Distance Counselor Education: Past, Present, Future

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.


Personal Computing

     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.


Distance Education

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, wsnow@paloaltou.edu.

A Comparative Analysis of Traditional and Online Counselor Training Program Delivery and Instruction

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.


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.


Delivery Preferences

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.


Figure 1

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.


Instructional Practice

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.


Teacher-Centered Approach

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.


Subject-Centered Approach

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.


Student Considerations

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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Ziomek-Daigle, J., & Christensen, T. M. (2010). An emergent theory of gatekeeping practices in counselor education. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 407–415. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6678.2010.tb00040.x


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, l.haddock@snhu.edu.

Legal and Ethical Challenges in Online Counselor Education

Donna S. Sheperis, Ann Ordway, Margaret Lamar


Counselor education has moved firmly into the online space with multiple accredited programs available to students and potential faculty. These programs can cross state lines, either by location of training, placement of faculty, or both. As such, there are legal and ethical considerations that are outside of those that are typically considered. This article addresses some of the more common legal and ethical considerations in counselor education, such as vicarious liability and cybersecurity, and how they differ in the online education environment. Licensure and other laws and obligations for educators are explored. Opportunities for gatekeeping are discussed through the lens of a case study. A second case study with guiding questions is provided to raise visibility of state differences in practice laws. Finally, helpful resources for navigating online counselor education from a legal and ethical perspective are offered.


Keywords: counselor education, online, legal, ethical, gatekeeping


There are many reasons to consider online education when becoming a counselor or choosing a career as a counselor educator. Convenience, accessibility, and opportunities to interface with colleagues across the country and around the world are common attractions of an online environment. As of the beginning of 2020, 79 online programs were accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2020). As many opportunities as there are in this educational space, legal and ethical challenges also exist. Although these challenges may be unique to the online world, they are certainly navigable. This article tackles some of the experiences distinctive to faculty and students in counselor education who choose an online environment for training.


Considerations for Online Counselor Educators


Counselor education is a distinct professional identity geared toward the preparation of professional counselors across disciplines (e.g., clinical mental health counselor, professional school counselor, substance abuse counselor). Counselor educators who teach in CACREP-accredited programs are required to have terminal degrees in counselor education and supervision, as opposed to psychology or another helping profession, as well as active involvement and participation in the counseling profession (Calley & Hawley, 2008). These educators receive training in five core areas, including counseling, supervision, teaching, research and scholarship, and leadership and advocacy, making them uniquely qualified to prepare master’s-level clinicians in counseling (CACREP, 2015).


Prior to the publication of the 2016 CACREP Standards, counselor educators may or may not have received training specific to online counselor education. And yet as of 2014, at least 67% of students in public universities took an online course (Allen et al., 2016). To attend to this emerging trend, CACREP recognized the need for all counselor educators to understand “effective approaches for online instruction” (CACREP, 2015, p. 35). Whether fully online or fully in person, most counselor education programs contain some online elements in their instructional pedagogy. Thus, the opportunities to teach and learn counseling in an online format are present regardless of whether the program is considered an online program.


For the purposes of this article, an online counselor educator is a person who provides some or all of their teaching via a distance education format (Stanford University Teaching Commons, n.d.). Most universities offer some form of training to assist the educator in moving to online education (Dimeo, 2017), but that training is not specific to the content of counselor education. With this in mind, some of the inherent opportunities and challenges in online teaching, specifically as they relate to legal and ethical concerns, including vicarious liability and supervision in online education settings, will be discussed.


Vicarious Liability as a Counselor Educator

The counselor education literature is replete with research related to vicarious liability in supervision (Mikkelson et al., 2013; Pearson, 2000; Sheperis et al., 2016). Essentially, vicarious liability refers to a situation in which one person is held responsible for the actions or inactions of another person (Bell, 2013). In counseling, we see this term most commonly used in relation to a clinical supervisor having some responsibility for the care of the clients of a supervisee.


This definition of vicarious liability does not make concessions for the manner in which clinical oversight is provided. In other words, online or not, clinical supervisors continue to carry vicarious liability for the clinicians they supervise. By extension, counselor educators serving as practicum and internship supervisors would also be held responsible for the services provided by students under the terms of vicarious liability. According to one popular provider of malpractice insurance for counselors, CPH & Associates (2019), liability insurance covers the holder for incidences of negligence, misrepresentation, violation of good faith, and inaccurate advice. The key term to consider is inaccurate advice, as that is how supervision could be characterized in a lawsuit.


