillset students develop out of necessity when working in a distance graduate program. These skills often manifest for students within their own version of cyberspace where they must rely upon themselves to persist in their graduate work. In order to combat the sense of isolation that contributes to student attrition, program faculty and administrators must work together to create a sense of community for students, which is largely accomplished using technology.
The Role of Course Development, Technology, and Program Leadership in Building a Learning Community. Technology is the primary apparatus that supports distance learning, but like any tool, it needs to be utilized with purpose, intention, and careful planning. As Snow et al. (2018) noted, numerous commercial products have been developed to enhance student learning, including synchronous audio and video platforms (e.g., Zoom, Adobe Connect, Kaltura) and classroom platforms (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Udemy) designed to help provide a usable space to house and disseminate the curriculum and support student learning. The key to effective use of these platforms includes developing courses designed for online learning, supporting faculty in course development and maintenance, and using technology to connect with and support the student experience. Although institutional leadership is often enthused about the potential for online learning and the use of technology to support it, faculty reactions appear to be mixed (Kolowich, 2012), and not all counselor education faculty embrace distance education as a legitimate method for training counselors (Snow et al., 2018), even though they may teach in distance programs as both core and adjunct faculty.
Increasingly in distance counselor education programs, technology is utilized that allows for more digital synchronous interactions between students and their peers and faculty. To increase student engagement, the use of videoconferencing, webcasts, and telephone conferences are often helpful with the learning process (Higley, 2013). Recognizing that interaction and engagement between students and faculty is a significant contributor to student success, faculty and program leadership look for ways in which technology can enhance those opportunities throughout the programs. Students can upload practice videos, experience virtual simulations, and participate in synchronous practice experiences through videoconferences where they directly communicate with faculty and peers. Some universities also have dedicated virtual social spaces for students to connect with each other and engage on a personal level. But invariably, these spaces are underutilized after the beginning of an academic term. Students are beginning to create their own social media sites for community building, sharing their experience of specific courses and instructors and challenges with securing sites for field experience. Although tempting to do so, university officials must guard against the desire to micromanage these experiences in order to manage public perceptions regarding their programs. Much like the conversations that go on in study groups and campus student centers everywhere, students need spaces to share their sentiments about their experience and benefit from their peers’ experiences. Besides, many of the students on these sites are very quick to correct erroneous assumptions or combat negative comments with accounts of their own positive experiences. Additionally, unadulterated feedback can be useful for programs in identifying areas for improvement.
Residential Laboratories. Over the years, there has been an evolution in the perception of counselor educators’ abilities to prepare counselors at a distance. As previously noted, once thought of as a suboptimal way to train counselors, distance learning is now being accepted and seen as legitimate (Snow et al., 2018). However, many distance counselor education programs have found that including a residential component to their primarily online programs positively impacts student success, student collaboration, engagement, and overall student satisfaction, as well as the strength of the learning community. In these residential laboratories, students practice skills in a synchronous environment where they get immediate feedback on their skill development and remediation if needed. They also work with peers without the constraints of those situational concerns referenced earlier, and they engage with their faculty and academic advisors. Students are able to connect with one another meaningfully and close the virtual distance by being able to interact with each other in person in real time. For distance learners, the opportunity to connect in person with a group of like-minded peers all striving for the same goal benefits them emotionally as well as academically. Most importantly, residential experiences allow faculty and program administrators to observe and conduct a more in-depth assessment of their students. These in-person residencies go a long way in building a sense of community for students (Snow et al., 2018).
Faculty as Community-Building Facilitators in the Virtual Classroom. As the primary facilitator of the classroom learning experience, the faculty contributes to community building. Faculty community building starts with an internal assessment of personal and shared professional values that drive student connection and enhance learning. Palmer (2007) described faculty developing a subject-centered posture where both faculty and students become part of a community of learners committed to engaging in “a collective inquiry into the ‘great thing’ [subject of focus]” (p. 128), which serves as the basis for optimal student development. “We know reality only by being in community with it ourselves” (Palmer, 2007, p. 100), which challenges the notion of faculty being the only experts that disseminate knowledge. As noted previously, andragogy promotes the idea that faculty members have a wealth of professional knowledge that they may use to stimulate experiences that will impact students in their growth and that the faculty seek to stimulate what students already bring both in their professional and personal life experience. Palmer (2007) noted that “good education is always more process than product” (p. 96) and that learning is sometimes a disruptive process in which students may feel temporarily dissatisfied with ideas, concepts, and processes that are unfamiliar as they get their values and biases bumped into. The job of faculty becomes being vigilant and recognizing opportunities to describe the experience through developing a balance between support and challenge that invites students to apply what they learn to their emerging professional and personal selves. Developing this kind of learning community means that faculty members must be willing to be vulnerable in the learning process just as their students are. They should resist seeing students solely as customers in their programs instead of as potential colleagues in the counseling profession. A careful examination of what counselor educators and supervisors do and the shared values that drive professional identity is essential in developing this kind of community of learners (Coppock, 2012). For faculty, this approach parallels the goal of developing cultural humility, which is a highly sought learning outcome for students (Fisher-Borne et al., 2015; Shaw, 2016).
Faculty members need to consider how they will personalize the virtual classroom and what areas they want to emphasize for their students. For example, forums dedicated to building connections through using photographs or small video introductions can enhance the classroom as a safe environment for students to interact. Making these introductions fun and engaging can go a long way to helping decrease the distance students may experience. Depending on the flexibility of the program for faculty to modify the classroom according to their preferences, faculty can create spaces for students to share their ideas and thoughts freely and help students discover how their ideas compare to those of their peers. Students often attempt to make only minimal and requisite connections between their ideas and their peers, but faculty can encourage a more meaningful discourse in which students’ expressed ideas are essential through modeling this themselves.
Additionally, faculty members aid students in becoming responsible community members in the classroom and professional community. The faculty models openness and acceptance of the personhood and individual perspectives of each student by offering encouraging responses that support their perspectives and challenge them to consider other points of view. By immediately attending to students’ expressions of thoughts and ideas that may be counterintuitive to the ACA ethical code or that might alienate other community members, faculty members facilitate a community where all students feel safe and included. Learning how to become professionals in a virtual community becomes an additional skillset that students develop as they engage in distance learning. This direct modeling has powerful implications for the kinds of relationships students establish with colleagues and clients within work settings they will engage in during their practicum and internship experiences.
Faculty Presence and Engagement as Conduits for Student Development
It is indisputable that faculty engagement with students in distance counselor education is essential. Students rely on faculty to provide clear steps in a process that requires self-motivation, resourcefulness, creativity, and persistence. An important part of building a productive learning community and promoting the culture of distance learning is helping students not only to engage in the subject (i.e., assignments, learning resources, readings, projects), but also to engage each other in order to maintain the relational quality of face-to-face interactions. We encourage faculty and program leadership to see students as individuals, to foster essential relationships, and to operationalize their caring for students in all their activities (Hall et al., 2010). As Hall et al. (2010) have noted, these activities require that those involved in preparing counselors at a distance remain focused and intentional about what they do when enacting their shared vision.
The Role of Institutional and Program Leadership in Faculty Engagement. The development and maintenance of online curriculum is central to student development, and careful planning, typically within a curriculum committee, helps maintain a vibrant and responsive curriculum (Brewer & Movahedazarhouligh, 2018). Course development for a distance education program, although vital, can be intimidating to faculty unfamiliar with the process who can have reservations about the efficacy of distance learning and their own ability in using technology to accomplish course goals. Sibley and Whitaker (2015) noted that faculty resistance needs to be responded to by institutional administration and program leadership with understanding and support. Wantz et al. (2003) assessed program leadership and faculty perceptions of online learning and discovered that faculty perceptions included concerns about the efficacy of online distance education, the belief that certain subject areas (i.e., practice and application of counseling skills, ability to accurately assess student mastery) might not be appropriate for a distance model, the cost–benefit balance and exertion of time and effort in creating and maintaining an online course, and the need to be compensated for this time and effort. Although this study is over 15 years old, it does give an important touchpoint concerning the perspectives of some faculty who work within residential and online programs.
For programs that rely heavily on faculty to create online curriculum, institutional and program leadership and administration will need to carefully review compensation policies and practices in programs that require faculty to integrate course development into their workload. Snow et al. (2018) verified that some faculty exhibit resistance toward distance learning, specifically faculty who themselves are teaching online courses either as adjuncts for online programs or who are being required to teach online courses as part of their full-time positions. Sibley and Whitaker (2015) noted that “since faculty participation can neither be mandated nor fabricated, institutions must make online learning attractive, accessible, and valuable to faculty” (para. 23). This starts with online instructional development teams cultivating a deep sense of respect for the expertise the counselor education faculty members possess and working to establish consultative relationships when developing the online curriculum, including helping faculty see what has been done successfully in other courses. Hall et al. (2010) described a philosophy of approaching distance learning from a humanistic framework: “The challenge was not to allow technology to limit or destroy the essence of the individuals involved in the learning process” (pp. 46–47), but for faculty to maintain the relationality with their students consistent with shared professional values that acknowledge counselor preparation as a high-touch (i.e., interpersonal, mentoring, supervising) endeavor. An important part of the successful deployment and maintenance of distance counselor education programs is in continually nurturing a values-based approach; soliciting buy-in from essential stakeholders; seeing and using technology as a tool and not a barrier to enhance connection and learning; and supporting the development of the curriculum, including scheduled revisions based on systematically collected assessment data (CACREP, 2015).
Understanding how to develop curriculum for counselor preparation programs is an essential point where online instructional development and program faculty meet. For example, according to media richness theory (Whitty, 2017), media-rich learning environments lend themselves best to subject areas that are “more ambiguous and open to interpretation” (p. 94) rather than topics that are clear and unambiguous, such as mathematical or scientific formulas. Media-rich learning is characterized by the following four criteria: the capacity for immediate feedback (i.e., clarity of the material), the capacity to transmit multiple cues (i.e., the ability to develop clear and meaningful consensus), language variety (i.e., being able to convey context to complex concepts and ideas), and the capacity of the medium to have a personal focus (i.e., making the learning personal and relevant to the perspectives and needs of the learner). Sibley and Whitaker (2015) point out that some faculty may see technology (including media) as a barrier between them and students rather than a tool to facilitate increased insight, conceptual understanding, and skill mastery, so supporting faculty in experimenting and adopting ways of interacting with technology is a logical starting place. Institutional and program leadership can help faculty become familiar with and invested in learning platforms through initial and ongoing training. Leadership also can help support faculty directly by determining what parts of the classroom can be personalized and modified (including learning activities and assignments) and which parts must remain constant for accreditation standards and learning outcomes assessment.
Additionally, institutional and program leadership are well-advised to develop processes that can monitor faculty activity within the virtual classroom that will reinforce expectations of what faculty should do weekly in the classroom (e.g., faculty must check into the classroom a minimum of four days per week, respond to 75% of student postings with substantive responses in the discussion forum, must review and grade assignments within 7 days, and must respond to student inquiries within 48 hours of receiving them) without coming across as micromanaging and punitive. Leadership may certainly achieve compliance, but they cannot demand engagement, which is based on the discretionary time, attention, effort, and energy faculty devotes to the learning endeavor based on their deeply held values and commitment to the shared vision they have for educating students.
We recommend that leadership strive for transparency in how monitoring of classroom activity is accomplished, its intent, and the use of assessment data. Without transparency, leadership takes on the risk of stoking faculty concerns about negative evaluations and ultimately the security of employment. Establishing peer monitoring through periodic course audits within a collegial, developmental, and supportive approach that is non-threatening to faculty will go a long way to sustaining faculty engagement in the classroom. Some larger distance education programs assign course stewards (i.e., a faculty member responsible for a particular course in the curriculum) who act as the first line of contact for faculty who may have questions about aspects of the course or particular assignments, or who might struggle with a student issue, and can support faculty directly through informal peer mentoring. This becomes especially important for adjunct faculty who need assistance in contextualizing the course into the larger program objectives and feeling invested in the success of program students. These kinds of structures and processes will be helpful if institutional and program leadership is committed to communicating regularly with faculty and promoting an environment of support and accountability.
