Jenny Baker
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Challenges of Educating and Training I-O Graduate Students Online (Not Another COVID Story)

Adriane M. F. Sanders, Austin Peay State University; Jaime B. Henning, Eastern Kentucky University; Thomas MacCarty, Southern New Hampshire University; & Rebecca Grossman, Hofstra University

Author Note: Survey development, data collection, and reporting were conducted as part of the Online Graduate Training Subcommittee of SIOP’s Education and Training Standing Committee. The article authors comprised the “challenges” taskforce of this subcommittee. See also, our subcommittee’s “evaluation” taskforce report, A Peek Into the Online World: Evaluating the Current State of Online I-O Graduate Programs (Grossman and Sanchez).

We would like to thank Michael Chetta, Rebecca Grossman, Sy Islam, Richard Mendelson, Diana Sanchez, and Jean Whinghter for their contributions to the Online Program Subcommittee of SIOP’s E&T Committee. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Adriane M.F. Sanders, Department of Psychological Science & Counseling, Austin Peay State University, P.O. Box 4537, Clarksville, TN 37044, United States. Email:


At the SIOP 2018 Annual Conference Program Directors Meeting, attendees were informally surveyed about additional ways in which SIOP could provide support for various program needs. Out of this, considerable interest emerged for creating an online I-O graduate training group. The attendees acknowledged there had been considerable growth in fully online and hybrid I-O programs, and such programs may have unique needs that SIOP could facilitate. With Rebecca Grossman (Hofstra University) leading the charge, volunteers for this inaugural Online Graduate Programs Subcommittee of SIOP’s Education and Training Standing Committee began meeting in August 2018.

From these initial meetings, we determined that the immediate goals of this subcommittee were to (a) understand and evaluate the current state of online I-O graduate programs; and (b) identify the primary challenges faced by students, alumni, and faculty of these programs, as well as how SIOP might be able to offer support. To this end, “evaluation” and “challenges” taskforces were formed, and a survey was developed (naturally!) to collect this information.


The Online Program Subcommittee generated survey items to gather information pertaining to programs’ admissions criteria, curriculum, faculty, culture, and student and alumni experiences, in order to address the aforementioned primary goals of the subcommittee. To generate items, we drew from existing resources related to I-O curriculum (SIOP, 2016), previous TIP articles focused on program evaluation (Acikgoz et al., 2018; Vodanovich et al., 2018) and the committee members’ experiences as faculty in both in-person and online graduate programs.

Upon obtaining approval from SIOP’s Institutional Research Committee, the survey was distributed through SIOP to members affiliated with online or hybrid graduate programs (1,516 members). After the survey remained on the SIOP calendar for a 2-week period and one reminder email was distributed, 154 responses were obtained, for a response rate of approximately 10%. To supplement, committee members distributed the survey invitation via social media, and the subcommittee chair emailed directors of programs identified in Step 1 with an invitation to participate and further share the survey invitation. Following this outreach, 192 responses were obtained. However, after removing responses that were largely incomplete, 143 participants remained.

Those who volunteered to participate were filtered into one of three surveys based on their relation to an online program: faculty, student, or alumni. The final sample included 19 faculty members, 77 students, and 47 alumni who indicated that on average, 90% of their program was online. Of those who provided demographic information (approximately 90%), the majority identified as female (67%) and White/Caucasian (74%; 14% Black/African American; 6% Hispanic/Latinx; 12% other). Twenty-five percent were between 25–34 years old, 29% between 35–44 years, 28% between 45–54 years, 11% between 55–64 years, and 6% between 64–74 years. Regarding their highest degree earned, 22% selected doctorate, 51% master’s, and 19% bachelor’s. Last, the majority of the sample was employed full time (87%; 6% part time; 6% unemployed). In this initial article, we will focus on the challenges perceived by faculty and/or program administrators of online programs.


Table 1 presents an overview of the extent to which faculty respondents perceived challenges to their online programs. Most often cited were issues of student assistantships and funding and research opportunities for students. These were followed closely by misconceptions and criticisms surrounding online programs and challenges to the student experience (e.g., sense of belonging, involvement, networking).

Table 1
Faculty Perceived Top Three Challenges to Their Online Program


Faculty rating as a “top 3 challenge”:

Student assistantships/funding


Student research (e.g., opportunities, conferences)


Misconceptions/criticisms about online programs


Student experience (e.g., sense of belonging, involvement, networking)






Resources for students (e.g., individualized time for each student, mentoring, travel funds)


Faculty (e.g., number of, location of)


Course delivery


Comprehensive exams (e.g., time spent developing questions, proctoring, grading, administering, retakes, etc.)


Thesis (e.g., time spent mentoring, drafting, workload credit, number of thesis students, etc.)



Regarding challenges to specific areas of program management, a little over half of the participants indicated facing challenges surrounding program admissions. In addition to intensity of the process, which was noted multiple times, respondents elaborated that the need to assess capability and motivation for an online program, difficulty in onboarding students, and a lack of faculty input in admissions decisions led to these challenges. When asked how SIOP may help with admissions challenges, participants suggested that providing clear guidelines and standards (e.g., recommendations for graduate-level class sizes in online programs; guidelines on when admissions decisions should be made by programs and applicants, even for open-enrollment programs) would be helpful. In general, it seems the more information SIOP can provide to students regarding program requirements, costs, and other common factors to highlight differences across programs, the better.