The Counselor Educator as Supervisor and Gatekeeper

Slovenko (1980), in his seminal article on the topic of supervisor responsibility to the client, stated “litigation against supervisors may be called the ‘suit of the future’” (p. 468). Over the years, we have not seen that prophecy come to fruition in counselor education, but the caution remains that counselor educators who serve as supervisors must be mindful of their potential vicarious liability. With regard to the provision of online counselor education, the opportunities to supervise students who are seeing clients that are in different cities, states, or countries exist. Although this is an exciting development in terms of working with a variety of students, it is daunting to consider the legal implications.


Counselor educators may assume that only teaching didactic classes online and not supervising practicum and internship students will reduce their overall liability. But the reality is that all counselor educators have a responsibility to gatekeeping that extends to protecting potential future clients of the students we train. To that end, we must maintain an approach to our work that keeps the concept of vicarious liability in mind.


For example, in fully online programs, there is often a residency model. The residency is a period of time in which students gather for in-person training and observation, often of clinical skills (Holstun, 2018). Walden University, which trains counselors in a fully online format, describes residency as a time to “conceptualize and develop research that contributes to positive social change; establish networks of professionals who support and practice scholarly endeavors; [and] develop and refine practice skills essential to your profession” (2019, Mission and Vision section). That may occur at the university campusor a neutral destination depending on the type of institution. These residencies are opportunities to be physically present with students, uncover any clinical or dispositional concerns, and allow for multiple faculty to relate to students. Although some of this is clearly possible in a fully online format, the majority of online programs opt for at least one in-person experience with the students they serve (Holstun, 2018).


While an online class may involve some interaction and evidence of interpersonal ability, a residency increases the opportunities for faculty to make a more accurate assessment of skills and dispositions. Thus, program administrators may be apprised of gatekeeping and supervisory issues observed in this setting.


Case Study

Malkha chose an online counselor education master’s program because she lives in a remote area, over 75 miles from the nearest CACREP-accredited campus program. She works full-time at her holistic health practice where she practices Reiki, acupuncture, and holistic health coaching, including dietetics and nutrition. She is certified as a Reiki practitioner, licensed in her state as an acupuncturist, and has recently begun offering the coaching option for her clients who need additional care. Malkha has an emotional support animal that accompanies her to sessions, and she hopes to eventually be able to provide appropriate documentation to her clients that will allow them to have emotional support animals as well.


Malkha has several academic gifts. She writes well and generally does well on course assignments. She does have a pattern of asking for last-minute extensions as she often needs more time than is allotted to complete her assignments. Faculty have also noted that Malkha occasionally engages students in the discussion board in inflammatory ways. She uses her background and training to offer advice to fellow students in ways that are not always helpful nor appropriate to the context of an academic forum. She argues with those who do not utilize alternative, holistic approaches in their own theoretical orientations, calling them “shortsighted” and “old-fashioned.” Students seem to like Malkha but have complained that she comes on too strong.


At her first residency, Malkha shares a room with two other students and her emotional support dog. Unfortunately, one of the roommates is allergic and alleges that Malkha did not disclose that the dog would be attending residency. There is conflict between the roommates about handling the payment for the room that spills over into their work as a group. Malkha also brings her animal to residency, which is allowed, but she continually talks to the dog throughout the faculty lecture and group work. While working on skills, for example, Malkha asks her dog what his opinion is, how she should proceed, and then appears to listen for a response.


A large part of the time at residency is spent in clinical skills training. Faculty spend a lot of time redirecting Malkha from giving advice and offering treatment solutions during the early phases of therapy. She continually moves away from the person-centered approach she states she is practicing and becomes more prescriptive as the practice times continue.


Faculty teaching Malkha at residency bring the concerns about her distracting interactions with her emotional support animal as well as her skills to the attention of the training director. Questions to consider underscore potentially unique dimensions of practice for online faculty and academic leadership with respect to programming, policies, and gatekeeping. For example:


  1. Are there ethical or gatekeeping concerns that need to be addressed? If so, what are they?
  2. How do those concerns fit with the American Counseling Association’s ACA Code of Ethics
    (2014) and any gatekeeping procedures established by your program?
  3. What are some potential next steps to take with Malkha and/or faculty?
  4. What, if anything, could have prevented the problems that arose at residency?