Finally, institutional and program leadership can encourage a culture of openness to peer review and classroom observation that will help faculty improve their techniques and in a way that is non-threatening (Palmer, 2007). Developing and scheduling events and activities that foster professional renewal and connection between faculty can help strengthen the value of reflective practice in teaching that is essential throughout a faculty member’s career. Palmer (2007) writes the following about the tendency for faculty to remain “private” about their work in the classroom:
Involvement in a community of [andragogical] discourse is more than a voluntary option for individuals who seek support and opportunities for growth. It is a professional obligation that educational institutions should expect of those who teach—for the privatization of teaching not only keeps individuals from growing in their craft, but fosters institutional incompetence as well. By privatizing teaching, we make it hard for educational institutions to become more adept at fulfilling their mission. (p. 148)
Being able to see one’s teaching style, approach, and interactions through a colleague’s eyes can help faculty make appropriate adjustments and strengthen reflective practice, which is ironically what faculty expect from their students in a distance counseling program. This can model a culture of openness for the entire learning community.
Faculty Role in Student Engagement. We believe that faculty engagement with students and facilitating meaningful engagement of the subject matter in the classroom lies at the heart of student success, both within the program and in establishing a foundation for lifelong learning. Diminishing the distance in a distance counselor education program means that faculty members are eager to connect meaningfully with students, be open to their feedback about what is or is not working for them in the classroom, and take the time and effort to supply a rationale for particular assignments and activities, which includes how these learning experiences are relevant to professional growth. The value faculty offers is largely in their ability to make the curriculum come alive and to engage the student in seeing the subject matter differently than they might assume. This means that faculty members are challenged to use their time and effort strategically in developing therapeutic stories, analogies, and insights that can be utilized for a variety of professional circumstances, clinical situations, cultural encounters, and ethical dilemmas. Recognizing effort and validating students’ points of view, including being sensitive to the various personal contexts, shaped by life experience, that students bring to their learning, is essential in nurturing faculty–student relationships. In their theory on group development, Bennis and Shepard (1956) held that group members, prior to engaging in productive, emotionally intimate, affirming interactions with peers, first make decisions about the authority in the room, including accepting how the leader models engagement and psychological safety. It is not inconceivable that this similar dynamic occurs within the virtual classroom as students encounter the faculty leader and make decisions about how to approach the classroom, including using their experience as a springboard into how to behave and what to expect. Student engagement in the classroom is enhanced in three specific areas of faculty engagement: timely, relevant, consistent, and targeted feedback; substantive and relevant responses in discussion forums; and prompt and direct follow-up when necessary with students.
Timely, Relevant, Consistent, and Targeted Feedback. Feedback is the life blood of student development in a counselor preparation program, and students depend on faculty to provide affirming and corrective feedback on numerous levels that is proportional to learning activities and assignments. Proportionality is demonstrated when the faculty aligns feedback with what is most important within the goals and objectives of a course. For example, a common complaint of graduate program adult learners is that faculty members may sometimes become so overly concerned about student adherence to the American Psychological Association (APA) publication style manual that they minimize the content, concepts, insights, and ideas students attempt to convey in their raw and imperfect form. When students encounter this kind of disproportionate feedback, they learn what the faculty member most values and work to meet the implicit expectations, sometimes to the detriment of learning other and perhaps more important concepts related to the subject matter. When this occurs, students may subjugate all other considerations and simply seek to pass the course, while sacrificing learning and a love for the subject matter. The impression also might inadvertently be conveyed that authority ultimately rules which can reenact the wounds of past academic failures in students who do not view themselves as high performing.
Timely, relevant, consistent, and targeted feedback occurs when faculty members recognize and validate the effort students put into their work; respectfully describe what they see working well within student product and performance; provide a developmentally sensitive critique of the identified concern, while being careful not to overwhelm the student with a list of deficits; and offer respectful, corrective alternatives and offer to meet with the student to clarify anything that might be confusing. Timeliness is best achieved by staying on top of grading and meeting the established time parameters of when assignments will be evaluated and grades returned to the student. Feedback related to counseling or conceptual skills performance (such as in field experience) also includes faculty providing sample language that might be used in demonstrating the particular skill work that can help stimulate students in finding their own voices in how to communicate a particular thing to their clients.
Substantive and Relevant Responses in Discussion Forums. Discussion forums are often the most lively and engaging areas in a virtual classroom and where, often in distance counselor education, a significant part of the virtual teaching and learning takes place. Here students engage in articulating their insights and understanding of the subject matter and engage one another and faculty in respectful and honest interaction. Students can perceive online discussions as less threatening, particularly when verbalizing sensitive material, including values-driven points of view (Ancis, 1998), which often emerge in coursework such as ethics, social and cultural foundations, group counseling, and field experience courses. On the other hand, some students, because they perceive themselves as not being physically seen or heard, might engage in the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2016), wherein they can say things that are controversial or disrespectful based on the belief that being anonymous is the same as being undetectable. Or they may make comments that would be irresponsible in professional communications, which would obviously need to be corrected. Often these discussions are asynchronous, and students have the benefit of being able to clearly think about the subject matter, read, observe, and comprehend the learning resources (e.g., course readings and media), and prepare responses to discussion prompts to meet the requirements of the weekly assignment. Because students develop a routine within the classroom, they have been reinforced in how to respond, including deciding how much time and effort they will expend in developing their responses. In situations where students may simply default to becoming formulaic in their responses, faculty members can help students engage with the material more meaningfully through formative and summative feedback. A much more powerful way to help students engage in the discussion forum is for faculty to model what engaged responses look like and to encourage and invite students to engage more fully in their learning.
Faculty can engage creatively in the discussion forums by embedding YouTube videos, sharing links to TED talks, sharing important and relevant websites, and occasionally sharing humorous memes to help counter the effects of formulaic, routine, and mundane participation. Students can be encouraged to post a short video describing their reactions as a way of lessening the virtual distance and reminding class members of what each other looks like. Often, synchronous meetings occur through interactive video platforms where students are able to hear and see and be heard and seen by others, so encouraging connections with and between students within these learning opportunities can help prepare students to engage with the subject matter more meaningfully (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011).
A primary benefit of online discussions is that the discussion can also be preserved in an organized fashion for retrieval by students and faculty members (the discussions can be copied and pasted and stored electronically), thus chronicling and capturing the essence of the discussion, reinforcing what students said to their peers (the expression of their own perspectives), highlighting specific and targeted feedback related to the particular topic, and preserving essential references that might be useful for follow-up. Faculty can indirectly assess the efficacy of their responses to determine the degree to which their contributions are adding value or are simply facilitative in getting students to engage in the discussions with each other. This can include the instructor copying and pasting verbatim “chat” in the chat functions of live, synchronous video interactions where students can share insights, suggestions, websites, and other resources for student follow-up and review.
Prompt and Direct Follow-Up with Students. Perhaps the most effective and often time-consuming manifestation of faculty engagement is following up with students with live chats, phone calls, video interactions (e.g., Zoom, Skype, Adobe Connect technology), or face-to-face in real time for a variety of reasons. Often, students get the message from faculty, “If you need me, please reach out to me,” which translates to email interactions to address logistic concerns in the classroom. Students assume that because they need to be resourceful and proactive in their distance program, they will need to take care of themselves, by themselves, without seeking faculty interaction or intervention. Faculty advising and mentoring in residential programs appears clear cut; a student can drop into a faculty member’s office and address a concern or have a chat about professional or personal matters. This function may be more nebulous in a distance education environment unless the faculty makes explicit how they will follow up with students and interact with them personally. Faculty can address questions or concerns and also engage students in important advising regarding professional, ethical, academic, credentialing, and licensure issues; consult about clients they may encounter (if students are in their field experience); and have dedicated focused consultation on these important matters. Helping students feel valued means that faculty give uninterrupted time and resist multitasking, which can sometimes become a default for people who are part of a distance learning community. Faculty can engage students in skills practice and can record these practice sessions for students to retrieve and review as needed. Skills practice and mastery in distance counselor education has been identified as a central function for faculty in their work with students (Fominykh et al., 2018; Shafer et al., 2004; Trepal et al., 2007) and has been identified in helping strengthen self-efficacy beliefs in students (Watson, 2012). Faculty can initiate a student outreach in cases where they might feel concern over a student’s performance or change in classroom behavior. In these ways, the faculty lessens the distance, hold students closer to areas of support, and reassures students that they are practically cared for in their graduate work.
Student Retention and Gatekeeping
Student retention and gatekeeping functions are foundational to ensuring a broad access policy and maintaining quality control of program graduates. Students who struggle with academic and personal concerns need to have direct support from program faculty and administration in times in which they feel most challenged (Kampfe et al., 2006). Counselor educators and supervisors are ethically charged as gatekeepers for the counseling profession (ACA, 2014; Bryant et al., 2013; Dougherty et al., 2015; Dufrene & Henderson, 2009; Gaubatz & Vera, 2002; Homrich et al., 2014) and the implementation of gatekeeping is systemic and dependent on institutional and program leadership and program faculty to execute successfully. Leadership and faculty have separate but related functions in successful gatekeeping and in student retention.
The identification of students who struggle will almost always be within the oversight of individual faculty members. As noted previously, students can enter a distance counselor education program with academic challenges and with multiple and competing priorities as they balance family, work, and school responsibilities. CACREP (2015) requires that programs make students aware of counseling services available to them in cases where therapeutic help is warranted. Library services, writing center services, student support services, tutoring and mentoring, and disability services are often utilized to help students succeed in their academic pursuits. Academic leadership is charged with developing and maintaining systems, processes, and protocols that are activated when a student needs help and faculty members are essential in helping students access these services when needed. Faculty engagement is intricately tied to the successful utilization of these services, as students will see faculty as their “go-to” person to help sort through tricky issues and develop an action plan. Clear, two-way communication between faculty and academic leadership can assist in refining these processes and services.
Faculty Roles in Student Retention and Gatekeeping. Students in distress will often revert to actions that are driven by stress and anxiety rather than what is in their best interests, including moving away from those who can help them sort through challenging situations. As noted previously, faculty engagement helps students feel confident that the faculty cares about them not just as students, but as people. Caring and compassion is operationalized when faculty members are proactive in contacting students when there is a change in classroom performance and available when students reach out for assistance. Although it is tempting in a distance counselor education program to refer students to a particular service or give a phone number or a website address, we have found that students sometimes interpret such a referral as “passing the buck” and feel frustrated as this patented answer can be experienced as the typical response in other interactions with the university and program. Meeting students where they are in this context means that the faculty is well-enough aware of the services available that they can talk through the process of what a support contact would look like and what students might expect. This is an important part of developing productive relationships with internal constituents and nurturing contacts within the institution that will help expedite assistance when needed. In this way, faculty credibility is strengthened, and students feel cared for at times when it matters most.
Gatekeeping is a process typically enacted by faculty when there is a concern in student behavior and can be assessed at different points within students’ progress through their respective programs. Because of the highly personal nature of gatekeeping (i.e., identifying concerns and counseling with a student about his or her personal or professional behavior, values, ethics, and attitudes), some faculty may be reluctant to initiate conversations directly with students and might need additional supports from faculty, teams, or committees specially designated to address these student concerns. As previously noted, faculty members need to assess their own professional and personal values in making decisions about how they will engage students in difficult and courageous conversations regarding their professional development. Also, because of the nature of gatekeeping, the faculty is well-advised to document these student conversations in a follow-up email to the student, copied to other appropriate support people to ensure that problem identification, response, and associated actions are clear with identifiable timelines. This will help create the basis for a specific and targeted remediation plan (Dufrene & Henderson, 2009). Just as all students are individuals with specific contexts, all gatekeeping issues are not created equal. Students can present with skill deficits that require remediation in skills work where it is appropriate to assign them to a skills mentor who would help them work through skills challenges. The skills mentor would likely make reports to the gatekeeping committee regarding progress and additional supports if warranted. Students also can present with dispositional concerns that require a different response and intervention. Homrich et al. (2014) developed standards of conduct expected of counselor trainees throughout their programs that can act as an important foundation for developing dispositional standards that can be disseminated to students in orientation meetings and used periodically throughout key assessment points where dispositional concerns might be present.
