I’ve been thinking a lot about online education lately, having been teaching online courses and really getting a sense of the different pedagogy and methodologies used in this type of teaching. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I would like online teaching but, as it turns out, I really do! It’s remarkably different from teaching in person and, in my opinion, tends to stimulate a lot more critical thinking in students than the traditional “let me get up in front of the class and lecture for an hour” model. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying that there aren’t some great professors out there whose more traditional teaching methods do not stimulate discussion and critical thought amongst their students. What I’m saying is that I have found that online teaching, by its very nature, tends to make for an interesting and unique way of stimulating discussion and critical thought among students.

The anonymity provided by online instruction (i.e., students don’t sit next to or see each other) allows for the opportunity to say what one thinks without having to worry about the non-verbal cues that others are sending out (like in the classroom setting when, for example, no one wants anyone to talk because it is 10 minutes before the end of class and everyone wants to be let out early; eye rolls ensue when someone breaks this code and asks a question or ventures a comment), without having to raise one’s hand or get the attention of the professor in some other manner before being able to contribute to the conversation, and with time to prepare what one would like to contribute (writing a reply to a discussion board allows time to process one’s thoughts rather than having to contribute thoughts and ideas when called upon in class). In fact, some of the best class discussions I have had have been on discussion boards with students that I have never met in person.

So, I’m a proponent of online instruction…but what about taking an entire program of study online? I’m intrigued by the growth of online education…masters degrees, certification programs, continuing education, and on and on but I wonder about the pros and cons of completing a degree online. I have had a lot of students ask about online Masters degrees and whether this is a viable option for someone interested in forensic psychology. I’m never really sure what to tell them…I’ve only ever been on faculty in campus-based graduate programs. So, I have decided to begin to look closely at online Master’s programs in forensic psychology to see what I can find out and pass along to those who are interested.

This article provides information about what I have found out about the Online Masters Degree in Forensic Psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Please note that I am not in any way affiliated with The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and so any specific questions about this degree program should be directed to them, as they are better able to answer them than am I.

Online Master’s Program in Forensic Psychology

After a bit of hunting around online, I was able to locate the 2010-2011 Academic Catalogue and Student Handbook with Addendum for the Masters Program in Forensic Psychology. The Chicago School appears to offer four different Masters Degree programs in forensic psychology (three of these are campus-based; 1 is fully online). The Online Masters Program offered by The Chicago School of Professional Psychology is called the M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services (or ExCEL) track. This program is described as having an online-blended and virtual residency format. Students take their entire degree program online but are assigned to a faculty member for guidance and assistance throughout their time in the program.

Credit Hours

The program is 35 credits in duration (which is about typical for Masters programs) and the student must complete all degree requirements within 5 years to successfully complete the program. The terms are broken out into semesters, which are 7.5 weeks long (6 semesters per year). The program is designed as a half-time program where students take 20 months to complete all the requirements working half time on their studies (defined as taking 1 3-credit course and 1 .5-credit course per semester).

Tuition

Students in online degree programs at The Chicago School are charged by the credit hour. The cost per credit hour is $895, which brings the total approximate cost for the online masters degree program to $31,325. This appears to be higher than other online programs and higher than many on-campus masters programs at state universities (although comparable to on-campus masters programs for out-of-state students).

Program Description

The description of this program from the Academic Catalogue and Student Handbook is as follows:

The M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services ExCEL Track (referred to as M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services) is part of The Chicago School’s Professional Education. The M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services program features a curriculum of online-blended courses and virtual residencies (one hour webinars and teleconferences). This 35-credit-hour applied track is designed for working adults who have at least three years of direct post-baccalaureate work experience with or in organizations involved with a forensic population. This track incorporates individual work experiences and workplace situations with theoretical principles to extend and deepen learning. Students must complete an applied research project that integrates and applies program learning to an authentic workplace situation. Additional field practice are not required. The M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services program courses are offered on 7.5 week terms with a total of 6 terms per academic year. In addition, a Certificate in Applied Forensic Psychology is available for professionals through Professional Education. The Certificate program involves 3 courses for a total of 9 credit hours of course work. Neither the M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services track nor the Certificate in Applied Forensic Psychology program enables the student to sit for licensure. Students interested in the M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services track or the Certificate in Applied Forensic Psychology must apply directly into the track or certificate program, respectively. Detailed information on these options can be found on The Chicago School website under “Prospective Students” (www.thechicagoschool.edu).