While these questions are fundamental to counselor educators, they point to the importance of established policies and procedures for face-to-face residencies, effective communication of policies and expectations to online students, and preparedness to apply ethical decision-making models in navigating the ethical and legal challenges that may arise in online counselor education.


Considerations for Online Counselor Education Students


For the purposes of this article, an online counseling student is a person who receives some or all of their training via a distance education format. With this in mind, some of the inherent opportunities and challenges in this format, specifically as they relate to legal and ethical concerns, will be considered. A more comprehensive analysis of the experience of the online counseling student is addressed in another article in this special section (Sheperis et al., 2020).


Opportunities and Challenges

Opportunities for students in online programs include flexibility to accommodate life, work, and school. Online students may not be able to attend a graduate program in another format because of geographical, employment, or family considerations. Online students also have the opportunity to learn from faculty and fellow students from around the United States and the world.


Yet as appealing as this can sound, being an online student is challenging. Students are faced with the need to self-regulate, and, depending on the amount of instructor interaction, this may include deciding when to enter the class, turn in assignments, and engage with their peers (Wong et al., 2019) There can be a sense of isolation and loss of social community in virtual learning that is not present in a physical classroom (Phirangee & Malec, 2017). When looking at successful online students, it is recommended that they possess time-management skills, are self-regulated learners, and are self-motivated to complete tasks when compared to their traditional face-to-face classroom counterparts (Vineyard, 2019).


Legal and Ethical Considerations

As an online student, the ethical considerations are very similar to those experienced by on-campus students. There are gatekeeping considerations, concerns about fitness to practice, and general academic expectations regardless of the mechanism of education (CACREP, 2015). However, there are additional legal considerations that online students should be apprised of.


Each state, province, and territory has its own licensure law for professional counselors (Sheperis et al., 2016). Campus-based faculty become familiar with the state in which they offer education and may not be as familiar with licensure laws outside of that state. It will be incumbent upon the online students to familiarize themselves with state regulations so that they can ensure that their training will meet the standards for the educational component of licensure. For many states, graduation from a CACREP-accredited program is an acceptable standard of training. However, there can be exceptions even for CACREP-accredited programs. For example, the state of Georgia requires practicum and internship supervisors to have three years of postlicensure experience (State of Georgia, 2019), which is more than the CACREP standard.

In addition, not all online programs are able to provide training in every state. Applicants to online counselor education programs need to be well-educated consumers. In addition, enrollment services staff, program leaders, and counselor educators involved in admissions decisions need to be apprised of various state requirements. For example, the state of North Carolina requires that online programs, including those in private, out-of-state institutions, be approved by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors before they can engage in postsecondary degree activity in North Carolina
(University of North Carolina System, 2017).


Considerations for Cybersecurity in Counselor Education


With the rate of technology innovation, counselor education programs may find it challenging to keep up with how specific technology aligns with laws or ethics. When it comes to online counselor education and technology, student privacy and client confidentiality are of utmost importance and are often tricky to navigate with new technological development. In this section, we examine the two primary regulations and how to maintain compliance when using technology.


The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

FERPA (1974) is a regulation that protects the privacy of a student’s educational record. All programs, regardless of their delivery format, need to be aware of how FERPA impacts them and the technology they utilize. For instance, programs using online providers to help track internship hours, supervisor evaluations, and other paperwork need to be in line with FERPA best practices. The Department of Education, through their Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), provides resources for programs, including what to look for in a terms-of-service document (PTAC, 2016) and best practices (PTAC, 2014). Online programs using videoconferencing software need to be aware of the limitations on the use of videos created in a classroom or supervision setting.


Under FERPA, a photo or video of a student is considered an educational record when it is directly related to the student and is maintained by the program (Student Privacy Policy Office, n.d., para. 1). A video of a class is considered to be directly related to the student if they are visible doing a class presentation or even asking questions. The use of videoconferencing software is new enough to leave some ambiguity in the regulations surrounding recording of classes or supervision sessions. We will address supervision sessions in the section on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which follows. Relative to teaching, there are a number of university recommendations suggesting that faculty record only themselves in class and do not include images of students in the recording. If a faculty member wants to release a recording of a class that directly relates to a student, they must gain signed consent from the student to do so. In practical terms, the faculty should gain consent from all members of the class if they appear in the recording of the class.


