The Origins of Online Counseling

It was the day of my dissertation defense. I had made it through a brief 30-minute presentation on my study, “Online Counseling: Perceived Advantages and Disadvantages among Counselors” and I had spent the next hour defending the merits of my research method and findings.

Because of good coaching from my dissertation committee Chair, I had survived some hard questions from the faculty:

“Why did you decide to run this descriptive statistic?”
“Why are you presenting your data in this format?”
“What did you do to ensure external validity?”
“What would you do differently if you had the ability to start over?”

As I said, an hour and a half had passed and the faculty was winding down their inquisition. They were actually beginning to debate amongst themselves—a good sign, I was told earlier. The room was loosening up a bit.

“I have this in the bag,” I thought.

Then the chair of the department volleyed me a new question. “Anthony, did you consider running the Manglos analysis on your data?”

To this answered, “Yes, actually. Several studies I reviewed ran that analysis, but I decided it just wasn’t necessary for what I was trying to determine with my study.”

The department Chair smiled and sat back in his seat, suitably impressed with my quick and informed response; and everyone else in the room seemed similarly pleased (It wasn’t until after they told me I passed my defense that I came to find out there was another reason I didn’t incorporate the Manglos analysis. It doesn’t exist).

Origins of Online Counseling

On another occasion, I was giving a presentation on Online Counseling to a group of mental health professionals, and again (not learning my lesson the first time) I ended with a question and answer period. This time, someone from the crowd asked, “Do you think someday a computer could pretend to be a counselor and communicate with a client?” The room became silent. Such an odd question, how would I answer? If I answer yes, I might be a quack. I could end up on Quacks.com, and how can you believe anything a quack has to say? If I answer “absolutely not,” well, didn’t I just give a presentation in which I admitted that future technologies are almost impossible to predict? Fortunately, unlike the Manglos question I actually knew the answer to this one. So, I took a deep breath, paused, shuffled my notes, and looked back at the group to say “That’s a great question. Yes. That occurred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966 with the creation of ELIZA, a computer program that functions as a Rogerian therapist. Many consider ELIZA the earliest dawn of Online Counseling.” Then I leaned on my podium, laughed in spite of myself and watched everyone’s mouths dropped open.