Challenges and Best Practices for Teaching Human Services Online

Author Information
Joanne Levine MPH, DSW, Janelle Pfister, MS, Carolyn Buscemi MSW
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
State University of New York, Empire State College, Center for Distance Learning
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Online Human Services programs require students to learn a range of effective communication skills. Teaching skills online requires instructors understanding the challenges, benefits, and special techniques to facilitate learning these skills in an online learning enviornment.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Online human service programs are increasing popular and are offered by non-profit and for-profit universities. The growth and interest in online human service programs may reflect the Bureau of Labor Statistics prediction that employment in this area is expected to grow much faster than average for all occupations, especially for those with relevant postsecondary education. At the SUNY, Empire State College's Center for Distance Learning, human service students now comprise one of the largest groups. It is therefore important to develop best practices and pedagogy that enables online human service students to learn needed skills. Human service is an applied field requiring students to learn a range of effective communication skills. While teaching these skills is easier in a traditional face to face classroom, it is possible to do so online. We have identified the challenges in teaching and learning human services online (e.g. teaching/understanding therapeutic techniques and practices without body language) and will add the benefits of teaching and learning human services online (e.g. instructors have the ability to examine posts and edit information if necessary while also providing immediate and private feedback), and effective techniques and technology in teaching and learning human services online (e.g. adding synchronous activities to human services courses to teach counseling skills or skills that require interaction). These effective practices are from courses taken by hundreds of online students at the Center for Distance Learning to illustrate the use of technology along with instructional techniques. While building rapport, utilizing the Icebreaker discussion can help to establish course culture and presence on the part of the instructor. Additionally, when the instructor grades the Icebreaker discussion, it can help to establish participation expectations of the course. This can also hold true when grading the module discussions as it gives the instructor an opportunity to provide informative feedback. Course polls can be used at the start of the course to meet the academic needs of the learner. This can be done for scheduling live/synchronous activities. It can also enable instructors to learn the academic strengths, weaknesses and learning styles of the students through the use of personal inventories. An example would be to start the course poll by asking learning style of the individual student. By adding synchronous activities to human services courses, it provides an opportunity to teach counseling skills or skills that require interaction to assist the kinesthetic learner. Examples of current cost effective online venues are Elluminate, Live Chat, Google Plus, Face Time and Skype. These sources can be used for interactive assignments or extra credit such as full class discussions, small group work, role playing a counselor/client discussion, or for interviewing a person currently working in the field. Utilizing these sources for synchronous team activities can help to assist in building a sense of community and peer relations. Group work and partnering diminishes attrition and increases participation. Students can utilize websites like YouTube to see skills in action. Instructors can post video clips in asynchronous discussion areas that illustrate skills. Scaffolding and utilizing smaller assignments to teach written skills necessary for larger written assignments, such as APA format, can be done in any of the above noted online sources. Utilizing Second Life, a virtual environment using avatars, in therapeutic practice sessions can help increase the feeling of performing an interview with a counselor and client in the moment. In Reeves and Nass’ study, (as cited in Duggan and Adcock, 2007) this is consistent with early findings that human-computer interaction opportunities allow for a realistic social interaction. There are many benefits to utilizing these effective practices in an online setting. In online learning, students have the ability to curtail learning to their schedule and work at one's own pace. Students have the ability to apply course concepts to areas of the field that they are interested in and have access to immediate information via the web. Online learning involves social learning theory and collaborative learning where students have the opportunity to learn from peers who are in the field. Synchronous activities help students to feel connected to the course and assists with building peer relations. Synchronous e-learning, commonly supported by media such as videoconferencing and chat, has the potential to support e-learners in the development of learning communities (Hrastinski, 2008) Through synchronous activities students can utilize techniques with limited performance anxiety. Follow up asynchronous discussions can assist students in de-briefing. Instructors can provide formative feedback on performance, as synchronous activities have the ability to be recorded and reviewed at a later time.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Students actively participated in course discussions and role plays with substantive comments and responses reflecting a range of effective communication skills e.g. active listening, reflection, re-framing. Student satisfaction is enhanced by using the techniques and approaches described above as evidenced by very positive student evaluations. Students report being more connected to the course concepts as they apply to real life situations.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Learning effectiveness is enhanced as students interact and share ideas in real time utilizing a variety of online sources. Blended learning experiences that meet the academic needs of all students regardless of academic platform.

Scale or cost effectiveness is minimal to none as Google +, YouTube, and SKYPE are all free and each student can access them with a computer. Certain programs such as Face Time will lead to the members all having the same type of system on their computer, although if not the same, the other noted options are easily available. Elluminate can be used with little cost to the University.

Access increased for all student users. If a chat session is not able the be accomplished, there is a great likelihood that online learners can access a vast array of programs. In group work, a greater amount of people will be learning of and accessing the same free programs to enhance learning for all students.

Faculty satisfaction is identified as being greater as the students have more options to learn, therefore there is a greater likelihood that various learning styles will be addressed. It also gives more options for the faculty in terms of interaction with the students.

Student satisfaction is enhanced as noted by the student satisfaction surveys at the end of the human service courses in relation to the interactive synchronous learning experiences as being very positive. They describe being more connected the course concepts as they apply to real life situations

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Access to socia media (e.g. You Tube) and software for online learning/web conferencing (e.g. Elluminate, Skype)

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Most are free (e.g. Skype, You Tube, Google Plus) but there will be a cost some such as Elluminate. However, there are free online tools such as Skype or Face Time that can be used.

References, supporting documents: 

Brindley, Jane, Walti, Christine, Blaschke, Lisa (2009) "Creating Efffective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment". Retrieved March 19th, 2012 from

Duggan, Molly & Adcock, A (2007) “Animated Agents Teaching Helping Skills In An Online Environment: A Pilot Study”. Retrieved March 1st, 2012 from Hrastinski, Stefan (2008)

“Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning”. Retrieved March 23rd, 2012 from

Jacqueline Yannacci, MPP, Kristin Roberts, BBA, and Vijay Ganju, Ph.D. Center for Mental Health Quality and Accountability NRI, Inc. (2006) “Principles from Adult Learning Theory, Evidence-Based Teaching, and Visual Marketing: What are the Implications for Toolkit Development?” Retrieved March 22nd, 2012 from

McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community. Educational Technology & Society, 7 (3), 73-81. Retrieved March 10th, 2012 from

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Joanne Levine
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Carolyn Buscemi
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Effective Practice Contact 3: 
Janelle Pfister
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