FERPA regulations require that institutions use “reasonable methods” to safeguard student information (PTAC, 2015). The law does not include specific requirements for firewalls, security monitoring, or response methods, but leaves that to universities to determine. It is also recommended that programs have a plan in place should a security breach occur.


Although counselor educators may use the term confidentiality when referring to a student’s experience, dispositional issues, or educational record, it is important to note that a student does not have the same rights of confidentiality as a counseling client. In fact, FERPA allows faculty and programs to share student educational records (including disciplinary records) with other faculty and other institutions where a student may be transferring. If a counseling student is dismissed for causing harm to clients, it is within the bounds of FERPA for program faculty to share that information with faculty where the student is applying for admission.


The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)

It is important for online counselor educators to be fully informed on HIPAA regulations as they relate to technology. These regulations provide protections for confidential and protected health information and are commonly referenced in the modern health care lexicon. With relation to training, online counselor education students and faculty frequently use various forms of software or other communication technology to communicate about client issues in practicum or internship classes and supervision sessions. It is not within the scope of this article to cover every aspect of technology and client personal health information (PHI) as defined by HIPAA. This section will focus specifically on the utilization of videoconferencing software (e.g., FaceTime, Skype, Zoom) to hold class and supervision sessions, which are often the primary ways distance faculty, supervisors, and students meet.


First, a key principle to understand in any discussion of HIPAA is that the user (e.g., faculty, supervisor, student counselor) is responsible to maintain compliance with HIPAA regulations. Videoconference software companies that counselor educators and supervisors choose to use could be considered business associates. Business associates are contractors who handle PHI of clients and have agreed to uphold HIPAA regulations.


There is no clear guidance on the need for business associate agreements for videoconferencing software. Some researchers have said that it is necessary for videoconferencing providers to have business agreements (Rousmaniere et al., 2016). Others have suggested that videoconferencing software falls under the HIPAA conduit exception (Caldwell, 2019). The conduit exception allows service providers to transmit or transport PHI without entering into a business agreement (Office for Civil Rights, 2016). To be eligible as a conduit, software providers must not store the data and may only transmit it (Taylor, 2015). Generally, videoconferencing software companies do not store any transmissions on their servers (Caldwell, 2019). FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom, for example, provide end-to-end encryption to create a peer-to-peer connection. It is not possible for them to decrypt the data as it goes from the device of the supervisor to the student. Therefore, given that no data from a supervision session or class is being recorded, the argument has been made that a business associate agreement is not necessary to use these platforms (Caldwell, 2019; Taylor, 2015). Recordings of supervision sessions or classes should not be saved to cloud services unless there is a business agreement in place, as now the company will be potentially storing PHI. As a reminder, it is still up to the faculty and student to be HIPAA-compliant when they use technological tools. Talking about a client over Facetime while in a coffee shop is still not considered HIPAA-compliant.


Technology moves swiftly. For example, Amazon has recently equipped their Alexa devices to handle PHI and has begun signing business agreements with select health care providers (Jiang, 2019). But there is little in terms of policy, law, or ethics to address anecdotal reports that the Amazon Alexa device is recording conversations in homes and therefore likely in offices where it is used. For the online educator and student, that could mean that a piece of technology intended to make home life easier creates a HIPAA or FERPA violation if portions of classes or client sessions are recorded. We anticipate this technology, and thus the policies, laws, and ethics that govern its use, will continue to develop. At this point, it is recommended that these devices not be in homes or offices where counselor education or supervision occurs.

Counselor Education Across State Lines

In general, teaching students who all live in the same state or who live in a variety of states is fairly similar. Counseling theory in Michigan is going to be the same as counseling theory in Alabama, and educational practices will be similar. However, there are some considerations unique to the online educator. As described, many of those relate to practicum, internship, and licensure. Because faculty will often be the first line of inquiry for students, online faculty need to be aware that codes of ethics and laws related to client care vary from state to state. Although the content of theory classes may stay the same across states, conversations about what to do when a client reveals something in session that may require duty to warn or other action may change from state to state. Being prepared to navigate those conversations is essential to success as an online faculty member. It would benefit the online counselor educator to become familiar with the main state licensure board challenges confronted by the department. For example, specific curricular requirements and variations in state laws that impact abuse reporting are common considerations. While faculty members cannot be experts on all state, province, and territory law, it is helpful to have a solid understanding of the primary issues impacting students.

