The Internet bubble may have burst, but that doesn't mean the Web is playing a lesser role in psychology education. Quite the opposite is true as residential psychology programs continually add Web guides and assignments, and more online programs unveil psychology programs and courses.

Even as Web applications in psychology education evolve, however, questions loom about their best--and worst--uses. A new report from the APA Distance Education Task Force sheds light on the matter.

The 77-page report reviews the distance-education literature and offers guidance to help both traditional and online programs bolster their e-education quality, says Task Force Chair Ronald F. Levant, EdD, dean of the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University.

For online programs, that could include adding more face-to-face mentoring and professional socialization. For traditional programs, it could mean adding chat room conferencing or online discussion centers for students on internships.

Fields such as nursing and social work have already offered distance-education guidance, and now it's psychology's turn, says Levant. But, he adds, "the report's purpose is not to develop standards but to contextualize distance education for psychology. It looks at what issues come up when attempting to accomplish the goals of professional education and training in psychology with distance education."

Guiding online programs

Primarily, the report aims to help Web-based programs align their standards with those of residential programs. Such quality assurance is key to earning APA accreditation and is necessary as the student market demands more online programs, says Levant.

He notes, for example that no doctoral programs operate in the U.S. Virgin Islands (VI). That means VI psychology students have no choice but to stop at the master's level unless they relocate to the U.S. mainland. For those unable to move, online programs could offer an attractive alternative. In fact, VI students' interest in online education is mainly what prompted the report, says Levant.

"For some, the only way to earn a doctorate is through distance education, but [until now] nobody in APA had looked at the quality assurance issues," says Levant.

In particular, the report addresses the challenges of mentoring and professional socialization online. "The question is, 'Can the Internet community accomplish what residential programs accomplish as far as student/faculty interaction, supervision and creating a community of scholars?'" says task force member Michael Murphy, PhD, a former member of APA's Committee on Accreditation.

The report emphasizes that more research is needed to answer that question. But in the meantime it offers several suggestions for integrating hands-on training at local sites and including face-to-face meetings in online courses. It also refers readers to an APA Board of Professional Affairs report on best practices in telehealth, yet another guidepost.

Enhancing traditional programs

For their part, traditional residential programs can also benefit students by using best practices from distance education and telehealth, the report notes. Programs could, for example, do a better job linking students to their advisers and mentors when they're away on internships or completing their dissertations from afar, says task force member Beth Hudnall Stamm, PhD, research professor and director of telehealth at Idaho State University.

Simple technologies, such as e-mail, chat rooms, asynchronous discussion centers and telephone conferencing, might be useful, she says. Meanwhile, many faculty are building Web sites for their courses. And programs can tap videoconferencing, virtual reality and other more advanced technologies to conduct clinical supervision, laboratory observation and professional conferences from remote locations.

But across all types of technologies, says Stamm, programs should keep the users in mind and include people of all ethnicities, ages and sexes. Programs should also provide technology training, as needed, she says, and they should ensure access for people with disabilities or with less bandwidth than their peers. "Programs should constantly examine students' learning outcomes to feed into their program design," says Stamm.

Murphy, for one, intends to feed what he's learned from the report into the residential PsyD program he directs at Indiana State University. "We can use distance education to improve our diversity training, to stay in touch with students on internship and to pull in alums through continuing education," says Murphy. "Those are just a few enhancement ideas."

Further Reading

For more guidance on e-learning, see the "Handbook of Online Learning: Innovations in Higher Education and Corporate Training" (Sage Publications, 2002), by psychologists Kjell Erik Rudestam, PhD, and Judith Schoenholtz-Read, EdD, both associate deans in the clinical psychology program at the Fielding Graduate Institute.