Feature

When it comes to enrollment, online courses are greatly outpacing the rest of higher education.

According to the Sloan Consortium survey report Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011, the rate of growth in online enrollments is 10 times that of higher education as a whole.

More than 6 million students took at least one online course in the fall of 2010, an increase of more than half a million students over the previous year. Sixty-five percent of the chief academic officers surveyed reported that online education is a critical part of their institutions' long-term strategy. And 57 percent said that student learning outcomes are the same as or even better in online education as in face-to-face instruction.

But not everyone's convinced. According to the Sloan report, a third of academic leaders believe online education is inferior to traditional face-to-face learning. When it comes to online doctoral programs in professional psychology, APA agrees.

In 2010, following a period of public comment, APA's Commission on Accreditation (CoA) adopted an implementing regulation (C-27) that prohibits doctoral programs that are primarily or completely online from being APA accredited. "In moving forward with this decision, CoA reviewed its own policy regarding the importance of face-to-face interaction with students over the educational sequence as well as the policies of other doctoral accrediting bodies in the health service arena," says Susan Zlotlow, PhD, director of program consultation and accreditation and associate executive director of APA's Education Directorate.

But while CoA objects to the lack of face-to-face interaction in distance education for health service providers — programs where most of the instruction occurs with students and faculty in different places — it acknowledges that supplementing traditional instruction with online components can be a useful addition to accredited doctoral programs. "CoA did not rule out online or distance education courses as part of a doctoral program," says Zlotlow. "Those courses will be reviewed like any other course to ensure that the content includes graduate-level understanding of issues."

It's the type of content that matters, says CoA Chair Elizabeth A. Klonoff, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

"It's clear that there is some content that can be effectively administered via distance means," says Klonoff. "The issue is the application part: Right now, in CoA's professional judgment, that can't be successfully administered via distance learning."

Distance education

Go online in search of a psychology education, and you'll find many institutions offering online bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. According to an earlier Sloan Consortium report, psychology's penetration rate — the number of institutions offering completely online programs compared with the number offering programs overall — is 24 percent. Among the eight disciplines analyzed — chosen because they award the greatest number of degrees — penetration rates ranged from just 16 percent for engineering programs to 33 percent for business programs.

Proponents of online programs cite several advantages over traditional face-to-face programs. A 2010 meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, for example, found that undergraduates and graduate students who took all or part of their instruction online modestly outperformed students taking the same courses face-to-face.

The report doesn't prove that online learning is superior, the authors emphasize. Rather, it may have been the extra time, materials and opportunities for collaboration that online learning typically involves that produced the learning advantages. "[O]ne should note," the authors add, "that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction."

That finding doesn't surprise psychology professor Diane Finley, PhD, although her online students often expect that online classes will be easier than their traditional counterparts.

"You're not dumbing down anything simply because it's online," says Finley, who teaches online for Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., and for the University of Maryland University College. "It's just a different delivery format."

In her classes, Finley holds students to the same requirements that students in traditional classrooms face. In an online research methods class, for instance, students present two lab reports and conduct a roundtable seminar discussion just like their face-to-face counterparts do. "With webcams, audio availability, the ability to upload screenshots and all sorts of other things these days, you can do far more now than you could in the early days of online education," says Finley. "You can have a very rich environment."

Another of online learning's pluses is convenience, says Finley. Her students have included a Secret Service agent with an unpredictable travel schedule, police officers, students working night shifts, students with disabilities, those caring for small children or elderly parents and still others who just didn't want to spend the time and money it takes to commute to a campus. "I've even had students on the battlefield of Iraq," she says.

Of course, online doctoral programs in professional psychology typically do require some face-to-face interaction in their clinical training. Such interaction might come in the form of "residencies" that bring students and faculty together for a couple of weeks at the beginning and end of their programs, with a few long weekends together in between. In addition, such programs typically require practicum experience and internship, just like more traditional programs.

The case of health service providers

But while proponents argue that this format allows faculty to develop a deep knowledge of each student's growth trajectory, it's not enough to meet APA's accreditation standards, nor does it appear to be sufficient for accrediting bodies in other health-care professions. That's why many doctorates from online professional psychology programs must content themselves with licensure as psychologists in states that don't require graduation from APA-accredited doctoral programs, and with teaching or jobs that don't require a doctoral-level license for practice. "This is more of an issue in other health professions, where the ability to sit for the licensure examination requires graduation from an accredited program in all jurisdictions," says Zlotlow.

While CoA's Guidelines and Principles for Accreditation of Programs in Professional Psychology don't set a specific limit on how much distance education is too much, the new implementing regulation clarifies that doctoral programs that deliver education and training "substantially or completely" by distance education don't comply.

The problem is the lack of sufficient face-to-face, in-person interaction between students and faculty, says Zlotlow. Face-to-face interaction is critical for achieving such essential goals as socialization into the profession, faculty role modeling and the development and assessment of competencies, the regulation notes.