Online programs are often part of institutional efforts to recruit international students (Lee & Bligh, 2019). In addition to differences in state regulations, program faculty then must have an awareness of international counseling practice. Many countries have no formal licensing of counselors, so a comparison of licensure laws cannot be done. The lack of laws related to the practice of many forms of counseling outside of the United States makes it impossible to declare any uniform statements about such practice. Students who are outside of the United States and the faculty who train them need to be especially vigilant in investigating standards and laws that impact training and practice.


Ethics Across State Lines
Just as there is no universal licensure law across states, there is no universal adoption of a code of ethics across states. The code of ethics provided by ACA is the most commonly used single code in the United States; however, only 19 of the 52 jurisdictions with licensure laws have adopted the ACA Code of Ethics into their rules and regulations (ACA, 2015). As you can imagine, it can be challenging for educators and students to navigate all of the complexities of the various codes. Students are guided to consult state laws to better understand the code of ethics under which they will fall.

Although codes of ethics are generally more alike than conflictual, there are a number of differences. The ACA Code of Ethics (2014) empowers counselors to warn identified others when there is a threat of serious and foreseeable harm. That code is historically rooted in the famous Tarasoff ruling in which the clinician provided information to the police, but not to the identified person that the client was threatening (Sheperis et al., 2016). However, the Texas code of ethics requires counselors to report only to authorities and not to warn the identified third party (Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors, 2011). Another example is that counselors are ethically allowed to barter under the ACA Code of Ethics. However, Texas code prohibits bartering (Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors, 2009). Thus, students and educators need to be able to assess those differences as they proceed with training across states.

Laws Across State Lines
Just as ethical codes vary from state to state, laws also vary. Few laws that govern the practice of counseling are enacted at the federal level. Instead, each state is empowered to determine what is best for their population in terms of developing laws that govern scope of practice for counselors. Licensure laws are the first areas that counseling students and counselor educators should familiarize themselves with. In addition to licensure law differences, there are other challenges that may exist.

One area of difference occurs within mandated reporting laws. Each state specifically sets out the definitions of abuse and neglect while also outlining who is considered a mandated reporter. In Mississippi, any person who knows about or has reason to suspect abuse or neglect of a child by a parent, legal custodian, caregiver, or other person(s) responsible for the child’s care is required by law to make a report (Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, 2019). In other states, such as Pennsylvania, only mandated reporters have this requirement (State of Pennsylvania, n.d.). Mandated reporters typically include professionals expected to encounter children such as school personnel, medical professionals, and counselors. Counselors will always be required to report, but some states give that designation to any and every person, which can make a difference in working with clients who may have reason to suspect abuse.

Another distinction is found in laws related to warning identified third parties about an intent to harm. In the ethics classes of counselor training programs, we highlight the Tarasoff v. the Regents of the University of California (1974) case and subsequent rulings as the way to handle duty to warn any identified third parties. After multiple court and state supreme court rulings in California, where the Tarasoff case occurred, many states have elected to follow this case law and allow or even require counselors to report the intent to harm to the identified potential victim as well as the authorities (Sheperis et al., 2016). However, some state laws are silent on this matter. In Georgia, there is only a small mention in the code for psychologists and nothing to guide counselors (State of Georgia, 2020). Texas has a law related to Tarasoff, but it goes counter to the laws in the vast majority of states. The Texas Health and Safety Code (2005) states that counselors are not allowed to notify the identified victim:

A professional may disclose confidential information only to medical or law enforcement personnel if the professional determines that there is a probability of imminent physical injury by the patient to the patient or others or there is a probability of immediate mental        or emotional injury to the patient. (p. 4,182)

In practice, this means that two students from different states in the same ethics course could respond to a case involving a threat to harm an identified party in vastly different ways and still be correct.


Gatekeeping Across State Lines
The gatekeeping aspect of counseling pertains both to the obligation of counselor educators to ensure the competency of students entering the profession and the responsibility of practicing professionals to confront and address the unethical practice of colleagues when it comes to their attention. The gatekeeping responsibility has become so much more complex because of the evolution of distance counseling and distance counselor education. Distance practices raise questions about how well a professional in one location can monitor the behavior of another located in an entirely different place. The implications, which require familiarity with federal laws such as HIPAA and FERPA, state statutes and regulations for local licensing, and other local laws pertaining to the plethora of issues a counselor may encounter in therapy with clients, are nothing short of overwhelming. The responsibility is vast when considering the overabundance of variations of rules and consequences for not following them.


