Advancing school psychology training through connected and virtual university collaboration

One way to improve collaboration within the field of school psychology is through the development of virtual universities

By Brittany Bice-Urbach, Paige Mission, Melanie Fuhrmann, and Margaret Martin

Overcoming barriers associated with the availability of resources is a challenge too well known by both the research community and school psychologists. Not surprisingly, at both the systems and individual level, solutions that do not encourage more cooperative efforts have rarely been successful. Therefore the importance of collaboration across training programs, for the advancement of the field of School Psychology, cannot be underestimated. Accordingly, leaders in both psychological and educational arenas have a great opportunity to strengthen the capabilities of both current and future school psychologists by effectively bridging systems in new and innovative ways.

One way to improve collaboration within the field of school psychology is through the development of virtual universities. The virtual university concept originated as a non-traditional university hosted entirely online for the purpose of catering to “disenfranchised” learners (Barbour & Reeves, 2009). The original model has however expanded beyond services only provided online, including establishing opportunities for universities to collaborate and present their services to one another and to the public via face-to-face interaction (Jacobson, 1994; Razavi, Strommen-Bakhtiar, & Krause, 2011). Virtual universities can be used to eliminate geographical limitations and boundaries, integrate different courses, offer degrees and continuing education, lower the cost of delivering educational services, and reduce the time lag between knowledge generation and dissemination (Razavi, Strommen-Bakhtiar, & Krause, 2011), all of which may be of interest to current graduate programs as fewer resources are made available for professional training, and the scope of necessary training seemingly continues to expand.

Kratochwill, Shernoff, and Sanetti (2004) proposed the use of a virtual university in school psychology as a potential method of increasing the number of students interested in pursuing academic careers in school psychology. One conceptualization of a virtual university is “a partnership among various institutions that are willing to commit time and resources to the concept of high-strength academic career training,” consisting of “doctoral-level training institutions forming a consortium to offer training and mentorship of individuals interested in academic careers” (Kratochwill et al., p. 359). Their conceptualization of the virtual university contains several components, including information and resource sharing, web-based courses relevant to academic careers, an exchange program for graduate students, and a clearinghouse on academic opportunities. This virtual university model allows for collaboration both online and in person, providing numerous networking opportunities for students.

Although Kratochwill et al. (2004) originally proposed the use of a virtual university in school psychology as a means to increase the number of students interested in pursuing academic careers in school psychology, their idea of a virtual university could be adapted to serve various purposes, including collaborative training. More specifically, graduate training programs that participate in collaborative activities and virtual university formats can offer opportunities for practicing school psychologists and graduate students in training to advance their knowledge and practice, as well as to develop relationships across agencies. Some foundational components associated with collaborative training programs and virtual universities will be reviewed, along with a review a recent collaboration effort between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota. Implications and future applications of cross-system partnerships will be discussed.

Foundations: Collaborative training programs

Although little has been written on “collaborative training,” the literature on interdisciplinary training, interdisciplinary collaboration, and interprofessional collaboration is extensive. For decades, professionals in scientific fields have collaborated across disciplines to increase the effectiveness of the services they provide, including training their students and in-service professionals (e.g., mental health [Bandler, 1973], medicine [Kimball, Young, 1995], community health [Bolton, Georges, Hunter, Long, & Wray, 1998]). School psychologists have opportunities to collaborate with other school psychologists and with other professionals in related fields (e.g., clinical psychology, counseling psychology, related areas of applied and professional psychology, psychiatry) to increase the effectiveness of the services they offer. For example, school psychologists, whether they are university faculty, internship supervisors, or clinic or field practicum supervisors, could use collaborative relationships to improve training for both graduate students (e.g., training programs) and clinicians (e.g., continuing education).

School-based health professionals do have a history of collaborating to provide interdisciplinary education to their students (e.g., Welch, Sheridan, Fuhriman, & Hart, 1992; Papa, Rector, & Stone, 1998; Lam, 2005); but to our knowledge, most of the interdisciplinary training among school-based mental health professionals has involved students and faculty from the same university. By collaborating across universities, trainers and students are able to take advantage of increasingly limited resources, as well as others’ expertise.

When school psychology trainers are ready to develop collaborative training models and methods, the collaboration literature provides some guidance. D’Amour, Ferrada-Videla, San Martin Rodriguez, and Beaulieu (2005) conducted a review of the collaboration literature and found that the most complete models of collaboration were based in organizational theory or in organizational sociology and on empirical data. While there is diversity in the conceptualization of collaboration and the factors thought to influence collaboration, collaboration is thought to be based in five underlying concepts — sharing, partnership, power, interdependency and process (D’Amour et al. 2005).

