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Cyber supervision’s time has come

June 28, 2012
by David J. Powell, PhD
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David J. Powell, PhD

Clinical supervision is undergoing a facelift, with the widespread application of the Internet to traditional face-to-face supervision and training. At the 2009 Association for Counselor Education and Supervision Conference, online teaching, counseling and supervision were key topics of interest, with 46 sessions focusing on various aspects of technology.

Clearly, the substance abuse field cannot ignore the influence of web-based technology and how best to use the Internet to enhance education, training and supervision. The key will be how to use the tools offered through technology without giving up quality.

Various professional organizations, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), have issued standards for supervision of students in the counseling internship. While there is a plethora of research on distance learning across various disciplines, there is minimal research on the use of distance learning for counselor education and supervision. Historically, clinical supervision involved live in-session meetings and has progressed through one-way mirror, audio and videotaping as media of choice. Recently, computer-based technologies have been used to assist in the delivery of clinical supervision, eliminating the need for direct in-person contact.

Regardless of the medium of delivery of supervision, the traditional definitions of supervision still apply. My definition is “clinical supervision is a disciplined, tutorial process wherein principles are transformed into practical application and involve four foci: administrative, evaluative, supportive and clinical.” (SAMHSA’s TIP #52 has more information on definitions of clinical supervision.)


Cyber supervision’s benefits

Cyber supervision is here to stay, and supervisors need to learn to use computer-assisted supervision effectively. It is efficient, economical and convenient to both supervisee and supervisor.

Flexibility is another factor that influences outcome and perceptions of cyber supervision, in that supervisors have the capability to meet (albeit electronically) with their supervisees at any time deemed mutually beneficial. No longer can a supervisor say, “My supervisees are not located in my office but are spread throughout the state.” Now, with the proper equipment, group peer supervision can be supported with supervisees at various locations using real-time video and audio capabilities. This is especially important in rural and outlying areas.

Cyber supervision also reduces time and money spent on travel for supervisors who make on-site visits and have limited time and travel budgets. This opens the door for supervisees to select from a more diverse group of supervision and practicum sites that may provide a more beneficial learning experience.

Online supervision is a simple and straightforward process for those who are familiar with online navigation and have good typing skills. Finally, permanency of records is possible. Each supervisee can have a record of the entire supervision session for review at a later time.

There are some glitches, though. Technological failures (“Can you hear me now?”) and lack of technological experience are two potential disadvantages threatening cyber supervision. The lack of human contact is often raised as the number one objection, with limited non-verbal communication (unless one uses a webcam) and limited bonding between supervisor and supervisee.

However, a new term has entered our vocabulary: “virtual intimacy.” Research has shown that individuals are more likely to self-disclose and offer personal information online in a way they never would face-to-face. If you doubt that, go to a chat room and see what people say. There is something about the electronic shield that enables disclosure.

Other issues involve:

  • Typing skills;
  • Space limitations on some computers;
  • Comfort with silence/inactivity during communication, and time lags between responses of supervisees; and
  • Distractions from other activities occurring in the same “room.” Different from face-to-face communication, interruptions are more likely to occur during a cyber session.


Finally, there is the increased risk of confidentiality breaches posed by computer-based supervision. A major concern voiced by counselors surrounds who else might have access to this information and material. However, with firewalls and password protection, it is likely that cyber supervision is no less protected than traditional face-to-face or videotaped communication.


Ethics of cyber supervision

Ethical practices are professional standards fundamental to all clinical supervision, regardless of supervision delivery modality. The American Counseling Association (ACA) has issued its ACA Code of Ethics and offers clear guidelines for ethical practices of supervision, including technological applications to web-based counseling in general.

The National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) also provides principles for the use of the Internet in counseling. While both organizations do not specifically address the unique issues related to cyber supervision, ethical considerations should include confidentiality and security, informed consent, emergency contact and crisis management (duty to warn issues), and documentation issues.