The Role of Technology in Training the Next Generation of Counselors

There are certainly “issues” associated with using avatars and virtual reality in the training of counselors, but the technology is both here to stay and likely to be applied to many professions, ours more than likely being on the short list.

Visit and watch this video on the next generation of Microsoft’s X-Box 360 Kinnect. Not only does Kinnect allow one to operate the controller through body motion; it is about to read and mimic facial expressions. This enables the avatar on screen to communicate with facial expressions much as we do in the ‘real world.” The potential to apply this technology to training counselors if not permitting individuals to be effective treated with counseling in virtual reality are provocative to say the least.

Although I have had serious concerns about “online counseling services” and online graduate programs in counseling including little or no residency requirement etc., the point remains that the technology is going to be applied to both the delivery of service and the preparation of and CEUs (continuing education units) for professional counselors. If this is to happen in a controlled fashion with the primacy of ethics and effectiveness clearly established, it is going to likely come as the result of the old guard (those currently delivering counseling services) working with the newbies (the next generation) who are tech savvy in order to bring about a judicious and efficacious blending of skill and technology. What is true today will remain true in the future as regards counseling...“it’s all about the client.”

Just as Rogers was criticized for bringing audio equipment into the counseling sanctuary in the 1950, video equipment was introduced in the late 60s and 70s, practicum students and interns were mandated to provide video tapes of sessions to be autopsied in class in the 80s, and all manner of computer software becoming not only ubiquitous in the counselor profession, but one standard by which effective practice standards are measured, this technological tide is flooding and as John Kennedy once quipped, “The rising tide lifts all the ships.”

I agree that the avatars
 in the Kinnect video are crude when compared to sitting in an actual session with a student, client, or group, but this is the next step in the development of this technology, not the last stop on the line. Avatars that can accurately replicate facial expressions represent nothing if not a quantum step forward in virtual reality. I agree that we need to be cautious and not rush to employ the technology simply because we can. By the same token, however, I suggest that those of us who know how to do what we do so well “with old technology” might be wise to consult with those who are ringing the bell technologically while still naïve regarding all the subtle nuances of the truly skilled counselor.

From bringing counseling services and/or education to individuals in rural areas miles from either opportunity to supplementing existing service menus in order to increase access to services for individuals with various obstacles that preclude “mainstream” counseling and/or training, I believe it appropriate for educators and clinicians alike to be cognizant of the future and what the technology holds in store for us lest we find ourselves being criticized in the not too distant future for being resistant to change in the same way we criticize some of our colleagues today who resist evidence-based treatment strategies, new medications, Motivational Interviewing, and Harm reduction, simply because “they are not the way we did it.”

I am not the spokesperson or advocate for the use of avatars and virtual reality as the primary vehicle for training counselors because I am not. I would, however, like to point out that there are issues here that we (the counseling field as a whole and not INCASE as an organization) best address lest they sneak up on us. Just as there has been a successful marriage between the “art” of counseling and the “science” of counseling, resulting in many of the best practices we presently incorporate into our academic programs and clinical practices, so should there be a collaboration between the “practice” of counseling and the “application” of technology as we look to the next generation of counselor education and service delivery.

A secondary issue worthy of consideration in this discussion is the role the “delivery system” plays in engaging the student in training or the client in practice. To refuse to consider adapting a technology that has been embraced by the likely next generation of counselors and their clients simply because we find it alien and representative of our fears that the miasma of virtual reality is restricting the development of essential interpersonal social skills is to ignore an essential point...the next generation of counselors and their likely client are in the process of if not already having embraced it.

Again, we should neither dismiss this technology out of hand as ineffective if not dangerous nor ignore it as inconsequential. Rather, we should be informing those who create and promote these technological advances in virtual reality to do so in such a way as to consistently ask the following questions:
1.      Because something can be done (technologically) should it be done? Some of us have already answered this question with a clear no; others, including myself, answer saying, “probably not, but that does not mean that something beneficial cannot come from exploring this issue.” NOTE: I am not proposing something akin to Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to appease German aggression in the late 30s—or as Churchill said, “feeding others to the alligator hoping to be the last one eaten” (pardon the paraphrasing)—but rather, a more evocative collaboration that more closely resembles brainstorming.
2.     Are there risks associated with making the synth world so attractive that it risks, directly or indirectly, prompt individuals to “drop out, tune in, and turn on.”? Until and unless human service professionals in general and counseling professionals specifically educate the tech development folks about the risks associated with making the synth world so seductive that it cannot be resisted, such developments will simply be seen as the next cool, neat advance. If, however, we work with the tech folks, outlining our concerns by proffering advice as to how to “use” the technology to accomplish our goals—training and clinical—rather than chastise them for developing a reality we believe to be harmful or dangerous or more succinctly,  “wrong,” we are likely to facilitate a “win-win” scenario. 

The metaphor of counseling an adolescent is not all that out of line when considering this discussion. If we are the experienced human service professional, the “sage adult” if you will, concerned about the high-risk behavior of our adolescent client, would we not engage that adolescent in a way that was uniquely suited to meet the client where he or she was in order to engage that adolescent in conversation rather than demand that he or she simple “stop” doing the high-risk behavior or simply refusing to consider what was being proffered? 

Allow me to close as I began...I neither wish to be nor see myself qualified as a champion for the use of technology in general and virtual reality more specifically as where counselor education should advance. I have as many concerns as do many of my colleagues on this list. There are countless examples of substances and practices that are essentially harmful and toxic in and of themselves but this does not preclude considering their use to further our quest to employ them in advancing the quality of life of individuals or advancement of the human condition. I simply suggest that we not throw out the baby of technology with the bath water of avatars as we reflect on the possible nexus of “counseling” and “virtual reality.”

As an aside, the original link to the video I posted that started this discussion was sent to the CESNET (Counselor Education & Supervision Network) listserv by Dr. Russell Sabbella of Florida Gulf Coast University ( He is one of the foremost researchers and advocates for incorporating technology in the training of counselor educators. Should you visit the link provided, look at the links to online article on the use of technology in counseling as well as the “ “newsletter.”

As always, thank you for the opportunity to share my ideas and taking the time to consider them.


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