It is inaccurate to assume that while some graduate counseling students are already professionals within a mental health setting (e.g., case manager, psychiatric technicians, intake representative), they know how to conduct themselves professionally and what constitutes professional behavior (Dougherty et al., 2015; Homrich et al., 2014). Faculty members who are proactive in modeling and talking explicitly about professionalism can influence students to consider their own behavior and make needed adjustments to be more in line with shared professional values and help them become more reflective in their practice (Rosin, 2015), strengthen their resiliency (Osborn, 2004), and develop effective reflective responding skills (Dollarhide et al., 2012). Faculty modeling of professional dispositions, reflective practice, and self-care will help normalize the commitment to the shared values of the profession and mentor students who may struggle to adopt and adjust to the demands of a profession that relies on professionals to commit and practice ethical values.
Institutional Support for Gatekeeping. The relationships with chief legal counsel and the dean of students are important to program administrators and faculty being able to effectively execute their role as gatekeepers to the counseling profession. Although program leadership makes the decisions about the evaluation process for students—the remediation plans and dismissal recommendations that relate to comportment, academics, and skill development—the decisions to dismiss are usually done in consultation with colleagues from the dean of students’ office and chief legal counsel.
Deans of Students as Gatekeeping Partners. In an era of increased litigiousness, students increasingly appeal the decisions of program leadership, often to the dean of students (Johnson, 2012). It is the role of the dean of students to support the overall mission of the university and enforce the roles of the institution, but this also is the person responsible for building community and being concerned about the emotional and physical welfare of students. Counselor educators work closely with the dean of students when students have violated university or program policy and when they are trying to identify the appropriate ways to respond to conduct and comportment concerns. The relationship between the program faculty and administrators and the dean of students is critical to ensuring that appropriate interventions are put in place to protect the individual student, the greater student body, the community, and the profession.
Chief Legal Counsel as Gatekeeping Partners. Equally important is the relationship between chief legal counsel and the program faculty and administration. The role of the general legal counsel in any organization is to “oversee the legal and compliance function” (McArdle, 2012, para. 2) of the organization. In higher education, it means that counsel also is providing oversight to internal compliance with university policies and making sure that the scope of those policies is not too broadly interpreted. This is very much a risk management role in some settings (McArdle, 2012). University lawyers advise us on the interpretation and the applicability of legal documents such as policy manuals, contracts, and articulation agreements. They also participate in significant dispute mediations and formal dispute resolution (Meloy, 2014).
Counselor educators are mandated to dismiss students who are deemed unfit for the profession and students for whom it is determined that their issues of concern cannot be remediated to the degree that they will be able to provide competent services to diverse clients (ACA, 2014). In addition, counselor educators are required by the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics to participate in ongoing evaluation of those they supervise and to provide remediation when needed (ACA, 2014). But the code also requires program leaders to dismiss from the training programs those who are unable to provide competent service. CACREP standards require that program faculty and administrators have a developmental and systematic assessment process. Administrators should work with legal counsel to ensure that no comportment dismissal is viewed as malicious or punitive. General counsel helps stakeholders ensure that a student’s rights have been protected in the process and that the dismissal process is a fair one. The challenge is to protect the university, the student, and the public (McAdams et al., 2007).
Counselor educators should receive guidance on institutional policy prior to implementation. There can be frustration on the part of counseling faculty and administrators that general counsel does not support their goals or their professional requirements. However, some of this frustration can be avoided if programs provide general counsel and other administrators with a profile of their responsibilities to the profession and the community with their training programs. It is important for counselor education administration and faculty to develop a relationship with general counsel early based on mutual alliance. Although the administration is not obligated to take the advice of general counsel in how they respond to a student situation, it is advisable to consider their guidance very carefully.
Building and Sustaining Credibility Within the University Culture
Most of the discussion around student selection, development, and retention has been focused on students, faculty, and the program. However, a program’s reputation and role in the institutional mission and the program administrators’ ability to communicate the value proposition of the program are critical contributors to selection, development, and retention. A full exploration of this idea is beyond the scope of this article, so these ideas will only be discussed briefly, with a charge to counselor educators, especially administrators of programs, to work together to ensure that preparation programs are able to demonstrate innovation, flexibility, and responsiveness so that the institutional and community value of these programs is clear and so that programs are able to secure sufficient resources to effectively educate, evaluate, and develop students.
One of the greatest challenges program administrators face in higher education is competing for limited resources (Pucciarelli & Kaplan, 2016). In addition, program administrators are continually challenged to demonstrate the relevance of their programs. As program administrators plan for the sustainability of their future, they must examine the changing needs of the profession to which they are responsible, the mission of the institution, the program mission, the preparation and needs of their students, the needs of the community they are serving, the availability of resources, the regulatory environment impacting professional practice, and the needs of the faculty and administrators providing oversight to the program. Considering the needs of many constituents is a very challenging proposition, but it is one made easier when there are clear guiding principles and philosophies or mission and vision for the program. Although not static, the mission and vision communicate the program’s aspirations and intentions to everyone. They also serve to give a program a clear identity in the university community. Using the mission and vision of the program as a reference point serves to inform all decision-making, particularly those decisions that relate to how learners in a program should be educated and which resources are a priority.
Managing the Student–Program Relationship
The changing dynamics of the student–program relationship do not rest entirely with student attitudes. Many of our university operations and recruitment strategies, designed to achieve student enrollment targets to attract the numbers and kinds of students the institutions desire, closely resemble strategies used in business (Hanover Research, 2014). Online programs have been particularly inclined to employ creative marketing strategies in order to convince potential learners to shift their paradigm from brick-and-mortar institutions as the only source of higher education to online institutions (OnlineUniversities.com, 2013). The unintended consequence is that this approach often fosters a customer–business relationship that can, at times, be counterproductive to the student–faculty/supervisee–supervisor relationship. In the face of critical evaluations of their professional comportment and skill development, students will oftentimes interject commentary about the price of the degree and their expectations that they will complete their academic programs primarily because of the money invested in that education.
We have found that what sometimes exacerbates this dynamic is a racially charged climate, and many students, especially students who are traditionally marginalized, are suspicious of faculty members’ motives for identifying student development needs. This is a challenge for online programs where, for much of their academic program, students only have a one-dimensional (i.e., faculty member’s written word) understanding of their faculty and administrators. Finally, because of this largely one-dimensional perception, it is more challenging to develop relationships with these students. Focusing on the relationship with students and being relationally oriented is essential. Faculty and administrators, in their efforts to attract, develop, and retain students, should be focused on relationship building at every opportunity, thereby creating an academic environment where students are clear about the expectations of the academic and professional practice community and understand the range of consequences for behavior that is outside those expectations.
Distance counselor education programs and counselor educators pay as much attention to students’ selection, development, and retention as traditional programs, often within a context of general skepticism about the ability to adequately train counseling students at a distance. However, as distance counselor educators, we are committed to educating counselors and counselor educators in this arena because of our commitment to access and opportunity for students and the communities they serve. We believe in all the essential ways that online education is the true equalizer for non-traditional and traditionally marginalized students, and broad-access admissions policies provide us with a vehicle to increase access. Being successful in this arena requires a commitment from program faculty, program administrators, and other university administrators. It also requires us to understand the needs of the online student population and commit to systematic ways of developing the adult learner while acknowledging and employing the individual student’s experiences as assets to the developmental process. Although we may employ technology to a greater degree than our colleagues in traditional education settings, we put the professional standards of quality and ethical practice, community and relationship building, and student academic and skill development as the foundation for all activities related to selection, development, and retention.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Savitri Dixon-Saxon, PhD, NCC, LPC, is Vice Provost at Walden University. Matthew R. Buckley, EdD, NCC, ACS, BC-TMH, LPC, LCMHC, is Senior Core Faculty at Walden University. Correspondence can be addressed to Savitri Dixon-Saxon, 100 Washington Ave. South, Suite 900, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2511, email@example.com.
Laura Haddock, Kristi Cannon, Earl Grey
Computer-enhanced counselor education dates as far back as 1984, and since that time counselor training programs have expanded to include instructional delivery in traditional, hybrid, and fully online programs. While traditional schools still house a majority of accredited programs, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) has accredited almost 40 fully online counselor education programs. The purpose of this article is to outline the similarities and differences between CACREP-accredited online or distance education and traditional program delivery and instruction. Topics include andragogy, engagement, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and gatekeeping.
Keywords: online, distance education, counselor education, andragogy, CACREP
Online counselor education training programs have continued to be developed year after year and have grown in both popularity and effectiveness. Recent trends in graduate education reflect online instruction as part of common practice (Kumar et al., 2019). Virtual training opportunities promote access for students who might not otherwise be able to participate in advanced education, and for some students, distance learning can be the ideal method to further their education as they strive to balance enrollment with remote geography, family life, and employment commitments. However, regardless of instructional setting, all counselor training programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) have distinct similarities. For example, CACREP-accredited programs are by nature graduate programs. There are no CACREP-accredited counselor training programs at the bachelor’s level or the doctoral level. To clarify, CACREP does offer accreditation for doctoral programs; however, most are focused on counselor education and supervision, and the curriculum is geared toward instructor and supervisor preparation versus counselor training. Thus, in every academic setting, master’s-level CACREP-accredited professional counselor training programs are simultaneously an introductory and a terminal degree. Both online and traditional programs must be prepared to design and deliver curriculum to students of various educational backgrounds that will ultimately equip graduates with the skills and dispositions needed for professional practice. As graduate students, enrollment is fully comprised of adult learners and this holds true regardless of instructional setting. Interestingly, most professional counseling literature uses the term pedagogy to reference the facilitation of learning within counselor training. For the purposes of this article, we will utilize the term andragogy, which is “the art and science of teaching adults” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
Counselor Education and Andragogy
Professional counseling literature related to andragogy is scarce and largely contains studies focused on meeting the needs of diverse students and preparing counselors to work with culturally diverse clients. Barrio Minton et al. (2014) conducted a 10-year content analysis of studies related to teaching and learning in counselor education, and the large majority of the studies grounded counselor preparation andragogy in counseling literature and theory as opposed to learning theories or research. Efforts to identify research specific to the andragogy of online counselor training produced minimal results, and a clear gap in the literature exists for empirical research when comparing online and traditional learning and instructional delivery. What did emerge from the research was debate regarding whether an online environment is appropriate to teach adult learners curriculum of the interpersonal nature of counseling (Lucas & Murdock, 2014). However, empirical evidence does exist to support the delivery of instruction in online academic environments as effective, although they require different andragogical methods and teaching practices (Cicco, 2013a). Additionally, studies on online education in higher education suggest that differences in student learning outcomes for traditional students and online students are not statistically significant (Buzwell et al., 2016). In fact, some evidence demonstrates superior outcomes in students enrolled in online courses (Allen et al., 2016). However, student perceptions of online learning and learning technologies outweighed pedagogy for impact on the quality of academic achievement (Ellis & Bliuc, 2019). Thus, emerging research on both method and student perceptions supports online counselor education as a viable instructional approach.
Characteristics of Online Learners
Before examining the similarities and differences in instructional practice and curriculum development between online and brick-and-mortar settings, consideration for the composition of the student body is warranted. The student body for both online and traditional programs have a higher enrollment of female versus male students and Caucasian versus other ethnicities across genders (CACREP, 2017). Because online programs are often comprised of non-traditional students who work full-time and are geographically diverse, this invites a student enrollment varied in age, race, ethnicity, physical ability, and educational background (Barril, 2017). Online training programs also demonstrate greater enrollment by learners from underrepresented populations (Buzwell et al., 2016).
Online Education Stakeholders
When we compare traditional programs and their online counterparts, the primary stakeholders for both settings include students and faculty members. In counselor training programs, the clients the graduates will serve also are stakeholders. The processes that occur in both traditional and online classrooms are aligned, with the “foci being teaching, learning, and . . . evaluation” (Cicco, 2013b, p. 1).