Lawsuits, Inconsistent Laws, and Varying Codes of Ethics
As mentioned, the practice of counseling is not federally regulated for the most part. Each state or territory has a degree of autonomy over the regulation of professional licensure, and therefore there is a significant disparity from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Federal laws impose uniformity and create a reliability regarding the rules and regulations for any area governed by the federal government. For example, in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage would be a legal right across the United States. The impact of the ruling was that the 14 states that had bans on same-sex marriage could no longer prevent same-sex couples from legally marrying in their individual jurisdiction. However, the application of federal laws are sometimes locally compromised, such as when a specific religious denomination refuses to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples by asserting freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. The religious argument is not that the same-sex couple cannot marry in that state, but rather that the couple simply cannot marry in a religious ceremony in that church. This example sets the stage for recent legislation that impacts counselor education.

The state of Tennessee implemented legislation in 2014 that allowed counselors to refuse to provide services to someone on the basis of “strongly held personal beliefs,” thus allowing professional counselors to impose their own values as a lens for whether or not they would work with particular clients. The mere existence of this legislation led to ACA moving the annual conference in 2017 from Nashville, Tennessee, where it was scheduled to be held, to San Francisco, California. The ACA Code of Ethics (2014) calls for counselors to refrain from imposing their values on clients. As of 2015, the ACA Code of Ethics is used by 19 states, ironically with Tennessee being among them. In other words, the licensing statute in Tennessee incorporates the language of the ACA Code of Ethics, while there is a separate law indicating that a counselor cannot suffer loss of license when that code is violated through the refusal of services to someone because of what the counselor personally believes. It is noteworthy that, while the LGBT population was the likely intended target of the new law, the language would allow for a further and widespread regression to blatantly discriminatory practices under the justification that the practice is rooted in what the individual believes.

Case Study
     Carolyn is a student pursuing her doctoral degree in professional counseling. She is 35 years old and her best option for pursuing her education was through a distance-based program. Accordingly, though she lives in a rural community outside Nashville, Tennessee, she is enrolled in a graduate program at Towaco University based in Chula Vista, California. Throughout her enrollment, she has attended three residencies in California, and she is presently in the field experience segment of her education. Carolyn is employed full-time as a counselor at a Christian counseling center. She has her master’s degree and she is licensed. She arranges her practicum hours at a local inpatient addictions recovery center around the requirements of her full-time job so that she is usually working at her practicum site on nights and weekends.

As a student at Towaco, she was asked to sign a statement as a condition of enrollment committing to follow the ACA Code of Ethics. She has always abided by the provisions of the code in the context of her role as a student. However, at her primary place of employment, Carolyn and her coworkers do not treat individuals who are part of the LGBT community.

This week, Carolyn has been assigned a new client at the addictions center. Dominic is a 28-year-old gay male who has been married to James for 8 years. They have a 4-year-old son. The relationship is solid. Dominic was admitted to treatment because he became addicted to pain medication following a serious car accident. James is very supportive, visits Dominic as frequently as is allowed, and attends family therapy sessions. Carolyn is assigned to work with Dominic both individually and as a facilitator of the family group. As a conservative Christian, Carolyn is uncomfortable working with a gay couple. She has never had to do so at her full-time job. In Tennessee, there is a law that allows a licensed professional counselor to refuse to provide services to anyone based upon “strongly held personal beliefs.” Carolyn tells her supervisor that she declines to work with Dominic and his husband and requests that the client be reassigned. The site supervisor suspends Carolyn and contacts her university supervisor in California.

Given Carolyn’s enrollment in an online counselor education program located in another state, this raises a number of questions when considering next steps. For example:

  1. Which law or guideline is the primary guide for Carolyn’s conduct as a practicum student at the addictions center?
    2. What relevance is there to the fact that Carolyn is already a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee but only a student at the university in California?
    3.  What if any implications will there be if Carolyn similarly refuses to see a client who is gay at her full-time job?
    4. Is Carolyn bound by the ACA Code of Ethics if she is not a member of the American
    Counseling Association?

These questions illustrate some of the complex terrain to be navigated by online counselor educators.

