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Online aspect of counseling graduate degrees proves popular

January 27, 2016

Dr. Katy Woods and Dr. Laura Gaudet Dr. Katy Woods and Dr. Laura Gaudet

CHADRON – While it may be easy to understand how a college class in science, business or even literature can be conducted entirely over the Internet, it seems harder to grasp how online teaching works in a field that depends on person-to-person interactions.

However, Chadron State College faculty in the Counseling, Psychology and Social Work department have found ways to successfully offer two graduate counseling degrees - clinical mental health counseling and school counseling - almost entirely online with the exception of three courses: group counseling, internship, and practicum. Internships will be offered completely online, however, in the 2016-17. These offerings meet the needs of students in the college’s sparsely populated service territory, according to department chair Dr. Laura Gaudet.

Earning a graduate degree in either specialty is a highly regulated process, with minimum credit-hour requirements – 60 hours for clinical mental health counseling and 39 hours for school counseling – set by state authorities.  A licensure test is also required, said Dr. Katy Woods, a CSC professor who has developed many of the department’s online courses.

Additionally, Gaudet and associate professor Dr. Susan Schaeffer have also developed many online counseling courses.

To be successful, counselors must not only know the theoretical aspects of mental health practice, but also learn and develop strong interpersonal relationships with their clients, said Woods.

For many years, Chadron State offered graduate level courses in counseling through its distance learning system, which allowed students to attend classes at remote locations through an interactive television connection to the teacher on the Chadron campus, Gaudet said.

There were drawbacks to that setup, however, Woods said, who taught courses via the TV network.

“I really couldn’t connect with (students),” she said.

That system also wasn’t ideal for students who came from communities across CSC’s wide service area and often already had job and family responsibilities, Gaudet added.

Some of the online classes in counseling use the typical methods of other courses, Woods said.

“You put that information out there; you study your books; there’s a test,” she said.

But counseling students need direct contact with the instructor and other students as well. “They are learning interpersonal relationships and skills,” Woods said. “It’s important that the professor be available and that they [the students] have classmates they can practice these skills with.”

A tool in the college’s online teaching platform makes that possible. Using a live video stream, students can interact with each other directly, and engage in role-playing sessions, just as they would in a traditional classroom situation. The sessions are recorded, so Woods can watch live or review and offer feedback later.

“That’s one way we have taken what we would normally do in a classroom and taken it online,” she said.

While body language and other non-verbal aspects of the interactions may be more difficult to assess in online sessions, Woods said she instructs students to pay attention to those things, as well as their words.

“We ask them to be aware of how you are sitting, not just what you are saying,” she said.

Woods uses another online tool to give students examples of how theories are put into practice. The department subscribes to a video stream service of expert psychologists using different counseling techniques, she said.

“They are by prominent people in our field,” she said. “Students can watch them do counseling techniques and learn from them. It’s a really great service.”

Woods has also developed strategies to build a sense of community in her classes, including requiring students to participate in online forums about specific topics and respond to the posts of their classmates.

“They are having this conversation all week long,” she said. “I think that helps build that sense of community. You have got the best of both worlds because you are offering the class online, but you have got this very active component where the students are very engaged with one another,” she said.

Online classes offer advantages for students for whom access to campus may be difficult, said Victoria Volkman, who is completing an internship for her final semester of the clinical mental health degree.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” she said. “Here in Chadron we have snowfall and I wouldn’t be able to go to class, but I can keep up online.”

Online classes were different from her undergraduate work at Midland University, but still effective, said Volkman, who also noted that use of Internet connections has already become a part of many counseling practices, particularly in rural areas.

“There is a whole new world of opportunities opening for counseling practice (using) Skype, email, even texting,” she said. “Some of the places I’m looking into after graduation are using (online counseling).”

That’s a growing trend, and Chadron State is relatively unique in the region in offering its graduate counseling program online, according to Woods. Some big online universities offer similar programs, but others require students to be on campus for their more interactive courses, she said.  

The department has also begun allowing use of Skype for students’ required pre-admission interview, said Gaudet, and about half of all applicants choose that option.

About 18 students graduate from the CSC counseling degree program each year, more than from any other Nebraska higher education institution, and they are finding jobs in a variety of areas, including schools, mental health practices, juvenile detention centers and regional prisons, according to Gaudet.

As the online program grows, it continues to develop to meet students’ needs, said Woods. “Every year it is growing, changing and evolving,” she said. “This year I’m hoping will be the best so far.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Beginning in January 2016, CSC College Relations is initiating a monthly series of news articles, features and Q&A interviews highlighting various departments on campus in an effort to assist the faculty and staff in gaining an increased awareness about and understanding of each other's roles and responsibilities.

This month's area of focus is the Counseling Psychology and Social Work department.

—George Ledbetter

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