In 2018, Snow et al. conducted a study examining the current practices in online counselor education. The results indicated that overall, faculty instructors for online settings indicate a smaller class size with a reported mean enrollment of 15.5 students compared to traditional classroom enrollment of 25 or more. The study showed that both online and traditional programs utilize a variety of strategies for course enrollment, including both student-driven course selection and program-guided course enrollment within the learning community.
As previously mentioned, student perceptions of online learning emerged in the literature as a key for student academic success. However, research suggests that attrition rates for online students are much higher than those in traditional programs (Murdock & Williams, 2011). It has been suggested that elevated attrition rates in online programs could be related to students lacking a sense of connection to peers and program faculty and an insufficient learning community (Lu, 2017). Research reveals that the use of learning communities has proven successful in improving the retention rates (DiRamio & Wolverton, 2006; Kebble, 2017). The type and frequency of student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions in online versus traditional programs are different. In both settings, scholars seek a valuable learning experience (Onodipe et al., 2016). However, while social interaction is a routine part of face-to-face learning, the online environment requires intentional effort to promote interaction between learners and faculty. Research has suggested that online learners need assignments and activities that emphasize the promotion of connection with both the material and peers and faculty (Lu, 2017). At a basic level, affirmation for a job well done on an assignment and prompt and comprehensive feedback are examples of faculty–student engagement that produce student satisfaction regardless of instructional setting (O’Shea et al., 2015). However, we contend these sorts of intentional, personalized instructional interactions are critical for online students who could otherwise feel alienated or isolated in the online learning environment. For online educators, one requirement is to persistently promote engagement for online learners, which can prove to be challenging, and require supplementary or diverse approaches to forging productive student learning communities. Simply transferring material used in traditional classrooms into an online learning management system is not adequate to promote engagement and could instead contribute to both cognitive and emotional detachment.
Instructional Practice and Curriculum Development
There is limited literature comparing the curriculum development and content delivery methods between traditional and distance education specific to counselor education, but there is a body of literature comparing the factors that influence the efficacy of traditional and distance education in general. The gap in the counselor education literature requires a comparative assessment of the deciding factors leading to different curriculum development and delivery methods for counselor education programs.
Taylor and Baltrinic (2018) conducted a study in which they explored counselor educator course preparation and instructional practices. Unfortunately, the researchers did not include the educational delivery setting as a variable in the descriptive demographics, so it was impossible to discern whether the techniques that were identified as preferred methods of instruction were associated with online or traditional classrooms. However, it can be assumed that the preferences that were identified were geared more specifically to an in-class, face-to-face presentation. The five teaching methods that were explored for preferences in teaching content versus clinical courses included lecture, small group discussions, video presentations, case studies, and in-class modeling. Anecdotally, we assert that the reported preferences for instruction delivery would be different for online instructors and would be impacted by content delivery modality and technology. For example, if plans are disrupted in the traditional face-to-face classroom, such as internet disconnection, an instructor has the freedom to shift focus and move to a backup plan. However, an alternate instructional plan is not always available or feasible in an online environment (Marchand & Gutierrez, 2012). Delivery preferences can be influenced by the educational delivery setting in which the program was developed.
Educational Delivery Settings
Content delivery modalities determine whether a program is defined as traditional or distance (telecommunications or correspondence) in accordance with the Office of Postsecondary Education Accreditation Division of the U.S. Department of Education (2012). If a program offers 49% or less of their instruction via distance learning technologies, with the remaining 51% via in-person synchronous classroom, the Department of Education categorizes that program as traditional education. The Department of Education defines distance education as instructional delivery using technology to support “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously” in courses in which the students are physically separated from their instructor (Office of Postsecondary Education Accreditation Division, 2012, p. 5). The Department of Education further clarifies that a distance education program offers at least 50% or more of their instruction via distance learning technologies that include telecommunications (Office of Postsecondary Education Accreditation Division, 2012). The Office of Federal Student Aid of the U.S. Department of Education separates distance programs between telecommunications courses and correspondence courses. A telecommunication course uses “television, audio, or computer (including the Internet)” to deliver the educational materials (Office of Federal Student Aid, 2017, p. 299). A correspondence course includes home study materials without a course or regular interactions with an instructor (Office of Federal Student Aid, 2017). Although discussing correspondence education is outside the scope of this article, including it as context for educational delivery settings is valuable to have a full view of content delivery options as defined by the Department of Education.
Through informal observations of counselor education programs, the hybrid or blended program seems to be neglected in the current educational delivery setting definitions provided by the Department of Education. Although there are variations in the definition of a hybrid or blended program, the Department of Education does not use hybrid or blended education as a category. Because most, if not all, programs integrate some level of telecommunications technology as defined above, we recommend using the word hybrid as a qualifier to the categories of educational delivery settings to more accurately categorize the unique complexity and needs of every counselor education program. We recommend defining the qualifier of hybrid as a program that offers at least 25% and no more than 75% of their instruction via a combination of distance learning telecommunication technologies and a traditional classroom. This qualifier would be added to the Department of Education’s primary definition of a traditional or distance program based on the percentage of telecommunications technologies used for content delivery. By adding this qualifier, a program may be categorized as traditional, traditional hybrid, distance hybrid, or distance education. The traditional setting uses telecommunications technologies for up to 25% of their content delivery, traditional hybrid is 26%–49%, distance hybrid is 50%–75%, and distance education has 76%–100% of their content delivered using telecommunications technologies. See Figure 1 for a visual representation of the Educational Delivery Settings Continuum.
Educational Content Delivery Continuum.
Note. This figure demonstrates the percentages of content delivered using telecommunications technologies for each setting.
When we adopt the continuum above it becomes clear that counselor education content delivery cannot be reduced to a dichotomy. Viewing counselor education program content delivery through the lens of a continuum results in valuing the unique needs, complexities, and strengths of all counselor education programs with varying degrees of technology sophistication. Further, using this continuum can more accurately highlight the similarities across counselor educator programs instead of the differences. By definition, if any program relies on email and a website to communicate information about the content of the program (e.g., submitting assignments), that program is using telecommunication technologies to some degree. The above continuum is an important context for reviewing the current state of counselor education program content delivery and curriculum development. Because the traditional educational delivery setting was the starting point for formal education, a program will inevitably have a reason, purpose, or motive for integrating technology into a traditional model.
Motivation to Integrate Learning Technologies
When we examine the history of curriculum development and delivery methods, we can use traditional education as our starting point, dating back to the Socratic method (Snow & Coker, 2020). As Snow and Coker (2020) have shared, there are two primary motivators to developing or integrating technology into content delivery—increasing access and increasing revenues. These program development motivators can be valuable when initiating curricula, as long as programs consider how technological tools will be used to promote the “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor” (Office of Postsecondary Education Accreditation Division, 2012, p. 5). This requires initial planning to integrate technological tools that can both deliver content and promote a learning community. Technology in any amount is a tool requiring skillful application in order to promote an effective technologically supported learning experience (Hedén & Ahlstrom, 2016; Koehler et al., 2004). Although some might choose to debate the differences in benefit between increasing access and revenues, a more equitable comparison for motivations requires the context of the faculty’s ability to skillfully deliver course content using technology. The faculty’s instructional practices impact the application of the program development motivators.
As we consider the continuum of technology integration for counselor education programs in different settings, we must consider the level of synchronicity for content delivery. Historically, the nature of professional counseling work has been synchronous, in-person interactions. The synchronous nature of the counseling profession is often used to argue that traditional programs are more effective than distance programs. Looking at a historical read/write approach (i.e., read materials and rely on written assignments to evaluate learning) to distance education, there can be some validity to the perceived challenges for a distance counselor education program that delivered its content in a read/write format only. Often, distance counselor education programs have overcome this perceived challenge by integrating traditional components into their curriculum.
Technology advancements provide new mediums for both synchronous and asynchronous learning to prepare a counselor-in-training. Counselors’ and counselor educators’ duties require some amount of synchronous activities (i.e., in-person interactions between two or more individuals occurring at the same time). As we view the counseling profession through the lens of telecommunications, the paradigm is expanding to include asynchronous counseling activities (i.e., interactions between two or more individuals occurring at various time intervals, such as text messaging).
Because the counseling profession requires human interactions, it seems fair that synchronous components, whether in person or technologically assisted, are necessary to prepare counselors-in-training. The synchronous component of every counselor education program is that of the practicum and internship experiences. The didactic curriculum in a counselor education program can vary between synchronous and asynchronous. But when a counselor-in-training meets the practicum and internship benchmarks, synchronicity is required by virtue of program accreditation standards and professional regulations. Although there can be an expansion into the asynchronous approach to counseling field experience in the distant future, it may not be realistic to imagine a fully asynchronous field experience. Consideration of the modalities used to deliver supervision and direct counseling services as part of the practicum and internship provides great opportunity to align these experiences with the overall curriculum delivery methods of the counselor education program and promote future skills for professional counselors.
Curriculum Development Models
The curriculum development model used for the counselor education program also can impact the program’s level of synchronicity. Although there are multiple designs that can guide curriculum development, there are two models often used in counselor education—teacher-centered and subject-centered. Programs used the teacher-centered approach when the curriculum was designed with the teacher as the subject matter expert and the content was designed to guide the learner through the content by way of the guidance of the teacher (Dole et al., 2016; Pinnegar & Erickson, 2010). Programs used the subject-centered approach when the subject matter guided the organization of the content and how the learning was assessed to support consistency across instructors (Burton, 2010; Dole et al., 2016). It would be inaccurate to assign either one of the approaches to a specific setting category as each approach can be plotted along the above continuum.
The teacher-centered approach allows the teacher to own their curriculum, and the specifics of the content within the same subject can vary across teachers. The teacher-centered approach occurs when assigned faculty members develop a course from scratch. They can use information from similar courses; however, there is a great amount of flexibility and freedom to develop the course content and delivery modalities. This approach may or may not integrate curriculum across multiple sections of the course taught by different instructors. The teacher-centered approach also can have varying degrees of course curriculum connections across different courses within the program. The instructor of the course in the teacher-centered approach typically develops the course and teaches the course, so they are intimately aware of the intention and nuances behind each element of the course curriculum.
The subject-centered approach often relies on a team approach and can support consistency across sections of the same course. The subject-centered approach can assign responsibilities for the development to different team members (e.g., subject matter expert, curriculum design expert, learning resource expert). Team members work collaboratively to develop curriculum that targets critical elements of knowledge, skills, or dispositions directed by the subject matter. There can be a scaffolding approach to the overarching program curriculum when using a subject-centered approach. The subjects can be linked across courses to support collective success across the program’s curriculum. Although the instructor of the subject-centered curriculum did not typically take part in the development, they are tasked with bringing the course content to life by adding additional resources, examples, and professional experiences to the course curriculum. Now that we have discussed the various educational delivery settings, the motivation for integrating technologies, impact of instructional practices, and curriculum development models, we can consider the application of learning telecommunication technologies.
Learning Telecommunication Technologies
As telecommunication technologies have advanced, the integration of asynchronous counseling and telehealth is changing the landscape of the profession. Although there are state-specific definitions of the term, in sum telehealth refers to providing technology-assisted health care from a distance (Lerman et al., 2017). These changes in the counseling profession force us to consider the needs and the impact of the level of formal integration of technology skills training or practice in a counselor education program. This alone may begin to separate counselor education programs along the educational delivery settings continuum.
Using the traditional education category as our foundational approach for counselor education, we can see the parallels between the in-person synchronous experiences in the classroom and in counseling sessions. Professional counselors of the 21st century now need to be equipped with skills using and maneuvering technologies for communicating, documenting, and billing. Technology skills have received limited attention in the current CACREP standards as only five core standards and seven specialty standards mention technology. Technology is not mentioned in the specialty standards for Addiction Counseling; Clinical Mental Health Counseling; College Counseling and Student Affairs; Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling; or School Counseling. There is one mention of technology for the doctoral program specialty standards (CACREP, 2015). Conversely, all 50 states in the United States have laws related to practicing telehealth (Lerman et al., 2017). The limited number of program accreditation standards that include technology neglects the current and future needs of professional counselors. Professional counselors are taxed with learning the required technological skills on the job instead of while enrolled as a student in their counselor education programs.