Other Legal Considerations
Ward v. Wilbanks (2010), though not the first case of its kind and certainly not the last, garnered significant attention in the profession through the focus on a student-driven lawsuit against a counseling program at Eastern Michigan University and the individual faculty members. The plaintiff, Julea Ward, was enrolled in a practicum course and providing counseling services under supervision at the in-house clinic at Eastern Michigan University. She was assigned a client who presented with depression and issues related to a same-sex relationship. Ms. Ward sought to refer the client, citing a conflict with her personal religious beliefs, and she was expelled from the program, which she cited as a violation of her rights. A lower court recognized the importance of the right of educational programs to self-regulate. However, a higher court found in favor of Ms. Ward, and the Ward v. Wilbanks case became critical in the further evolution of the ACA Code of Ethics (2014), through which clarification came in terms of referrals that are rooted in competency and referrals that are rooted in the imposition of values and judgment.

Thus, in the prior case study, Carolyn could be allowed to refer in an educational program and in her state, but may not be allowed to refer under the same circumstances outside of her state. Because most states follow the ACA Code of Ethics, anyone functioning as a counselor could be held to those standards regardless of ACA membership status (Sheperis et al., 2016).


The aforementioned examples serve to underscore the complications that arise just by virtue of the differences among the laws and regulations on like issues from state to state. With students being trained in the same program but living in different states and being trained by faculty who are also living in different states, opportunities for legal and ethical challenges abound. As counselor educators, we are trained to develop competent, ethical clinicians to serve clients, yet modern-day training, especially across state lines, requires the educator be informed of legal, ethical, and other challenges impacting the profession and students they serve.

Currently, counselor educators teaching through distance learning platforms cannot teach solely based upon licensing requirements in one state. In fact, the educator might be located in one state, while the student is in another, and the university is in yet another. The counselor educator, who might live and be licensed in Texas, is bound to follow the regulations in that state—but those regulations might not be relevant to (and might even be blatantly in conflict with) the regulations that apply to the student who resides in Tennessee. Moreover, the same professor can have 10 students in one class from 10 different states. The university, in California, will be bound by both federal and state regulations pertaining to higher education, including FERPA, but also by any relevant laws that might pertain to the different subject matters taught through that university. For example, in Alaska, if someone assists another in the act of suicide, that person can be charged with manslaughter. However, in California if that person is a medical doctor and assists another in ending their own life, the assistance could be considered a medical treatment under the End of Life Options Act (State of California, 2015).

Legal differences such as these call into question what can be taught about the professional handling of certain issues. Significant variations in law exist around confidentiality and mandatory reporting, counseling with minors and parental consent, and the nuances of licensing. Thus, it is incumbent upon counselor educators to be alert in their practice and prepared for the complex considerations that coexist with the accessibility of online counselor education.

Navigating the online space in a legal and ethical manner means staying up to date on current trends, resources, and laws. There are some resources counselor educators will find helpful in knowing licensure laws such as Licensure Requirements for Professional Counselors, A State by State Report (ACA, 2016). Also available from ACA is Licensure & Certification: State Professional Counselor Licensure Boards (2020), which links to all state requirements and is updated regularly. Other resources are more helpful for general legal concepts such as The Counselor and the Law, by Wheeler and Bertram (2019), currently in its 8th edition. For more state-specific considerations, counselor educators will want to look for resources like Caldwell’s Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs (2019).


The myriad of legal and ethical complications inherent in online counselor education is navigable. For all of the complications of online learning, the benefits can outweigh the disadvantages. The opportunity to learn across state and national borders, interface with colleagues across the country and around the world, and develop one’s identity and practice as a professional counselor or counselor educator within this space is replete with rewards for all parties. Realistically, education is moving more and more to this format, and for counselor education, it is simply a matter of being cognizant of the legal and ethical dilemmas in order to meet them head-on.


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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Donna S. Sheperis, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, ACS, LPC, is an associate professor at Palo Alto University. Ann Ordway, JD, PhD, NCC, is a core faculty member at the University of Phoenix. Margaret Lamar, PhD, LPC, is an assistant professor at Palo Alto University. Correspondence may be addressed to Donna Sheperis, 5151 El Camino Real, Los Altos, CA 94022, dsheperis@paloaltou.edu.

Current Practices in Online Counselor Education

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.

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.


Faculty–Student Engagement

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, wsnow@paloaltou.edu.