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."
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.