[Author’s Note: When I clicked the link to The Chicago’s School’s website above, I could find no such “Prospective Students” tab, nor could I locate where the detailed information referred to was located.]

Also from the Academic Catalogue and Student Handbook:

The M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services track allows students to learn about new forensic theories, concepts, and best practices relevant to their careers and apply that learning in the workplace. This track is accelerated and offered in two 7.5 week terms each semester. A typical student schedule would include one three semester-credit course per term as well as one .5-credit per term, totaling seven semester credit hours per semester. The program may, therefore, be completed in five semesters or approximately 20 months.

The M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services track features a format of online-blended courses and a virtual residency component consisted of Webinar/teleconferences for 60 minutes per term. Courses are based on:

  • An instructional environment which accepts students as mature learners and allows them to bring their work related experience and expertise into the class
  • Readings and materials that expose students to new theories, concepts, and best practices relevant to their careers
  • Classmates to provide a broader range of workplace experiences and provide multiple perspectives on workplace problems, situations, and challenges
  • An experienced faculty member who is a personal mentor-guide-facilitator-resource for students

Study in the M.A. in Forensic Psychology: Applied Forensic Services track culminates in an Applied Research Project. The Applied Research Project is completed over the length of the program through 10 courses at .5 credit each, in addition to required interactions with facilitators, the student’s advisor and cohort members.

Admission Requirements

This program is targeted towards those individuals who are working in settings that involve forensic populations and 3 years of post-undergraduate direct work experience is required for admission to the program.

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is not required for admission to the online program (nor is it required for admission to any of the campus-based Masters programs). This most likely means that admission to these Masters programs is less restrictive than it is for other graduate programs (since the majority require at least taking the GRE, if not specific minimum scores on the test).

Licensure as a Psychologist

Perhaps the most important thing to know about this program is that it does not lead to licensure. This means that those who complete this program will not be able to become licensed as a psychologist (either at the Masters level for those states that make this available, or at the Doctoral level) unless a different degree program is subsequently completed by the student.

Since this program is targeted toward those who are already working in settings or organizations that involve forensic populations, it appears to be a viable option for those individuals who are perhaps interested in furthering their education and/or moving up in their current organization but not for those who plan to practice independently as a licensed psychologist.

Coursework

The 35-credit hours are broken out into a total of 10 3-credit hour courses and 10 .5-credit hour courses (which make up the 5-credit hour Applied Research Project). A brief description of each of the required courses is provided below.

Applied Research Project Coursework (10 0.5-credit hour courses)

EFP 601A – Writing and Research for Practice: Professional Proposal A (0.5 credits)

This course covers basic skills needed for writing at the graduate level, including critical thinking and attention to cross-cultural and multiple perspectives, grammar and writing mechanics, and style and report format appropriate for the workplace. familiarized students with essential resources needed for continuing development of these skills. Includes an overview of the Applied Research Project and the project’s relationship to the learning outcomes of the program. Covers the process and procedures for creating a personal electronic portfolio. Required e-portfolio submission: A proposal for an Applied Research Project that includes the problem statement, background, goal, and an annotated bibliography of three to four articles related to the Proposal topic. Approval by the student’s advisor is required.

EFP 601B – Writing and Research for Practice: Professional Proposal B (0.5 credits

This course is a continuation of EFP 601A.

EFP 602A – Writing and Research for Practice: Information Literacy A (0.5 credits)

In addition to a review of electronic and other resources available to graduate students at The Chicago School, including traditional scholarly resources, this course prepares the student to create an effective research strategy to find and evaluate needed information. Students learn to formulate research queries, perform advanced searches using a range of search engines, and critically evaluate information for a particular application. Reference information to avoid plagiarism is included. Required e-portfolio submission: A revised Applied Research Project if warranted and the Literature Review Section of the project with a complete reference list. Approval by the student’s advisor is required.