"With online programs, students may have different people monitoring things at different points in time," says Zlotlow. "The observation of growth in an individual is more static than watching the sequence unfold."

CoA's Klonoff agrees that the ability to follow people over time is key. "You can't socialize someone in a weekend," she says, explaining that ongoing contact allows faculty to monitor such key areas as how students dress, how they conduct themselves and whether they conform with other subtle rules about what's acceptable and not in clinical encounters. "You can't really be a role model in a weekend."

CoA also has concerns about the quality of completely online education for health service providers. "If your gynecologist was trained only through distance methods or your surgeon or your family physician, would you want your family member to go to that person?" asks Klonoff, adding that CoA examined the regulations of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education and other organizations that accredit health service professions and used their language as a model. In fact, adds Zlotlow, CoA's statement is very similar to that put forward by medicine.

"Accreditation is designed to protect the public," says Klonoff. "Although many, many medical and dental schools deliver content online, all require ongoing, supervised, face-to-face experience." Plus, says Klonoff, the whole point of accreditation is to ensure that students are prepared for entry-level practice and eligible for licensure by the time they've completed their doctoral training. And most licensing boards won't allow people to be licensed if their education has been conducted primarily or substantially online, she says.

Most states call for a minimum of one year of residency at the degree-granting institution, says Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) Executive Officer Stephen T. DeMers, EdD.

"I don't know of any law that says you must spend five years at the feet of your professors," says DeMers. "But where the line is drawn is if you're going to say you've become a psychologist, your education can't all or substantially be done at a distance." Technology — no matter how sophisticated — doesn't allow for sufficient interaction among faculty and students, quality assurance or "enculturation" into the field, he explains.

In a few states, says DeMers, legislators or licensing boards didn't adequately define "residency" and are now faced with students arguing over ambiguous definitions. Some, for example, claim that taking a full course load at an online university or spending several long weekends or a summer session in physical residence should count — something DeMers says the licensing boards never intended.

When these students are told they're not eligible for licensure because they lack a year of residency, says DeMers, some get mad at the licensing boards. "And when they go back to the school, the school says, ‘We didn't guarantee licensure; we designed it with an eye toward licensure,'" he says. "It's a parsing of words." The result is students having to seek licensure not where they want to live or practice, but simply where they can get a license.

Now some of those states with ambiguous definitions are rewriting their rules to clarify exactly what they mean by residency. To DeMers, that trend — coupled with CoA's decision — suggests the field is drawing a line. "It's not embracing this model of training, so it's not a question of some states being early adopters and others will come along later," he says. "It's actually going the other direction."

According to Klonoff, CoA is open to revisiting the issue if technology ever advanced to the point that research showed it could meet all of CoA's concerns about enculturation and quality control. "CoA uses implementing regulations to inform the public how they think," she says. "It means it's not set in stone and that at a later point it may be the case that CoA may make a different decision."

Online components

Of course, neither ASPPB nor APA is against the use of online components as a supplement to traditional learning.

"Online opportunities for learning can enrich programs," says Cynthia D. Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate. "Some online work can be very rich and complex in terms of promoting learning."

That belief is supported by the Department of Education's meta-analysis, which found that students whose programs combined both online and face-to-face elements had better learning outcomes than those in purely online or purely face-to-face programs. Most effective were blended programs in which online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed rather than those in which students worked independently. Again, the report emphasizes that online education's advantages may stem from differences in content, pedagogy and time spent learning rather than the medium per se.

Alliant International University is one school that combines face-to-face and online instruction in its clinical psychology training.

"The online methodology is most frequently used for foundational courses — courses like biological bases of behavior, perception and cognition — where you're teaching a knowledge base as opposed to a clinical skill," says psychologist Russ Newman, PhD, JD, provost and vice president for academic affairs. "You wouldn't try to teach someone how to do a psychological assessment online, nor would you teach them how to do psychotherapy online, or just online."

For those courses where being online is appropriate, says Newman, the methodology brings some advantages not possible in traditional courses. In one class, for example, students from Alliant's different campuses came together virtually and were able to share very different cultural perspectives.

For universities, adds Newman, online courses aren't the cost-saving panacea many believe they are. (Finley adds that online courses aren't time-savers for faculty, either, explaining that online courses take her twice as much time as traditional courses to prepare the first time she teaches them and one-and-a-half times longer thereafter.)

"If you just have a bunch of canned online courses that you're delivering, it probably is much less expensive," says Newman. But, he says, to do the kind of online education Alliant provides means developing special online courses, training faculty to deliver them and then maintaining courses over time.

For Newman, that investment is worth it — and a sign of progress.

"In the early versions of distance learning, you took a PowerPoint, put it online and let people go through it," he says. "Online education has come a long way."


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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