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Ken Oliver
Nov 10, 2010

Online Counseling Degrees

Let me start this web log entry by stating that “I am NOT a traditionalist!” I’m still fairly young. Though my rapidly receding hairline, and that stubborn gray hair below my right ear may have you believing otherwise. I don’t believe in the curative properties of nostalgia nor do I yearn for a return to the “good old days” of counseling. In fact, in many respects, I think the counseling profession has been rather slow to adapt to the ever-changing world. This does not seem to be the case, however, with online counseling degree programs. The profession seems to be fairly progressive in its willingness to embrace the online counseling degree as a valid, effective means of counselor preparation. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a second to explore my conclusion.

Just type “online counseling program” into your favorite search engine and you’ll find a multitude of programs, several accredited by CACREP, at both the master’s and doctoral level. Now, before you assume that I have a problem with this, just chill. See, I still use words like “chill”. I’m still cool, right? Anyway, my concern isn’t that we have online counseling degree programs, but rather what types of online degree programs do we have? And what does having these programs say about our profession as a whole?

Surprisingly, the state in which I’m licensed, Missouri (“Missourah” for the locals) speaks directly to the legitimacy of online coursework in its state licensure statutes. It basically mandates that online courses have to demonstrate that students have a “means of simultaneously interacting with the course instructor visually and verbally during the transmission of course information” (20 CSR 2095-2.010 C.1). Personally, I have no problem with a course in which students and faculty are able to see one and hear one another in real-time. To me this isn’t much different than the classroom and it saves everyone gas money! Yet, I wonder if all online counseling programs in all states are held to this same standard.

Additionally, the 2009 version of CACREP’s standards mandates experiential learning objectives for the group counseling course. The standards state that students have to engage in a group experience for a “minimum of 10 clock hours” during an academic term. Now, I assume that this requirement can be met in a variety of ways. However, I doubt if any involve sitting around a computer screen.

To speak to my second question above, I’ll make a very concrete, fundamental argument. We already have, in counseling, an issue demonstrating the legitimacy of our profession. Much of our difficulty is not due to the notion that we don’t do good work, but rather that we deal with the ambiguity of constructs that are not well defined, roots of behavior that are not well understood, and a perceived professional reluctance to adhere to the scientist-practitioner model to promote our efficacy. Again, I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not suggesting that empirical evidence is the only way to show our worth. I’m saying that we need to do more to show our worth. Consequently, I question if graduating from an online program adds to the “watering down” of our profession?

By the way, as I’m writing this entry I’m simultaneously conducting a search for accredited online medical degrees and law degrees, just to see how they are trending. The American Bar Association, the accrediting body for law degree programs, explicitly states “Earning an education completely via distance education may drastically limit your ability to sit for the bar in many states,” and states that there are currently no ABA approved programs that offer the JD degree completely via distance education. As far as medical programs, I couldn’t find any online.

Listen, I’m not “hating” on online counseling programs. If done correctly, I think they only add to our ability to provide effective training to a larger pool of prospective counselors. I’m simply trying to raise the question of legitimacy as it relates to professional identity. Just like with any new relationship, I just want to know, “are we moving too fast?” I’m just saying, maybe we should get to know online programs before we jump and marry them. Just because a study supports the utility of online programs, it doesn’t mean it translates well to our profession.

In closing, I am NOT a traditionalist! I’m not suggesting that people trained in traditional programs are any more competent than those trained in online programs. I don’t know the answer to that question, nor do I wish to speculate. I’m just the messenger here. Just the cool, hip, still sort of young, did I mention cool messenger. Did you catch the “hating” reference? I still got it!

Kenneth Oliver is a counselor in Missouri and an assistant professor at Quincy University in Illinois.

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