A key factor in content delivery decisions is considering the type of learner the program will serve. The motivation, synchronicity level, and design approach all guide how successful a student will be. Not all students can be successful in every type of educational delivery setting. When considering synchronicity, the teacher-centered approach often is dependent on a greater percentage of synchronicity, while the subject-centered approach has flexibility in the percentage of synchronicity needed to effectively deliver the content. The choice in curriculum design approach also relates to the type of learner that the program attempts to serve. Yukselturk and Bulut’s (2007) description of the self-regulated learner summarizes the qualities of a learner that can be more successful with a greater percentage of asynchronous work. We also need to consider the comparative processes in a counselor-in-training’s development through a program of study.
Student Development in Online Education
Assessment of Skills and Dispositions
Assessment of skills and dispositions is a critical element of any counselor training program. The assessment process ensures that students have received the necessary training to demonstrate the skills and dispositions required to work with the public. The sections below will highlight a few of the ways student assessment is currently addressed within programs with online components.
Regardless of format, the key to effectively developing clinical skills in counselor trainees begins with intention. There are many shared approaches to teaching skills and techniques to counselor trainees in both online and traditional university settings. The nuances of online skills evaluation often begin with student access. Whereas traditional training programs have direct access to students in class and often do things like role-plays, practice sessions, and mock session evaluation in person, online programs do these in differing ways. There is a heavier reliance on technology to help facilitate exposure, practice, and assessment at a distance. This is demonstrated with greater use of podcasts, video clips, and video interfaces (Cicco, 2011). Additionally, there is a stronger need for well-developed relationships between students, faculty, and supervisors (Cicco, 2012). This strengthens the communication process and allows for more familiarity between the student and evaluators. It also allows for increased positive feedback, which can help reduce student anxiety and increase skill competency among counselor trainees in an online setting (Aladağ et al., 2014).
Fully online programs and some hybrid models often include synchronous activities, such as weekly course practice sessions, whereby students will meet via video technology and practice in front of the class or through a recorded session that can be viewed by the instructor at a later date. Feedback is an important part of this process and often includes both peer feedback, in the form of observation notes or class discussion, as well as notes or scaled assessments or rubrics provided to the student by the instructor (Cicco, 2011). This type of feedback is generally formative, which allows counselor trainees the opportunity to practice skills that are required by the program with a high level of frequency and relatively low stakes. Final course or summative evaluations often reflect a student’s combined skills practice demonstration and growth across the term.
Another frequently utilized form of skills assessment in online education is a residency model. In this training format, students gather in person with program faculty for a designated time (often 5–7 days) to complete specific skills-related training. Here, students may receive a combination of skills-based practice, faculty demonstrations, and skills- and content-based lectures. Within this format, skill development is specifically highlighted and opportunities to practice and receive real-time formative feedback are included. These in-person experiences are often evaluated in a summative manner at the conclusion of the experience with some form of established skills evaluation form. Determinations for additional skills training or remediation are often made at this point as well.
Much like skills assessment, dispositional assessment is a key function of counselor training programs and a requirement in the 2016 CACREP standards (CACREP, 2015). However, while skills are more behavior-based and observable, dispositional assessment often requires faculty and administrators to make judgments on student characteristics that are more abstract and difficult to define (Eells & Rockland-Miller, 2010; Homrich, 2009). Coupled with this is the fact that within the counseling profession, there are currently no specifically designed dispositional competencies (Homrich et al., 2014; Rapp et al., 2018). The result is that residence-based programs, as well as those online, are faced with the challenge of generating and operationalizing key dispositional characteristics within their counseling programs and in determining solid methods for assessment.
While challenging to establish, there have been programs that have made their disposition development process available to the broader counseling profession (Spurgeon et al., 2012). Additionally, Homrich et al. (2014) conducted a study with 82 counselor educators and supervisors from CACREP-accredited programs to better determine what dispositional characteristics are most valued in the counseling profession. Their results indicated three primary clusters of behavior specific to counselor disposition: (a) professional behaviors, (b) interpersonal behaviors, and (c) intrapersonal behaviors, with an emphasis on things like maintaining confidentiality, respecting the values of others, demonstrating cultural competence, and having an awareness of how personal beliefs impact performance. Similarly, Brown (2013) proposed the domains of (a) professional responsibility, (b) professional competence, (c) professional maturity, and (d) professional integrity, with associated behaviors within each domain. Many of these behaviors are indicated in the Counseling Competencies Scale, which has a specific section on counselor disposition (Swank et al., 2012). Having this psychometrically tested and sound assessment certainly aids in the process of assessing dispositions, whether online or in a traditional university setting.
Despite having some degree of guidance on dispositions and how to assess them, the unique elements of online education similarly reflect what was noted in the skills section—a lack of direct access to students, which alters the ability to assess formally and informally on already abstract concepts. While obvious or visibly present in a traditional classroom, interaction can be hidden behind a computer screen in the online setting. As a result, online-based programs often get around this limitation by creating opportunities to challenge students’ thinking and belief systems as well as enhancing awareness of key triggers and blind spots. Within the classroom, specific efforts can be made to create assignments in which students will face dilemmas and varied cultural experiences. Similarly, students can be asked to role-play certain characters or serve as the counselor to clients who may be perceived as controversial. These types of activities allow online counselor educators to first evaluate the responses students have, as well as to gauge openness to feedback if concerns arise in the initial response. Residency or other synchronous experiences, like video-based synchronous classrooms, afford faculty the chance to see and work with students on an interpersonal level. They also allow students to interact with one another and in some cases receive feedback from one another. Much like in the classroom, faculty members are then able to assess students on the interactions as well as on how students respond to specific feedback.
One area that is unique to online education and dispositional assessment is that of cyber incivility. De Gagne et al. (2016) defined cyber incivility as “a direct and indirect interpersonal violation involving disrespectful, insensitive, or disruptive behavior of an individual in an electronic environment that interferes with another person’s personal, professional, or social well-being, as well as student learning” (p. 240). Because online education programs rely so heavily on written electronic communication, both in the classroom and through email, there is a growing need for evaluation of interpersonal interactions in written online formats. Students who would otherwise never come into their faculty member’s office and disparage them face-to-face, or speak offensively to another student in a traditional classroom, might not struggle to do so when online. As a result, online education programs need to fine-tune the way they operationalize certain dispositional characteristics and otherwise make more formal evaluations of things like tone and messaging in written communication and interpersonal interactions. Recommendations to best address this include heightening students’ awareness of cyber incivility in both the curriculum and programmatic policies and communication (De Gagne et al., 2016), and assessing for cyber incivility as part of a dispositional evaluation. These types of assessment practices ultimately help online programs in the broader area of professional gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping is a fundamental part of the counselor training process and is mandated by section F.6.b. of the American Counseling Association’s ACA Code of Ethics (2014). As defined by the ACA Code of Ethics, gatekeeping is “the initial and ongoing academic, skill, and dispositional assessment of students’ competency for professional practice, including remediation and termination as appropriate” (2014, p. 20). It therefore includes both the assessment and evaluation process of each counselor trainee, but also the need for appropriate remediation, support, and dismissal by the programs that support them. In addition to the ethical mandate for gatekeeping, significant litigation in counseling programs (Hutchens et al., 2013) and a greater emphasis on assessment and gatekeeping in the CACREP 2016 standards (CACREP, 2015) have fostered a real need for programs of all types to firm up the gatekeeping process.
Gatekeeping is well addressed in the counseling literature, including the need for programs to create transparent performance assessment policies and practices that are explicitly communicated to students and to which students can respond (Brown-Rice & Furr, 2016; Foster & McAdams, 2009; Rapp et al., 2018). Ziomek-Daigle and Christensen (2010) proposed that there are four phases to the gatekeeping process: (a) preadmission screening, in which potential students are evaluated on key metrics prior to admission; (b) postadmission screening, in which actively enrolled students are evaluated and monitored on academic aptitude as well as interpersonal reactions; (c) remediation plan, in which students requiring remediation are provided intensified supervision and personal development; and (d) remediation outcome, in which students are evaluated on their remediation efforts and determined to be successful or not. The value of these proposed frameworks and theories is that they can be adapted and used to support the gatekeeping process of all counseling programs, regardless of the format. This is particularly valuable when as many as 10% of students in counseling programs may be deficient in skills, abilities, or dispositions and ill-suited for the profession (Brown-Rice & Furr, 2016).
In online education, the process of gatekeeping can look very similar to traditional programs, but it often requires a specific or altered set of practices to support its students. First, though not always the case, many online programs have an open- or broad-access admissions policy. This means that while certain minimal requirements have to be met (e.g., GPA, letters of recommendation, goal statement) at the preadmissions phase, other more traditional prescreening steps, such as student interviews (Swank & Smith-Adcock, 2014; Ziomek-Daigle & Christensen, 2010), may not be included. The byproduct of this may mean that there is a heightened level of gatekeeping required at the other phases: postadmission screening, remediation plan, and remediation outcome (Ziomek-Daigle & Christensen, 2010). This often results in the need for more faculty support related to the remediation process itself, as well as the need for very clear policies and practices related to remediation and dismissal that are consistently applied across a larger group of students.
While there is a call for all programs to make explicit policies and practices related to the gatekeeping process (Hutchens et al., 2013), online education programs have a heightened responsibility to overly communicate these practices. Students in online programs often are required to do much of their coursework on their own as well as attend and complete orientations and information sessions via electronic formats. The lack of direct contact with students means that online programs need to be more overt with policy messaging and provide repeated exposure to gatekeeping practices so that students stay informed. Often this is done via classroom announcements, email messaging, and course- or program-based requirements in which they must sign statements or acknowledgement forms indicating they have read and understand specific policies.
As remediation needs develop through the gatekeeping process, one of the fundamental needs of distance-based programs is strong collaboration and consultation among faculty and administration. Faculty with student concerns need the outlet and opportunity to connect with their colleagues to address potential issues and determine if issues are isolated. This is not unlike what occurs in traditional programs; however, the mechanisms for communication can differ, requiring more phone calls, tracking of email communication, and increased documentation in shared electronic records platforms. Problematic behaviors can be hard to parse out (Brown, 2013; Brown-Rice & Furr, 2016) regardless of setting, but can be increasingly challenging to identify online. Having these types of opportunities to connect with colleagues and track student issues is imperative to good remediation in an online setting.
Similarly, there is often the need for remediation committees in online programs. These committees generally include faculty and leadership within the program that work specifically to address the remediation needs of identified students. They can be content-specific—focusing solely on skills remediation or dispositional remediation—or they can serve both functions. While some traditional counseling programs have remediation committees (Brown, 2013), online programs often serve a significant number of students, which can translate to a higher number of students requiring remediation and support. Having a formalized process in place that is guided by a remediation or student support committee can be invaluable to this type of load.
When comparing program delivery and instructional variance between CACREP-accredited online and traditional counselor training programs, it is clear there are distinct similarities and differences. While the literature included debate regarding the appropriateness of an online environment for training counselors, research supports online counselor education training as effective for skill and professional identity development, despite requiring different instructional practices than traditional classrooms. Similarities between both settings also include a student body made up of adults, with a higher enrollment of Caucasian female students. However, online programs show greater diversity within their student body with higher numbers of non-traditional and underserved populations. One significant difference in online and traditional settings was attrition rates, which were higher for online programs, and research suggests that the social interaction that is a routine part of traditional training could hold a key to successful program completion for online learners. Future implications for counselor education are the expansion of empirically based curriculum development approaches that not only engage students but promote increased connection with the material, faculty, and peer learning communities. Another critical future direction of the counseling profession that has implications for both educational environments is the formal integration of technology skills training into the curriculum. While the academic core content areas are aligned for both settings, telehealth is rapidly changing the required skill sets for counselors to include communicating, documenting, and billing clients through electronic means.
