For online schools, long-distance counseling is challenge and opportunity

In recent years, virtual schools have gone from a science-fiction hypothesis to a thriving, growing method of education for millions of students in the United States. The increased participation in distance education has resulted in a new need for distance counseling.

Jeff Sainlar, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/AP
Michael Dieffenbach, a senior who attends Wisconsin Virtual Learning school, connects to his virtual classroom on a typical Monday morning.

As education goes online, it only follows that educational support services would go online too. And so school counseling – a multidisciplinary support role that tackles everything from the mundane to the life-threatening – has taken to the Internet. Counselors now do their best to look after the mental and academic well-being of their students, however far-flung they might be.

An Education Week story about distance counseling points up some of the emerging practice's strengths:

Proponents say that virtual school counseling has its advantages, particularly for students more comfortable interacting online than in person. And some of the counseling practices utilized in full-time online schools are now being taken up by traditional schools seeking to catch up with their tech-savvy students.

The difficulties and advantages of distance counseling, while under-analyzed, are typical of the emerging field of distance education, which has almost overnight gone from a science-fiction hypothesis to thriving, growing method of education for millions of students (at least 1.3 million at the high school level alone) in the United States.

Confidentiality is a challenge – discussing personally and/or legally sensitive situations in a sometimes notoriously insecure environment can be challenging for all involved. And there are questions (raised in the Education Week story) about the resources that full-time online schools put into student support services like counseling. Just measuring the degree of support can be challenging, something that education experts are grappling with along with the whole host of other complications and potential advantages presented by distance ed.

What's clear is that there are a lot of wrinkles remaining in delivering high-quality education (and counseling support) online. The story notes that: many full-time online schools in Pennsylvania and across the country, Commonwealth Connections has struggled with student retention and academic performance. In its most recent annual report filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the school indicated that 1,622 students - roughly 1 in 3 - withdrew during the 2011-12 school year. And like the rest of the state's cyber charters, Commonwealth Connections failed to make adequate yearly progress towards its federally mandated academic performance targets that year, the most recent for which data is available.

But for all the challenges, the sense of community that distance learning can provide otherwise isolated students seems to be significant. Resources like E-tutors and forums can provide educational support that's nontraditional – but potentially powerful. 

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