The latest

Graduation cap on a laptop

Nearly 3.2 million college students took at least one online course in the fall of 2005, up from 2.3 million the year before, according to the Sloan Consortium, an association of online educational groups. With statistics like that, it seems like traditional brick-and-mortar schools will soon be abandoning their face-to-face instruction in favor of online blackboards, right?

Not so, at least in the realm of psychology education, says a study in the February Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Vol. 38, No. 1, pages 97-103). Despite the growth in online courses, only two doctoral training programs that make significant use of distance-learning methods are APA-accredited: the Fielding Graduate Institute and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

That may be, in part, because issues such as residency and high attrition rates still need to be addressed by distance-education programs, says Michael Murphy, PhD, the study's lead author and director of clinical training at Indiana State University. A 2001 study in Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 28, No 2, pages 143-146), for example, found that online students were more likely to fail the course, prompting some to believe other factors--social interaction with other students, for example--may help students succeed in traditional course settings.

"There may be something about the [traditional] cohort that holds people together and assists them in persisting through the program," says Murphy, who is also a former member of APA's Committee on Accreditation. "Distance models are still developing strategies that foster completion."

Both of the APA-accredited programs recognize the importance of at least some person-to-person coursework. At the Fielding Graduate Institute, students regularly attend meetings while completing their online coursework. At the Philadelphia College's extension site in Harrisburg, Pa., students regularly visit a training site and rely on teleconferencing for some courses and supervision.

While other distance-education programs offer doctorates in psychology and foster interaction with students and faculty, they have yet to be accredited, notes Murphy.

Meanwhile, for working parents, rural students or others who need the flexibility distance learning provides, the lack of accredited psychology doctoral programs may be disheartening. But don't abandon your computer yet, says Judy E. Hall, PhD, executive officer at the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology. Doctorate programs at the University of Iowa and Nova Southeastern University, for example, offer online courses developed and run by the same instructors who teach the courses in the schools' traditional programs, which may hold more weight if you're looking to transfer the credit later on, says Hall.

And as technology continues to improve and schools learn more about how to run effective distance-learning programs, online methods could enhance instruction, improve program flexibility, and be a valuable asset to any program, says Hall.

In the end, however, psychology educators must build more evidence that online programs prepare students for the same challenges as face-to-face programs do, warns Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education.

"The advances in online education are exciting, yet there are many unanswered questions as to its role in research and clinical training," she says.

-A. Cynkar