Online counseling programs are growing in number and type, with many traditional programs now offering courses or full-program offerings at a distance. The increasing demand for this delivery model ultimately means more students will be trained at a distance, with an ever-increasing need to ensure appropriate assessment and gatekeeping practices. Faculty and administrators must be mindful of developing strong processes around admissions, student developmental assessment, remediation, and, where necessary, dismissal. Visual technology and simulation experiences are already being used by many online programs and will continue to grow and diversify as students seek new ways and opportunities to train at a distance. As more programs adopt online courses or curriculum, it is important that those programs, and the larger university systems that support them, are equipped to provide necessary training in the most effective and meaningful ways, while ensuring appropriate assessment and gatekeeping.
Finally, while conducting the review of literature for the analysis of similarities and differences between online and traditional programs, we revealed some gaps in existing research. Suggestions for future research include an investigation of instructional practices within online settings inclusive of delivery methods specific to asynchronous learning. Research indicates that attrition rates are higher for online programs, but it would be useful for researchers to investigate variables that contribute to attrition in online counseling students. Similarly, a meta-analysis of remediation practices as well as a qualitative inquiry of successful remediation efforts from both the faculty and student perspective may provide useful information in closing the gap for degree completion between online and traditional students. Finally, with the growing demand for technology literacy, the development of technology competencies for professional counselors could prove very useful for both curriculum development and counselor supervisors in facilitating success in developing professionals.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Laura Haddock, PhD, NCC, ACS, LPC-S, is a clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University. Kristi Cannon, PhD, NCC, LPC, is a clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University. Earl Grey, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, ACS, BC-TMH, LMHC, LPC, is an associate dean at Southern New Hampshire University. Correspondence can be addressed to Laura Haddock, 3100 Oakleigh Lane, Germantown, TN 38138, firstname.lastname@example.org.
William H. Snow, Margaret R. Lamar, J. Scott Hinkle, Megan Speciale
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) database of institutions revealed that as of March 2018 there were 36 CACREP-accredited institutions offering 64 online degree programs. As the number of online programs with CACREP accreditation continues to grow, there is an expanding body of research supporting best practices in digital remote instruction that refutes the ongoing perception that online or remote instruction is inherently inferior to residential programming. The purpose of this article is to explore the current literature, outline the features of current online programs and report the survey results of 31 online counselor educators describing their distance education experience to include the challenges they face and the methods they use to ensure student success.
Keywords: online, distance education, remote instruction, counselor education, CACREP
Counselor education programs are being increasingly offered via distance education, or what is commonly referred to as distance learning or online education. Growth in online counselor education has followed a similar trend to that in higher education in general (Allen & Seaman, 2016). Adult learners prefer varied methods of obtaining education, which is especially important in counselor education among students who work full-time, have families, and prefer the flexibility of distance learning (Renfro-Michel, O’Halloran, & Delaney, 2010). Students choose online counselor education programs for many reasons, including geographic isolation, student immobility, time-intensive work commitments, childcare responsibilities, and physical limitations (The College Atlas, 2017). Others may choose online learning simply because it fits their learning style (Renfro-Michel, O’Halloran, & Delaney, 2010). Additionally, education and training for underserved and marginalized populations may benefit from the flexibility and accessibility of online counselor education.
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2015) accredits online programs and has determined that these programs meet the same standards as residential programs. Consequently, counselor education needs a greater awareness of how online programs deliver instruction and actually meet CACREP standards. Specifically, existing online programs will benefit from the experience of other online programs by learning how to exceed and surpass minimum accreditation expectations by utilizing the newest technologies and pedagogical approaches (Furlonger & Gencic, 2014). The current study provides information regarding the current state of online counselor education in the United States by exploring faculty’s descriptions of their online programs, including their current technologies, student and program community building approaches, and challenges faced.
Distance Education Defined
Despite its common usage throughout higher education, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) does not use the terms distance learning, online learning, or online education; rather, it has adopted the term distance education (DOE, 2012). However, in practice, the terms distance education, distance learning, online learning, and online education are used interchangeably. The DOE has defined distance education as the use of one or more technologies that deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and that supports “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously” (2012, p. 5). The DOE has specified that technologies may include the internet, one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast and other communications devices, audioconferencing, videocassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs. Programs are considered distance education programs if at least 50% or more of their instruction is via distance learning technologies. Additionally, residential programs may contain distance education elements and still characterize themselves as residential if less than 50% of their instruction is via distance education. Traditional on-ground universities are incorporating online components at increasing rates; in fact, 67% of students in public universities took at least one distance education course in 2014, further reflecting the growth in this teaching modality (Allen & Seaman, 2016).
Enrollment in online education continues to grow, with nearly 6 million students in the United States engaged in distance education courses (Allen & Seaman, 2016). Approximately 2.8 million students are taking online classes exclusively. In a conservative estimate, over 25% of students enrolled in CACREP programs are considered distance learning students. In a March 2018 review of the CACREP database of accredited institutions, there were 36 accredited institutions offering 64 degree programs. Although accurate numbers are not available from any official sources, it is a conservative estimate that over 12,000 students are enrolled in a CACREP-accredited online program. When comparing this estimate to the latest published 2016 CACREP enrollment figure of 45,820 (CACREP, 2017), online students now constitute over 25% of the total. This does not include many other residential counselor education students in hybrid programs who may take one or more classes through distance learning means.
At the time of this writing, an additional three institutions were currently listed as under CACREP review, and soon their students will likely be added to this growing online enrollment. As this trend continues, it is essential for counselor education programs to understand issues, trends, and best practices in online education in order to make informed choices regarding counselor education and training, as well as preparing graduates for employment. It also is important for hiring managers in mental health agencies to understand the nature and quality of the training graduates of these programs have received.
One important factor contributing to the increasing trends in online learning is the accessibility it can bring to diverse populations throughout the world (Sells, Tan, Brogan, Dahlen, & Stupart, 2012). For instance, populations without access to traditional residential, brick-and-mortar classroom experiences can benefit from the greater flexibility and ease of attendance that distance learning has to offer (Bennet-Levy, Cromarty, Hawkins, & Mills, 2012). Remote areas in the United States, including rural and frontier regions, often lack physical access to counselor education programs, which limits the numbers of service providers to remote and traditionally underserved areas of the country. Additionally, the online counselor education environment makes it possible for commuters to take some of their course work remotely, especially in winter when travel can become a safety issue, and in urban areas where travel is lengthy and stressful because of traffic.
The Online Counselor Education Environment
The Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) Technology Interest Network (2017) recently published guidelines for distance education within counselor education that offer useful suggestions to online counselor education programs or to those programs looking to establish online courses. Current research supports that successful distance education programs include active and engaged faculty–student collaboration, frequent communications, sound pedagogical frameworks, and interactive and technically uncomplicated support and resources (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Murdock & Williams, 2011). Physical distance and the associated lack of student–faculty connection has been a concern in the development of online counselor education programs. In its infancy, videoconferencing was unreliable, unaffordable, and often a technological distraction to the learning process. The newest wave of technology—enhanced distance education—has improved interactions using email, e-learning platforms, and threaded discussion boards to make asynchronous messaging virtually instantaneous (Hall, Nielsen, Nelson, & Buchholz, 2010). Today, with the availability of affordable and reliable technical products such as GoToMeeting, Zoom, and Adobe Connect, online counselor educators are holding live, synchronous meetings with students on a regular basis. This includes individual advising, group supervision, and entire class sessions.
It is important to convey that online interactions are different than face-to-face, but they are not inferior to an in-person faculty–student learning relationship (Hickey, McAleer, & Khalili, 2015). Students and faculty prefer one method to the other, often contingent upon their personal belief in the effectiveness of the modality overall and their belief in their own personal fit for this style of teaching and learning (Watson, 2012). In the actual practice of distance education, professors and students are an email, phone call, or videoconference away; thus, communication with peers and instructors is readily accessible (Murdock & Williams, 2011; Trepal, Haberstroh, Duffey, & Evans, 2007). When communicating online, students may feel more relaxed and less inhibited, which may facilitate more self-disclosure, reflexivity, and rapport via increased dialogue (Cummings, Foels, & Chaffin, 2013; Watson, 2012). Subsequently, faculty who are well-organized, technologically proficient, and more responsive to students’ requests may prefer online teaching opportunities and find their online student connections more engaging and satisfying (Meyer, 2015). Upon Institutional Research Board approval, an exploratory survey of online counselor educators was conducted in 2016 and 2017 to better understand the current state of distance counselor education in the United States.
Recruitment of participants was conducted via the ACES Listserv (CESNET). No financial incentive or other reward was offered for participation. The 31 participants comprised a sample of convenience, a common first step in preliminary research efforts (Kerlinger & Lee, 1999). Participants of the study categorized themselves as full-time faculty members (55.6%), part-time faculty members (11.1%), academic chairs and department heads (22.2%), academic administrators (3.7%), and serving in other roles (7.4%).
Study Design and Procedure
The survey was written and administered using Qualtrics, a commercial web-based product. The survey contained questions aimed at exploring online counselor education programs, including current technologies utilized, approaches to reducing social distance, development of community among students, major challenges in conducting online counselor education, and current practices in meeting these challenges. The survey was composed of one demographic question, 15 multiple-response questions, and two open-ended survey questions. The demographic question asked about the respondent’s role in the university. The 15 multiple-response questions included items such as: (a) How does online counselor education fit into your department’s educational mission? (b) Do you provide a residential program in which to compare your students? (c) How successful are your online graduates in gaining postgraduate clinical placements and licensure? (d) What is the average size of an online class with one instructor? and (e) How do online students engage with faculty and staff at your university? Two open-ended questions were asked: “What are the top 3 to 5 best practices you believe are most important for the successful online education of counselors?” and “What are the top 3 to 5 lessons learned from your engagement in the online education of counselors?”
Additional questions focused on type of department and its organization, graduates’ acceptance to doctoral programs, amount of time required on the physical campus, e-learning platforms and technologies, online challenges, and best practices for online education and lessons learned. The 18 survey questions were designed for completion in no more than 20 minutes and the survey was active for 10 months, during which time there were three appeals for responses yielding 31 respondents.
An initial recruiting email and three follow-ups were sent via CESNET. Potential participants were invited to visit a web page that first led to an introductory paragraph and informed consent page. An embedded skip logic system required consent before allowing access to the actual survey questions.
The results were exported from the Qualtrics web-based survey product, and the analysis of the 15 fixed-response questions produced descriptive statistics. Cross tabulations and chi square statistics further compared the perceptions of faculty and those identifying themselves as departmental chairs and administrators.
The two open-ended questions—“What are the top 3 to 5 best practices you believe are most important for the successful online education of counselors?” and “What are the top 3 to 5 lessons learned from your engagement in the online education of counselors?”—yielded 78 statements about lessons learned and 80 statements about best practices for a total of 158 statements. The analysis of the 158 narrative comments initially consisted of individually analyzing each response by identifying and extracting the common words and phrases. It is noted that many responses contained more than one suggestion or comment. Some responses were a paragraph in length and thus more than one key word or phrase could come from a single narrative response. This first step yielded a master list of 18 common words and phrases. The second step was to again review each comment, compare it to this master list, and place a check mark for each category. The third step was to look for similarities in the 18 common words and group them into a smaller number of meaningful categories. These steps were checked among the researchers for fidelity of reporting and trustworthiness.
Thirty-one distance learning counselor education faculty, department chairs, and administrators responded to the survey. They reported their maximum class sizes ranged from 10 to 40 with a mean of 20.6 (SD = 6.5), and the average class size was 15.5 (SD = 3.7). When asked how online students are organized within their university, 26% reported that students choose classes on an individual basis, 38% said students are individually assigned classes using an organized schedule, and 32% indicated that students take assigned classes together as a cohort.
Additionally, respondents were asked how online students engage with faculty and staff at their university. Email was the most popular, used by all (100%), and second was phone calls (94%). Synchronous live group discussions using videoconferencing technologies were used by 87%, while individual video calls were reported by 77%. Asynchronous electronic discussion boards were utilized by 87% of the counselor education programs.
Ninety percent of respondents indicated that remote or distance counseling students were required to attend the residential campus at least once during their program, with 13% requiring students to come to campus only once, 52% requiring students to attend twice, and 26% requiring students to come to a physical campus location four or more times during their program.