EFP 602B – Writing and Research for Practice: Information Literacy B (0.5 credits)

This course is a continuation of EFP 602A.

EFP 603A – Writing and Research for Practice: Applied Research Methodologies A (0.5 credits)

[Note: This was cut off in the Catalogue but I assume that the description reads something like…Students will complete the Methodology section of the Applied Research Project, and a detailed plan to execute and complete the Applied Research Project . Approval by the student’s advisor is required.

EFP 603B – Writing and Research for Practice: Applied Research Methodologies B (0.5 credits)

This course is a continuation of EFP 603A.

EFP 604A – Writing and Research for Practice: Professional Ethics A (0.5 credits)

This course provides an overview of individual as well as organizational responsibilities with regard to ethical issues and requirements related to research and professional behavior. Students think critically about ethical situations and compliance regulations in their workplace. The research ethics requirements of The Chicago School are included. Required e-portfolio submission: A revised Applied Research Project if warranted, the Critical Analysis of Ethical Considerations section of the project, and IRB approval if needed. Approval by the student’s advisor is required.

EFP 604B – Writing and Research for Practice: Professional Ethics B (0.5 credits)

This course is a continuation of EFP 604A.

EFP 605A – Writing and Research for Practice: Applied Research Project A (0.5 credits)

Students complete an Applied Research Project related to their workplace in which they formulate, investigate, and analyze a problem and develop solutions to address the problem. The project includes a section presenting an overview of the problem, a review of related literature and other organizational information, a critical analysis of the ethical considerations, a research methodology appropriate for the problem and organizational context, and a critical analysis of the problem and recommendation for its resolution. Required e-portfolio submission: A report documenting the Applied Research Project in a style appropriate for the workplace, and a PowerPoint presentation of the project approval by the student’s advisor is required.

EFP 605B – Writing and Research for Practice: Applied Research Project B (0.5 credits)

This course is a continuation of EFP 604A. Prerequisite(s): EFP 610.

Additional Coursework (10 3-credit hour courses)

EFP 611 – Ethics and Professional Issues in Forensic Psychology (3 credits)

This course explores ethical and legal conflicts and dilemmas that might be encountered working within the legal system. Ways to resolve such conflict including the standards applicable to the practice of forensic psychology are considered.

EFP 612 – Psychology of the Lifespan (3 credits)

This course examines normal development from infancy through advanced age, focusing on the development of perceptual and cognitive processes, psychosexual roles and familial interpersonal processes. Current clinical approaches are examined from diverse theoretical viewpoints and in view of recent research findings. Cultural diversity and individual differences are integral to this course.

EFP 615 – Socio-Cultural Issues in Forensic Psychology (3 credits)

This course applies social psychological knowledge in the context of cultural sensitivity to the criminal and civil justice systems. Emphasis is placed on topics such as Social Psychological of justice institutions, environmental psychology, socialization into roles and identity, collective behavior, research on juries, attitude formation and change, and criminal identification. This course also highlights the impact of psychological disorders emphasizing the explicit linkage between sociocultural change and the legal system.

EFP 621 – Trauma and Crisis Intervention (3 credits)

This course addresses theories, research studies, and assessment techniques relating to various types of trauma such as childhood abuse, domestic violence, combat experience, surviving a natural disaster, and exposure to life-threatening incidents (such as those likely experienced by law enforcement and emergency services personnel). Crisis intervention techniques concerning the treatment of trauma-related difficulties, acute stress, and post traumatic stress disorder are discussed.

EFP 622 – Mental Health Law (3 credits)

This course encompasses an overview of mental health law and the related issues and responsibilities within diverse forensic settings. Specific applications include confidentiality, reporting requirements, and psychiatric hospital evaluation. Case studies and court reports are used to illustrate the key concepts of this course.

EFP 625 – Substance Abuse Treatment (3 credits)

This course examines substance use and abuse with a focus on symptom formation, classification, causes, sociocultural factors, and treatment modalities; various theoretical approaches to the etiology and treatment of substance abuse and resultant psychological and physiological effects of various drugs.

