Speaking of Education

U.S. Department of Education data reveal that more than two-thirds of two- and four-year Title IV-eligible degree-granting institutions either offered distance education courses in 2000-2001 or planned to do so soon. Substantially more of these were public (90 percent) institutions than were private (40 percent). Nearly 2.9 million students were enrolled in academic credit bearing courses. However, only 19 percent of institutions had degree or certificate programs designed for completion entirely through distance education. Of the 2,810 degree programs identified, 56 percent were undergraduate and 44 percent were graduate programs. Although a number of technologies were used, 90 percent involved asynchronous Internet courses, or "online education." Of course not all online education is distance education; blended or hybrid courses also abound on our nation's campuses.

In its study of online education, the Sloan Consortium found that 90 percent of public institutions offered online courses in 2003-2004, a figure comparable to the year before. However, the growth in the private, for-profit sector doubled during the same period. The growth rate for online students has ranged between 20 and 25 percent per year, with no signs of abatement. Almost two-thirds of public institutions and private for-profit institutions believe that online education is critical to their long-term strategy.

In psychology, distance methods are commonplace in continuing education (CE). For example, APA CE offerings include independent study programs based on APA books and journals as well as multimedia courses through the newer APA Online Academy. A recent addition has been an ethics program designed by Dr. Stephen Behnke, the director of the APA Ethics Office. Under the leadership of Heather Alderman, APA's new director of continuing-education programs, more courses will be developed over the coming years. We are especially excited about the potential for follow-up consultations, webinars and built-in chat rooms. I was also encouraged to learn recently that some state boards that do not currently permit online CE credits for license renewal are rewriting regulations to allow such credit.

APA also promotes online methods to facilitate undergraduate and high school teaching. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Maureen McCarthy and Ken McGraw, the APA Online Psychology Laboratory (OPL) provides peer-reviewed interactive resources for the teaching of psychological science, including psychological experiments, data sets, demonstrations and teaching aids. In its second month of operation, OPL had 11,708 page views!

There is great potential for online learning and distance education in graduate education as well. Programs could create networks to share specialized resources. An especially exciting development would be national linkages to "share environments" so as to promote exposure to and understanding of more diverse social and cultural contexts for research and practice.

As we encourage the utilization of new technologies to promote teaching and learning, we must also be cautious. Although I am aware that doctoral degrees in psychology can now be earned online in a number of subfields, it is important to note that graduate education in psychology has been rooted in the mentorship model, where research and clinical supervisors play multiple roles in the development of new psychologists. Although I suspect every faculty member has conducted remote supervision on occasion, we do not yet understand the implications of a solely remote mentorship model on the development of future psychologists.

In clinical training, a face-to-face relationship between trainee and client is different from an online relationship between trainee and supervisor. What are the implications for supervisory models using parallel process or in vivo behavioral role modeling? If supervisory exchanges are captured in permanent records, how might that affect hypothesis-testing in the learning process or the disclosure of errors? In research training, "joined at the hip" has described the intense, in-depth intellectual partnership that includes socialization into the discipline. Can the benefits of mentoring be achieved entirely through distance education? Perhaps, but we do not know.

Developments in distance education require us to more fully explicate the critical components in educating the next generation of psychologists. We must also be able to assess the competencies expected, for which the collective judgment of a faculty has been historically responsible for both formative and summative purposes. A benefit of such developments is the press to examine these issues instead of merely asserting the dominance of traditional models. However, at present I am less concerned about distance education for continued professional development than for preparation at the entry level. And I am very concerned about the potential to create a different kind of digital divide in graduate education and training, one in which those with more resources get face-to-face mentorship and in vivo supervision and those who have less do not. I wonder what I will think about this in 2015.

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