Sharing includes joint responsibilities, decision-making, philosophy, values, data, planning and intervention, and professional perspectives. Partnership is characterized by a collegial-like relationship that is authentic and constructive, open and honest, based in mutual trust and respect with a common set of goals or specific outcomes, and contains members that are aware of the value of each other’s contributions and perspectives. Power is shared among team members and is based on knowledge and experience, rather than function or titles. Moreover, power is the product of the relationship and interactions among team members, and each team member’s respective power is recognized by all. Interdependency is characterized by mutual dependence in which individual contributions are maximized so that the output of the whole is larger than the sum of inputs from each part. Finally, collaboration is a process that is evolving, dynamic, interactive, transformative, and interpersonal. Collaboration requires collective action involving negotiation and compromise in decision-making, as well as shared planning and intervention. Professional boundaries are transcended when each participant acts to improve outcomes while considering the qualities and skills of the other professionals. School psychologists can use these five underlying concepts—sharing, partnership, power, interdependency and process — when developing their own collaborative training models and methods.

Collaboration across universities: A case study

The following case description presents an example of collaboration between two universities with the goal of promoting research and advancement in academia within the field of school psychology. For the past few decades, faculty members in the School Psychology Programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities have collaborated to help each other fulfill their graduate training missions. Both universities are dedicated to advancing school psychology by recruiting and training future school psychologists for academia, research, scholarship and practice in schools and applied settings at the individual, family, and systems levels. In addition, faculty members from both universities have worked together on training grants, teleconferencing projects for courses, professional and program development, and research. Following from these efforts by faculty, students from both programs have expressed interest in more fully understanding career options that are available postgraduation. Consequently, under the aforementioned broader context of collaboration and a series of unified interests, faculty and staff across each university arranged an “academic career day.” This academically-based career day was organized to promote academic careers and research for students in school psychology and special education.

The initial organization of the day required initiative and leadership among the faculty at each university. Identified as an essential feature by D’Amour et al. (2005), the partnership also required the program directors (Dr. Thomas Kratochwill from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Matthew Burns from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities) to support the initiative in order for the career day to be successful. Working at highly reputable research institutions, both Drs. Kratochwill and Burns embraced the concept that the expertise and the scholarship of faculty in both programs were vital and should be offered to graduate students. At the same time, each program director recognized that pooling their resources would result in experiences, opportunities, and information that would be much more valuable for students, thereby demonstrating an understanding of the concept of interdependency (For an overview of the day’s agenda see the Appendix).

Due to traveling expenses and scheduling conflicts, the academic day only included students from the two respective universities. Surprisingly, even with only two universities, the planning process required extensive amounts of negotiation and compromise. For example, faculty and staff had to adjust their schedules to be available throughout the day to hold sessions on a variety of career-based topics, and both students and faculty from Minnesota had to be able to access the necessary capital and make sure they had enough time to be able to commute to Madison, Wisconsin, which required an overnight stay. Some students from both programs expressed disappointment in not being able to attend the day due to these practical and logistical barriers. Although this academic career day took place in-person, there is great potential for a similar collaborative model to occur virtually through an online forum.

The day was organized to span a 6-hour period followed by a 4-hour informal dinner at a faculty member’s home. In the morning, students and faculty were introduced to each other, and an overview of the day was presented. Drs. Kratochwill and Burns led the introductory session in which they provided an overview of academic careers; reviewed the special series in the 2004 School Psychology Quarterly on academic careers and research in the field; described the universities’ program goals, mission statements, and resources; and discussed their own career paths. Faculty members from each program also discussed their experiences in the field and offered advice on holding an academic position, working in schools, and conducting research. More specifically, the faculty in attendance included Drs. Kratochwill, Gettinger, Asmus, McGivern and Albers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Drs. Burns, Ysseldyke and Hansen from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

After a short break, the faculty and students split into smaller breakout sessions. The session topics included the following:

  • The tenure process,

  • Surviving politics,

  • Service/consulting/summers, and

  • Advising students.

Students rated these small-group meetings as the most positive part of the day, and many expressed interest in rotating through each group so that they could have spoken with faculty members directly about each topic area. After the breakout sessions, students and faculty reconvened to review their discussions with the larger group. Clinical faculty (i.e., Drs. Julie McGivern and Anastasia Hansen) then presented an overview their positions in university-based settings, and the day concluded with the aforementioned dinner. Throughout the day and over dinner, students learned about different careers available to them postgraduation.

Evaluation of the meeting

Responses to a survey administered to faculty and students after the event were unanimously positive, suggesting that the collaboration was beneficial for individuals at a variety of different points in their respective careers. A first-year student in the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reflected on how much she learned about the number of “tracks one can take on the way to an academic career” and about “what opportunities are available to someone in an academic position (consultation, publishing, etc.) and some strategies to negotiate those many different roles,” while an advanced student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison commented that she felt the “collaboration across universities created the opportunity for a variety of different dialogues that never would have happened within just one program.” A fourth-year student in the PhD program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, already familiar with many of the common employment opportunities available after graduation, indicated that the day “added a rich set of new perspectives on an academic career (both from the standpoint of faculty and students).” One contributing faculty member expressed appreciation for learning more about the approaches that other programs take in regard to training and research, and described the day as being “intellectually stimulating.”