EFP 613 – Psychopathology (3 credits)

This course entails a survey of the major types of mental disorders. Manifestations, symptoms, and patterns of abnormal behavior are explored. The course addresses the management of and interventions employed with mentally ill individuals in a variety of forensic settings.

EFP 617 – Basic Interviewing Skills (3 credits)

This course focuses on techniques of interviewing including listening skills, aids for giving and receiving feedback, and establishing a relationship with a client. Consideration of cultural differences in establishing a relationship and conducting an interview is integral to this course.

EFP 610 – Survey of Forensic Psychology Practice and Principles (3 credits)

This course introduces students to the field of forensic psychology, its history and impact in today’s world. The course focuses on the relationship between law and psychology, the mental health system, mental illness and criminal conduct. The course provides a brief introduction to the legal system including legal terminology and its use in the preparation of forensic documents. Further, the course gives students a general overview of the preparation of reports for court and other forensic settings.

Choice of One of the Following

EFP 619 – Evaluation and Treatment of the Adult Offender (3 credits)

Prerequisite(s): EFP 612 and EFP 613 and EFP 617 . This course examines psychological origins and dynamics of criminal behavior from the viewpoint of psychological theories. Treatment of the different types of offender populations (antisocial personality, female offenders, sex offenders, etc.) within the criminal justice system is also discussed. Further, this course explores psychological theories related to etiology, development and prediction of violent crime, types of intervention possible within the criminal justice setting. Topic areas may include special offender populations (sex offender, offenders with developmental disabilities, or those classified as mentally retarded). Either EFP 619 or EFP 620 must be taken as a requirement.

EFP 620 – Evaluation and Treatment of the Juvenile Offender (3 credits)

Prerequisite(s): EFP 612 and EFP 613 and EFP 617 . This course addresses the psychological factors leading to the causes, assessment, classification and treatment of juvenile delinquency. Also, this course examines both psychodynamic and developmental approaches, emphasizing clinical dynamics, constitutional, and psycho-pathological factors contributing to delinquency. Further, major psychological treatment approaches are reviewed, with relevant case studies presented for illustrative detail. Analysis of legal and institutional responses to juvenile crime from the perspective of learning theory and developmental psychology are examined as well. Discusses the role of the forensic specialist in the juvenile justice system. Either EFP 619 or EFP 620 must be taken as a requirement.

Concluding Comments

The coursework for this program appears to be well-rounded and cover the basic areas of concern for many forensic psychologists. Although the student does not engage in the applied practice of psychology to receive this degree, the degree is not meant as a path to licensure so the lack of applied work is not necessarily a limitation (as long as students are aware that this degree will not allow them to practice as a psychologist). This degree would provide someone without a background in forensic psychology the information and skills to be better equipped to understand the specific concerns and issues of various forensic populations (especially if they are already working in such a setting).

The provision of a faculty mentor-guide-resource is a nice way to guard against a student feeling “lost” and now knowing who to go to for advice, especially since online programs, by their very nature, tend to have limited in-person interaction. Having a faculty member assigned to you as a student appears to be a great way to attempt to guard against students dropping out or not meeting milestones as required. In addition, the 60-minutes per semester of webinar or other real-time interaction between faculty and student is a nice way to provide students with an opportunity to interact in real-time with their program faculty and mentors.

The lack of a residency requirement (as would be the case with any fully online degree program) means that anyone from anywhere can complete this program. As online education grows, we are sure to see an increase in the international representation of the students who complete these degrees. For students from countries where forensic mental health services are in a stage of infancy, this degree may be a very viable option.

On the downside, however, is the fact that it is very easy to get “lost in the crowd” with online education. Those students who are sure to get the most out of this type of education will be those who go out of their way to engage and interact with their professors (as opposed to simply completing the required coursework). Obtaining letters of recommendation from professors with whom one has engaged are sure to be more meaningful than those from professors with whom the student completed a course but did not really engage with the professor (either online or in-person). This, of course, is a limitation of online education in general and not in any way a limitation of The Chicago School’s program alone.