Advancing Social Work Education: Integrating Cyber Counseling Into Practicum As a Way of the Future
Methods: A School of Social Work developed a practicum pilot project whereby six MSW interns provided both face-to-face and cyber counseling to undergraduate student clients. Cyber counseling was asynchronous using a secure server for interns and student clients to interact. Student clients self-referred and were offered the choice of face-to-face counseling, cyber counseling, or a combination of both. Over the past three academic years of the project, following termination of counseling, 18 MSW interns and 22 student clients participated in in-depth, semi-structured interviews. Interns were asked about competencies they considered important to provide effective cyber counseling and about their perceptions of cyber counseling, including relationship building and conveying emotion. Undergraduate student clients were asked about their perspectives on cyber counseling and its outcomes. Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed. A grounded theory methodological approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) was used to analyze interviews.
Results: Student clients presented with issues such as anxiety, drug use, family concerns, academic concerns, disordered eating, and non-specific personal reasons. Four major themes emerged, for both MSW interns and student clients: 1) “Value Added ” of cyber counseling, both practically (e.g., increased accessibility) and relational (e.g., as a supplement to the counselor-client relationship); 2) “Cyber and the Written Word,” the sense of journaling and ability to reflect on responses; 3) “Conveying Emotion,” the strengths and challenges of expressing emotion online, in addition to the use of unique cyber strategies such as emoticons and bracketing; and 4) “Disclosure Online,” the sense of clients being able to disclose more personal and intimate information in the cyber environment.
Conclusions and Implications: Many of the MSW interns and undergraduate student clients described cyber counseling as complimenting their face-to-face counseling sessions. The themes that emerged based on the student clients and MSW intern experiences highlight the benefits and challenges in cyber counseling, and identify ethical, cultural, and clinical issues. The process of integrating cyber counseling into MSW practicum settings is explored, and the need for further research is emphasized. Given the ascendency of the new cyber world, and as a central social work tenet entails starting where the client is (Author, 2006), it is imperative that social work education account for this new technology and its impact on practice.