Many attendees expressed a desire for future career days to include a broader range of individuals that have taken on more consultative, as well as both research and practitioner-based, roles at the federal- and state-level. Several students also expressed the importance of being able to attend more than one breakout session, another result of the complexity of planning such an event. There were requests to have more notice regarding the event, as well as direction regarding the nature of the opportunity so that students could more fully prepare questions. These reflections confirm the inherent challenges that can accompany collaborative training days. However, the fact that students were interested in pursuing research and academic careers and attending future sessions verified the potential that collaboration can have in advancing the field of school psychology for graduate students and in-service professionals at these two institutions. Students and faculty also expressed an interest in attending another career day in the future, which truly demonstrated the value inherent in such an experience both for professionals in training and for educators seeking to make their home program as effective and beneficial as possible for their students. In fact, another career day is planned during the 2012-2013 academic year.

Implications and future applications

The case experience presented above demonstrates potential benefits and challenges associated with the use of a collaborative training model within the context of school psychology. Although the case study utilizes an example from doctoral training programs, with an emphasis on postgraduate academic career opportunities, this model can be used to increase collaboration and develop connections within educational specialist training programs, between doctoral and educational specialist programs, between training programs and schools, and for many other purposes within the field of school psychology. Ultimately, establishing strong partnerships and sharing resources can advance the field of school psychology and increase the knowledge base of future and present-day practitioners.

Collaborative training models require participants from each group that are willing to take on leadership roles and are deeply committed to both creating connections and dispersing information to a larger audience. Without such advocates, it would otherwise be very challenging to coordinate, schedule, and mobilize such a successful collaborative training session. Additionally, the aforementioned event required funding. Although there may be fewer costs when collaborators and attendees are geographically close or the collaboration occurs over a virtual forum, budgetary constraints must be fully recognized before any level of collaboration can take place. A similar event would also require a great deal of communication among collaborators and between collaborators and attendees. Such dialogues would ensure that everyone comes prepared and is aware of the expectations for the event. Lastly, there are numerous benefits associated with the creation of collaborative training sessions. Attendees can gain information they may not have previously known or understood how to access. The event may also provide a forum for attendees to have questions answered by highly qualified individuals. Moreover, the event may provide attendees with connections to a greater network of individuals who are interested in similar content areas.

The collaborative training model has the potential to disperse information on an array of topics and in many different contexts. While our case example illustrates how graduate students were provided with a greater understanding of a career in academia, this same model could be implemented to inform graduate students about a career within schools, within a more clinical track, or in a governmental agency. Another potential use for the model is to provide students or schools with training on specific topic areas from an individual with expertise (e.g., understanding how to effectively utilize response-to-intervention processes, implementing Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, using evidence-base practices, and training in assessment). Sharing such information between schools within or across districts could allow for a more cost-effective use of resources and increase the amount of available support for faculty and staff associated with the school, university, or agency. By inviting school representatives to a university-based collaborative training session to provide schools with current information about best practices within school psychology, this approach could also strengthen the connection between licensed psychologist practitioners and graduate students in training.

Although day-long training sessions are valuable under certain circumstances, it is also important to recognize that some topic areas and competencies cannot be properly covered within this time frame. According to Guskey and Yoon (2009), positive effects of professional development occur after approximately 30 hours of training that is “well organized, carefully structured, purposefully directed, and focused on content or pedagogy” (p. 499). Although these events do not need to incorporate professional development or be used as the sole method for professional development, it is important to acknowledge possible limitations of using the model.

Scheduling also presents a challenge in organizing collaborative training sessions. It may not always be realistic that representatives from every necessary group of individuals can attend the session in person. However, this does not mean that these individuals are unable to participate or contribute. If meeting in person is not feasible, it may be important to examine other areas of the virtual university (Kratochwill et al., 2004).

Many agencies can connect through alternate forms of technology. When logistical hurdles stand in the way of the in-person collaboration that was possible with the two universities in our case experience, similar meetings could occur through distance learning with discussion forums to connect individuals interested in learning more about specific content areas. These online forums could still serve the purpose of providing training and creating connections between groups of individuals interested in similar topical areas. An online forum could also be used to continue the relationships formed through a collaborative training day. With the advances in technology and the financial pressures placed on schools, using a virtual university in conjunction with developing collaborative partnerships could improve the training of faculty, clinicians, and both academic and professional outcomes for students.


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Brittany Bice-Urbach
School Psychology Program
1025 West Johnson Street
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706