All participants indicated using some form of online learning platform with Blackboard (65%), Canvas (23%), Pearson E-College (6%), and Moodle (3%) among the ones most often listed. Respondents indicated the satisfaction levels of their current online learning platform as: very dissatisfied (6.5%), dissatisfied (3.2%), somewhat dissatisfied (6.5%), neutral (9.7%), somewhat satisfied (16.1%), satisfied (41.9%), and very satisfied (9.7%). There was no significant relationship between the platform used and the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (X2 (18,30) = 11.036, p > .05), with all platforms faring equally well. Ninety-seven percent of respondents indicated using videoconferencing for teaching and individual advising using such programs as Adobe Connect (45%), Zoom (26%), or GoToMeeting (11%), while 19% reported using an assortment of other related technologies.
Participants were asked about their university’s greatest challenges in providing quality online counselor education. They were given five pre-defined options and a sixth option of “other” with a text box for further elaboration, and were allowed to choose more than one category. Responses included making online students feel a sense of connection to the university (62%), changing faculty teaching styles from traditional classroom models to those better suited for online coursework (52%), providing experiential clinical training to online students (48%), supporting quality practicum and internship experiences for online students residing at a distance from the physical campus (38%), convincing faculty that quality outcomes are possible with online programs (31%), and other (10%).
Each participant was asked what their institution did to ensure students could succeed in online counselor education. They were given three pre-defined options and a fourth option of “other” with a text box for further elaboration, and were allowed to choose more than one option. The responses included specific screening through the admissions process (58%), technology and learning platform support for online students (48%), and assessment for online learning aptitude (26%). Twenty-three percent chose the category of other and mentioned small classes, individual meetings with students, providing student feedback, offering tutorials, and ensuring accessibility to faculty and institutional resources.
Two open-ended questions were asked and narrative comments were analyzed, sorted, and grouped into categories. The first open-ended question was: “What are the top 3 to 5 best practices that are the most important for the successful online education of counselors?” This yielded 78 narrative comments that fit into the categories of fostering student engagement (n = 19), building community and facilitating dialogue (n = 14), supporting clinical training and supervision (n = 11), ensuring courses are well planned and organized (n = 10), providing timely and robust feedback (n = 6), ensuring excellent student screening and advising (n = 6), investing in technology (n = 6), ensuring expectations are clear and set at a high standard (n = 5), investing in top-quality learning materials (n = 4), believing that online counselor education works (n = 3), and other miscellaneous comments (n = 4). Some narrative responses contained more than one suggestion or comment that fit multiple categories.
The second open-ended question—“What are the top 3 to 5 lessons learned from the online education of counselors?”—yielded 80 narrative comments that fit into the categories of fostering student engagement (n = 11), ensuring excellent student screening and advising (n = 11), recognizing that online learning has its own unique workload challenges for students and faculty (n = 11), providing timely and robust feedback (n = 8), building community and facilitating dialogue (n = 7), ensuring courses are well planned and organized (n = 7), investing in technology (n = 6), believing that online counselor education works (n = 6), ensuring expectations are clear and set at a high standard (n = 5), investing in top-quality learning materials (n = 3), supporting clinical training and supervision (n = 2), and other miscellaneous comments (n = 8).
Each participant was asked how online counselor education fit into their department’s educational mission and was given three categorical choices. Nineteen percent stated it was a minor focus of their department’s educational mission, 48% stated it was a major focus, and 32% stated it was the primary focus of their department’s educational mission.
The 55% of participants indicating they had both residential and online programs were asked to respond to three follow-up multiple-choice questions gauging the success rates of their online graduates (versus residential graduates) in attaining: (1) postgraduate clinical placements, (2) postgraduate clinical licensure, and (3) acceptance into doctoral programs. Ninety-three percent stated that online graduates were as successful as residential students in gaining postgraduate clinical placements. Ninety-three percent stated online graduates were equally successful in obtaining state licensure. Eighty-five percent stated online graduates were equally successful in getting acceptance into doctoral programs.
There were some small differences in perception that were further analyzed. Upon using a chi square analysis, there were no statistically significant differences in the positive perceptions of online graduates in gaining postgraduate clinical placements (X2 (2, 13) = .709, p > .05), the positive perceptions regarding the relative success of online versus residential graduates in gaining postgraduate clinical licensure (X2 (2, 13) = .701, p > .05), or perceptions of the relative success of online graduates in becoming accepted in doctoral programs (X2 (2, 12) = 1.33, p > .05).
The respondents reported that their distance learning courses had a mean class size of 15.5. Students in these classes likely benefit from the small class sizes and the relatively low faculty–student ratio. These numbers are lower than many residential classes that can average 25 students or more. It is not clear what the optimal online class size should be, but there is evidence that the challenge of larger classes may introduce burdens difficult for some students to overcome (Chapman & Ludlow, 2010). Beattie and Thiele (2016) found first-generation students in larger classes were less likely to talk to their professor or teaching assistants about class-related ideas. In addition, Black and Latinx students in larger classes were less likely to talk with their professors about their careers and futures (Beattie & Thiele, 2016).
Programs appeared to have no consistent approach to organizing students and scheduling courses. The three dominant models present different balances of flexibility and predictability with advantages and disadvantages for both. Some counselor education programs provide students the utmost flexibility in selecting classes, others assign classes using a more controlled schedule, and others are more rigid and assign students to all classes.
The model for organizing students impacts the social connections students make with one another. In concept, models that provide students with more opportunities to engage each other in a consistent and effective pattern of positive interactions result in students more comfortable working with one another, and requesting and receiving constructive feedback from their peers and instructors.
Cohort models, in which students take all courses together over the life of a degree program, are the least flexible but most predictable and have the greatest potential for fostering strong connections. When effectively implemented, cohort models can foster a supportive learning environment and greater student collaboration and cohesion with higher rates of student retention and ultimately higher graduation rates (Barnett & Muse, 1993; Maher, 2005). Advising loads can decrease as cohort students support one another as informal peer mentors. However, cohorts are not without their disadvantages and can develop problematic interpersonal dynamics, splinter into sub-groups, and lead to students assuming negative roles (Hubbell & Hubbell, 2010; Pemberton & Akkary, 2010). An alternative model in which students make their own schedules and choose their own classes provides greater flexibility but fewer opportunities to build social cohesion with others in their program. At the same time, these students may not demonstrate the negative dynamics regarding interpersonal engagement that can occur with close cohort groups.
Remote students want to stay in touch with their faculty advisors, course instructors, and fellow students. Numerous social engagement opportunities exist through technological tools including email, cell phone texts, phone calls, and videoconference advising. These fast and efficient tools provide the same benefits of in-person meetings without the lag time and commute requirements. Faculty and staff obviously need to make this a priority to use these tools and respond to online students in a timely manner.
All technological tools referred to in the survey responses provide excellent connectivity and communication if used appropriately. Students want timely responses, but for a busy faculty or staff member it is easy to allow emails and voicemails to go unattended. Emails not responded to and unanswered voicemail messages can create anxiety for students whose only interaction is through electronic means. This also might reinforce a sense of isolation for students who are just “hanging out there” on their own and having to be resourceful to get their needs met. It is recommended that the term timely needs to be defined and communicated so faculty and students understand response expectations. It is less important that responses are expected in 24, 48, or even 72 hours; what students need to know is when to expect a response.
Survey responses indicated that remote counselor education students are dependent upon technology, including the internet and associated web-based e-learning platforms. When the internet is down, passwords do not work, or computers fail, the remote student’s learning is stalled. Counselor education programs offering online programming must provide administrative services, technology, and learning support for online students in order to quickly remediate technology issues when they occur. It is imperative that standard practice for institutions include the provision of robust technology support to reduce down-time and ensure continuity of operations and connection for remote students.
Fostering Program and Institutional Connections
Faculty were asked how often online students were required to come to a physical campus location as part of their program. Programs often refer to short-term campus visits as limited residencies to clarify that students will need to come to the campus. Limited residencies are standard, with 90% responding that students were required to come to campus at least once. Short-term intensive residencies are excellent opportunities for online students to make connections with their faculty and fellow students (Kops, 2014). Residential intensives also provide opportunities for the university student life office, alumni department, business office, financial aid office, registrar, and other university personnel to connect with students and link a human face to an email address.
Distance learning students want to engage with their university, as well as fellow students and faculty. They want to feel a sense of connection in a similar manner as residential students (Murdock & Williams, 2011). Institutions should think creatively about opportunities to include online learners in activities beyond the classroom. An example of promoting inclusiveness is when one university moved the traditional weekday residential town halls to a Sunday evening teleconference webinar. This allowed for greater access, boosted attendance, and served to make online counselor education students feel like a part of the larger institution.
As brick-and-mortar institutions consider how to better engage distance learning students, they need to understand that a majority of students (53%) taking exclusively distance education courses reside in the same state as the university they are attending (Allen & Seaman, 2016). Given that most are within driving distance of the physical campus, students are more open to coming to campus for special events, feel their presence is valued, and know that they are not just part of an electronic platform (Murdock & Williams, 2011).
E-Learning Platforms as Critical Online Infrastructure
All participants (100%) reported using an online learning platform. E-learning platforms are standard for sharing syllabi, course organization, schedules, announcements, assignments, discussion boards, homework submissions, tests, and grades. They are foundational in supporting faculty instruction and student success with numerous quality options available. Overall, online faculty were pleased with their technological platforms and there was no clear best platform.
Online learning platforms are rich in technological features. For example, threaded discussions allow for rich, thoughtful dialogue among students and faculty, and they are often valued by less verbally competitive students who might express reluctance to speak up in class but are willing to share their comments in writing. Course examinations and quizzes in a variety of formats can be produced and delivered online through e-learning platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle. Faculty have flexibility for when exams are offered and how much time students have to complete them. When used in conjunction with proctoring services such as Respondus, ProctorU, and B-Virtual, integrity in the examination process can be assured. Once students complete their exam, software can automatically score and grade objective questions, and provide immediate feedback to students.
Videoconferencing and Virtual Remote Classrooms
Videoconferencing for teaching and individual advising through Adobe Connect, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and related technologies is now standard practice and changing the nature of remote learning. Distance learning can now employ virtual classroom models with synchronous audio and video communication that closely parallels what occurs in a residential classroom. Videoconferencing platforms provide tools to share PowerPoints, graphics, and videos as might occur in a residential class. Class participants can write on virtual whiteboards with color markers, annotating almost anything on their screen. Group and private chat functionality can provide faculty with real-time feedback during a class session. Newer videoconferencing features now allow faculty to break students into smaller, private discussion groups and move around to each group virtually, just like what often occurs in a residential classroom. With preparation, faculty can execute integrated survey polls during a video class session. Essentially, videoconferencing tools reduce the distance in distance education.
Videoconference platforms allow faculty to teach clinical skills in nearly the same manner as in residential programs. Counselor education faculty can model skills such as active listening in real time to their online class. Faculty can then have students individually demonstrate those skills while being observed. Embedded features allow faculty to record the video and audio features of any conversation for playback and analysis. Videoconference platforms now offer “breakout” rooms to place students in sub-groups for skills practice and debriefing, similar to working in small groups in residential classrooms. Faculty members and teaching assistants can visit each breakout room to ensure students are on task and properly demonstrating counseling skills. Just as in a residential class, students can reconvene and share the challenges and lessons learned from their small group experience.
Challenges in Providing Remote Counselor Education
Participants were asked to select one or more of their top challenges in providing quality online counselor education. In order of frequency, they reported the greatest challenges as making online students feel a sense of connection to the university (62%), changing faculty teaching styles from brick-and-mortar classroom models to those better suited for online coursework (52%), providing experiential clinical training to online students (48%), supporting quality practicum and internship experiences for online students residing at a distance from the physical campus (38%), and convincing faculty members that quality outcomes are possible with online programs (31%).
