Feature

The use of technology in graduate training may not be getting as much attention as it was five years ago, when online counseling and training programs were sprouting across the country, but important strides are still being made, according to psychologist educators.

Technologies as varied as webcams, recruitment videos, online portfolios and computer-simulated patients are helping training programs across the country do things faster, with more effectiveness and less expense. Not all of these technologies are cutting-edge. Instead, psychologists are finding creative ways of using technologies that have been around for five, 10 or even 20 years.

For example, when psychologist Sarah Armstrong, PsyD, wanted to raise the profile of her counseling center's internship program, she decided to produce a recruitment video--something no other program had done. "People just hadn't thought of it," she says.

And when John Irvine, EdD, director of New Mexico State University's counseling center, wanted a better way to record trainees' counseling sessions, he was surprised to find how effective low-cost webcams could be. "I thought it was going to be a much more expensive operation," he says.

Keeping tabs on trainees

For Irvine, webcams are medicine for one of the administrative headaches of the job--keeping track of the videotapes supervisors use to review their trainees' counseling sessions. The tapes are bulky and hard to organize, he says, and the quality of the recordings is sometimes poor.

Irvine first considered replacing the videotapes with digital video cameras, but quickly realized that an equally effective but much less expensive alternative was available--the cheap digital cameras known as webcams. Earlier this year, Irvine had the webcams installed in each of the center's six counseling offices at a cost of about $80 per office.

During counseling sessions, the webcam sends a video recording of the client to a computer in the same office. A shutter on the webcam can be closed manually if only audio recording is desired. Once the session is complete, the trainee transfers the file to one of two 120-gigabyte hard drives in Irvine's office.

Since installing the system in January, bugs and the occasional operator error have led to a few lost sessions, but overall, Irvine says, the system is getting rave reviews from supervisors and trainees. The quality of the recordings is high, especially for the audio, which is much clearer than on standard video- or audiotapes. Supervisors can now jump to session points they want to review with a single mouse click. Bulky tapes no longer need to be stored, and the supervisors' desktop computers have taken the place of TVs and VHS recorders.

Most training directors who are considering digital recording, says Irvine, are concerned about security. But with the password-protected digital system now in place, only Irvine and trainees' supervisors can access the recordings. In addition, the computer on which they are stored is protected by an Internet firewall.

With these advantages--ease of use, low cost, high recording quality, minimal storage space and good security--Irvine believes more people will soon be switching to webcams. "I think that everyone's going to go to this," he says.

Maintaining a professional portfolio

Since last year, students and faculty in the school psychology program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been using an online portfolio service. The service allows students to create an electronic portfolio, accessible from any Internet-enabled computer, that can be used to demonstrate their professional growth to faculty members or potential employees, says John Brantley, PhD, a professor in the program.

The service also allows administrators to document their program's compliance with professional standards, such as those of APA or the National Association of School Psychologists. Papers, syllabi, professors' evaluations, videos of test administration or classroom work, and other materials can all be included in the portfolios.

"Students find the program to be a useful way to keep evidence of professional growth and development in one place," says Brantley. Faculty members can also use the service to review and edit students' work online.

Still, the service isn't perfect. Problems with stability, in particular, have occasionally made it hard to use, says Brantley. But the company providing the service has promised improvements that should help with those problems.

Recruiting interns

In the mid-1990s, Sarah Armstrong and her colleagues at the University of St. Thomas's counseling center faced a problem. Most of the people applying to the center's newly accredited predoctoral internship were from programs in or near Minneapolis and St. Paul, and few of them ranked the internship as their first, second or even third choice in the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers match. Something needed to be done to raise the program's national profile.

Fortunately for the counseling center, the university's audiovisual department was in the process of producing a video about the university as a whole. That gave the center access to footage to make its own recruitment video--footage that would otherwise have been well outside their budget.

Around the same time, Armstrong and her colleagues also began offering interactive video interviews for potential interns who couldn't make the trip to Minnesota. The first person to take advantage of the interactive video option ended up matching, but the vast majority of interviewees preferred--and still prefer--to visit in person or speak with interviewers on the phone.

Armstrong and her colleagues stopped using the recruitment video this year because it's six years out of date. They are considering whether to produce a new version. In the meantime, potential applicants can visit the center's Web site, which includes digital video clips of previous interns commenting on their experience in the program.

Simulating patients

In the late 1980s, Marcie Desrochers, PhD, sought to find out whether computers could help teach psychology students how to treat behavioral problems. Over the next decade, she developed a CD-ROM-based software program to bridge the gap between classroom lectures on clinical diagnosis and treatment and real client interactions.

The software includes ten client cases that feature behavioral problems such as hand sucking, head banging and hitting. For example, one case features a 12-year-old girl with severe retardation who engages in temper tantrums. Students decide which assessments and treatments to conduct based on referral forms, video clips, simulated interviews with clients and other data, and the software provides feedback, including graphs that show how the frequency of problem behaviors has changed in response to the treatment selected by the student.

Now an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Brockport, Desrochers continues to use the software in her own classes and to sell it to faculty at other institutions as well as to practitioners in applied settings.

"There's nothing like the real thing, of course," says Desrochers, but the software provides "an intermediate step before actually working with individuals with behavioral problems." Such simulations can help ensure that, when the real thing comes, students are ready for it.

Etienne S. Benson is a writer in Cambridge, Mass.