Creating a sense of university connection. Counselor education faculty did not report having major concerns with faculty–student engagement. Faculty seemed confident with student learning outcomes using e-learning platforms and videoconferencing tools that serve to reduce social distance between faculty and students and facilitate quality learning experiences. This confidence could be the result of counselor educators’ focus on fostering relationships as a foundational counseling skill (Kaplan, Tarvydas, & Gladding, 2014).
However, faculty felt challenged to foster a student’s sense of connection with the larger university. For example, remote students not receiving emails and announcements about opportunities available only to residential students can feel left out. Remote students might find it difficult to navigate the university student life office, business department, financial aid office, registration system, and other university systems initially designed for residential students. Highly dependent on their smartphone and computer, remote students can feel neglected as they anxiously wait for responses to email and voicemail inquiries (Milman, Posey, Pintz, Wright, & Zhou, 2015).
In the online environment, there are extracurricular options for participating in town halls, special webinars, and open discussion forums with departmental and university leaders. Ninety percent of the programs require students to come to their physical campus one or more times. These short-term residencies are opportunities for students to meet the faculty, departmental chairs, and university leaders face-to-face and further build a sense of connection.
A majority of online students (53%) reside in the same state as the university they are attending (Allen & Seaman, 2016), with many within commuting distance of their brick-and- mortar campus. These students will appreciate hearing about the same opportunities afforded to residential students, and under the right circumstances and scheduling they will participate.
Changing faculty teaching styles. Not all residential teaching styles and methods, such as authority-based lecture formats, work well with all students (Donche, Maeyer, Coertjens, Van Daal, & Van Petegem, 2013). Distance learning students present their own challenges and preferences. Successful distance education programs require active and engaged faculty who frequently communicate with their students, use sound pedagogical frameworks, and maintain a collaborative and interactive style (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Murdock & Williams, 2011). Discovery orientation, discussion, debriefing, action research, and flipped classrooms where content is delivered outside the classroom and the classroom is used to discuss the material are good examples of more collaborative styles (Brewer & Movahedazarhouligh, 2018; Donche et al., 2013).
Organization is critical for all students, but more so for remote students who often are working adults with busy schedules. They want to integrate their coursework into other life commitments and want a clear, well-organized, and thoughtfully planned course with all the requirements published in advance, including specific assignment due dates. Distance counselor education faculty will find their syllabi growing longer with more detail as they work to integrate traditional assignments with the e-learning and videoconferencing tools in order to create engaging, predictable, and enjoyable interactive learning experiences.
Providing experiential clinical training. Counselor educators ideally provide multimodal learning opportunities for counseling students to understand, internalize, and demonstrate clinical skills for a diverse clientele. In residential classrooms, the knowledge component is usually imparted through textbooks, supplemental readings, course assignments, video demonstration, and instructor-led lecture and discussions. All remote programs provide similar opportunities for students and replicate residential teaching models with their use of asynchronous e-learning platforms and synchronous videoconferencing technologies.
Asynchronous methods are not well suited for modeling, teaching, and assessing interpersonal skills. However, synchronous videoconferencing technologies provide the same opportunity as residential settings to conduct “fishbowl” class exercises, break students into groups to practice clinical skills, conduct role plays, apply procedural learning, and give students immediate, meaningful feedback about their skills development.
The majority of surveyed programs required remote students to come to campus at least once to assess students for clinical potential, impart critical skills, and monitor student progress in achieving prerequisite clinical competencies required to start practicum. Courses that teach and assess clinical interviewing skills are well suited for these intensive experiences and provide an important gatekeeping function. Faculty not only have the opportunity to see and hear students engage in role plays, but also to see them interact with other students.
Supporting quality practicum and internship experiences. Remote counselor educators report that their programs are challenged in supporting quality practicum and internship experiences. Residential students benefit from the relationships universities develop over time with local public and nonprofit mental health agencies in which practicum and internship students may cluster at one or more sites. Although online students living close enough to the residential campus may benefit from the same opportunities, remote students living at a distance typically do not experience this benefit. They often have to seek out, interview, and compete for a clinical position at a site unfamiliar to their academic program’s field placement coordinator. Thus, online counselor education students will need field placement coordination that can help with unique practicum and internship requirements. The placement coordinator will need to know how to review and approve distance sites without a physical assessment. Relationships with placement sites will need to rely upon email, phone, and teleconference meetings. Furthermore, online students can live in a state other than where the university is located, requiring the field placement coordinator to be aware of various state laws and regulations.
Convincing faculty that quality outcomes are possible. Approximately one-third of the surveyed counselor education faculty reported the need to convince other faculty that quality outcomes are possible with remote counselor education. Changing the minds of skeptical colleagues is challenging but naturally subject to improvement over time as online learning increases, matures, and becomes integrated into the fabric of counselor education. In the interim, programs would be wise to invest in assisting faculty skeptics to understand that online counselor education can be managed effectively (Sibley & Whitaker, 2015). First, rather than just telling faculty that online counselor education works, programs should demonstrate high levels of interactivity that are comparable to face-to-face engagement by using state-of-the-art videoconferencing platforms. Second, it is worth sharing positive research outcomes related to remote education. Third, it is best to start small by encouraging residential faculty to first try a hybrid course by holding only one or two of their total class sessions online. Fourth, it is important to provide robust support for reluctant but willing faculty who agree to integrate at least one or two online sessions into their residential coursework. Finally, institutions will find more willing faculty if they offer incentives for those who give online counselor education a chance.
Ensuring Online Student Success
Student success is defined by the DOE as related to student retention, graduation rates, time to completion, academic success, and gainful employment (Bailey et al., 2011). Counselor education programs would likely add clinical success in practicum and internship and post-master’s licensure to these critical success outcomes.
The survey respondents reported that student success begins with making sure that the students they accept have the aptitude to learn via online distance education. Students may have unrealistic perceptions that remote distance education is somehow less academically strenuous. Programs need to ensure students are prepared for the unique aspects of online versus residential learning. Fifty-eight percent of the programs engaged in student screening beginning with the admissions process. A quarter of the respondents used a formal assessment tool to assess students for success factors such as motivation, learning style, study habits, access to technology, and technological skills. A commonly used instrument was the Online Readiness Assessment developed by Williams (2017).
Lessons Learned and Best Practices
The 158 statements regarding best practices and lessons learned were further refined to yield the top six imperatives for success in online counselor education, namely: (1) fostering student–faculty–community engagement (57.4%); (2) providing high expectations, excellent screening, advising, and feedback (36%); (3) investing in quality instructional materials, course development, and technology support (30.5%); (4) providing excellent support for online clinical training and supervision (14.6%); (5) recognizing the workload requirements and time constraints of online students; (6) working to instill the belief in others that quality outcomes are possible with online counselor education programs (10.1%); and (7) other assorted responses (13.5%).
An indicator of success for many counselor education programs is the rate at which students graduate, obtain clinical placement, and become licensed. There is also an interest in how successful graduates are in becoming admitted into doctoral programs. For online programs, a further benchmark test is to compare online student graduation, licensure, and doctoral admissions rates to those in residential programs. Fifty-five percent of the respondents served in programs with residential as well as online students. These respondents were able to compare their online student outcomes to residential student outcomes. Their perception was that online graduates were as successful as residential students in gaining postgraduate clinical placements (93%), obtaining state licensure (93%), and acceptance into doctoral programs (85%). They generally believed online graduates were competitive with residential graduates.
Limitations, Recommendations, and Conclusion
Limitations of the Study
When this study began in 2016, there were 11 CACREP-accredited institutions offering online counselor education programs, and by March 2018, there were 36. This study represents a single snapshot of the online counselor education experience during a time of tremendous growth.
This study focused on the reported experience of faculty, departmental chairs, and administrators who have some commitment and investment in online learning. Some would point out the bias of those who advocate for remote counselor education in relaying their own experiences, anecdotal evidence, and personal comparisons of online and residential teaching.
The exploratory nature of this study was clearly not comprehensive in its inclusion of all the factors associated with online counselor education. Specific details of online counselor education programs were not emphasized and could have offered more information about university and departmental resources for remote education, faculty training for online educational formats, and student evaluations of online courses. The numerous technologies used were identified, but this says nothing about their differential effectiveness. Future studies should include these variables as well as other factors that will provide further information about the successes and challenges of online counselor education.
This survey assessed the informed opinions of counselor education faculty and administrators who responded that they were generally satisfied with the various aspects of their programs, including student outcomes. What was not assessed was the actual quality of the education itself. In order to change the mind of skeptics, more than opinions and testimonies will be needed. Future studies need to objectively compare learning outcomes, demonstrate quality, and delineate how remote counselor education programs are meeting the challenges of training counselors within distance learning modalities.
The dynamic nature of the field of online counselor education requires ongoing study. As more programs offer courses and full programs through distance learning modalities, they can contribute their own unique expertise and lessons learned to inform and enrich the broader field.
The challenge of faculty skepticism and possible mixed motives regarding online learning will continue to be problematic. There is a lingering perception by some faculty that online counselor education programs are not equivalent to residential training. An inherent faculty bias might exist in which residential means higher quality and online means lower quality. Some faculty may teach online courses only for additional compensation while privately having reservations. In contrast, departmental chairs and academic administrators might want the same high levels of quality, but may find themselves more driven by the responsibility for meeting enrollment numbers and budgets. In times of scarcity, these individuals may see online counselor education as the answer for new revenue sources (Jones, 2015). For others, online education may present concerns while providing an appeal for its innovative qualities or providing social justice through increasing access to higher education by underserved populations. The best way to clarify the issues and better inform the minds of skeptics is to present them with objective data regarding the nature and positive contributions of remote counselor education learning outcomes.
Aside from the modality of their instructional platform, it is important to understand if effective remote counselor educators are different from equally effective residential course instructors. Remote teaching effectiveness might be associated with some combination of attributes, interests, and motivations, and thus self-selection to teach remote students. Further studies will need to tease out what works, what does not work, and what type of faculty and faculty training make someone best suited for participation in remote counselor education.
Technology is critical to the advances in remote counselor education. Email, smartphones, texting, and e-learning platforms have helped faculty create engaging courses with extensive faculty–student interactions. Videoconferencing in particular has served to reduce the social distance between faculty and remote students. As aforementioned, innovative programs are taking the distance out of distance counselor education, where the virtual remote classroom modality provides similar experiences to those of residential classes. The nature of these technologically facilitated online relationships deserves further study to determine which technologies and related protocols enhance learning and which impede it.
A logical next step is to build on the work that has been accomplished and conduct more head-to-head comparisons of student outcomes among remote and residential programs. This is very feasible, as 34 of the 36 institutions currently offering online counselor education programs also have a residential program with which to make comparisons. These within-institution comparisons will be inherently quasi-experimental. Effective program comparisons of delivery models will require systematically implemented reliable and valid measures of student learning outcomes at strategic points in the counselor training program. The Counselor Competency Scale (Lambie, Mullen, Swank, & Blount, 2018) is a commonly used standardized assessment for graduate students engaged in clinical practicum and internship. The National Counseling Exam scores of current students and recent graduates can provide standardized measures to compare outcomes of graduates across programs.
Finally, although we can learn from institutional best practices and student success stories, we also could benefit from understanding why some programs, faculty, and students struggle. Challenges are certainly faced in remote counselor education and training, but it is likely that one or more programs have developed innovative concepts to surmount these obstacles. The 31 respondents were able to articulate many best practices to manage challenges and believed they were achieving the same learning objectives achieved by residential counseling students. Many faculty members, departmental chairs, and administrators believed that remote counselor education graduates are as successful as those attending residential programs, but this opinion is not universally shared. What is clear is that despite some reservations, a growing number of counselors are trained via a remote modality. It is time to embrace distance counselor education; learn from best practices, successes, and struggles; and continue to improve outcomes for the benefit of programs, the profession of counseling, and the consumers of the services our graduates provide.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.
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William H. Snow is an associate professor at Palo Alto University. Margaret R. Lamar is an assistant professor at Palo Alto University. J. Scott Hinkle, NCC, is Director of Professional Development at the National Board for Certified Counselors. Megan Speciale, NCC, is an assistant professor at Palo Alto University. Correspondence can be addressed to William Snow, 1791 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304, email@example.com.