Only one respondent indicated comprehensive exams as a top challenge (e.g., time spent developing questions, proctoring, grading, administering, retakes, etc.); however, this is likely because most respondents (79%) indicated that their program does not offer a comprehensive exam. Of those that do, 75% indicated they would be interested in a standardized exam or test bank provided by SIOP.

Of respondents indicating course durations shorter than a typical semester (e.g., 6–12 week courses), most identified covering material at a desired depth as a challenge. Less than 20% of respondents had experienced pressure to adopt an accelerated term; however, one respondent noted that “this is the trend” and may be an area in which SIOP could offer best practices for online programs.  Regarding time to completion for online programs, faculty indicated that part-time students often pose a challenge as they may be more likely to drop out of the program and take longer to complete the program. However, we offer that the opportunity for students to attend graduate training part time is a unique strength of online programs that should be embraced and protected, within the parameters of individual university guidelines.

Respondents were also asked to indicate the extent to which they perceive differences between online and face-to-face programs across several domains. Two themes that emerged suggest that (a) there is a misperception that online programs require less work—online faculty would argue that these programs require a great deal of work, perhaps even a heavier workload in terms of planning, organization, managing courses, and one-on-one interactions with students—and (b) the student populations served by online programs, in general, appear to be comprised largely of nontraditional students who are full-time working professionals (yet another reason why part-time enrollment should be preserved). Table 2 presents the extent to which faculty and/or program administrators experienced misconceptions or criticism from peers, prospective students, university administrators, or others regarding different aspects of online program management. A few themes emerged regarding these misperceptions. First, respondents stated that it is often difficult to get faculty who are used to traditional (face-to-face) delivery to understand or “get on board” with the utility, rigor, and necessity of online pedagogy. Several respondents noted the challenges involved in gaining credibility for their online programs and graduates of these programs due to such misconceptions; online programs must “constantly…be exemplary in every way to maintain credibility,” and students receiving degrees from online universities and/or programs “may be perceived less favorably” and “may face more challenges in finding employment opportunities.” It was also noted that many SIOP peers propagate and help perpetuate these stereotypes and a general “less-than-ness” of online I-O graduate programs.


Table 2
Common Misconceptions/Criticisms Received From Others
“As a faculty and/or administrator of your program, to what extent have you experienced misconceptions or criticism from peers, prospective students, administrators, others...”


Respondents were also asked to identify any unique challenges that online programs may pose to students. Themes that emerged focused on the reduced capacity or opportunity for experiences that are readily available in face-to-face programs, including a sense of community, interaction with peers, and engagement. Participants noted that it can also be easier for students to lose motivation when faculty do not see them in person frequently. Though physical presence in a traditional class does not guarantee student engagement, observable social norms of peers in the class would at least make it more difficult to fully disengage. Such social prompts are more difficult to replicate in an online modality, particularly in asynchronous formats.

Reduced research and professional development opportunities were also part of the emergent themes. Participants noted that teaching research and professional skills can be more difficult in the online format, further commenting that professional mentorship and advising may occur more easily, organically, and serendipitously in face-to-face programs. Online students may need to be more proactive in asking for assistance, as the faculty are not always aware of their particular situations. This may also create extra work for faculty and program administrators to make sure students get the individual attention and mentoring they need. The technological savvy required of an online program was also referenced. Students who are not savvy can overcome this but may fall behind or need additional guidance.

Finally, although we primarily focused on challenges, participants were also asked to discuss unique benefits associated with online graduate programs. The ability to complete their education while working and/or gaining experience in the field, flexibility to complete coursework around job and family schedules, and the elimination of geographical constraints on obtaining a degree in the field were all noted benefits. Additionally, students are able to bring these real-life and current job experiences to the classroom, thereby enriching discussions and group projects to the benefit of all students.

In general, online programs can afford the flexibility needed while maintaining rigor for many talented students who may otherwise be unable to earn an advanced degree in the field. This may increase the diversity of students’ experiences, backgrounds, and interests in online programs. One participant stated that online programs present the benefit of allowing “working professionals who want to elevate their knowledge to achieve their educational and career aspirations…an avenue to do so.”


As evidenced in these survey responses, there are challenges to faculty, program administrators, and students that are unique to an online delivery of I-O training. Some of the identified challenges require individual program faculty and advocates to add to the already laborious work of online program development and delivery, to include ongoing development of creative solutions to these unique problems. However, as stated in the preamble to this research (and the formation of this subcommittee), we wanted to not only identify challenges as perceived by various stakeholders, but also seek frontline suggestions for how SIOP could help. The predominant themes emerging from faculty and program administrators can be broadly categorized as micro- and macrolevel challenges, and we believe SIOP can provide increased support at both of these levels.

Microlevel Challenges

The student experience (i.e., sense of belonging, peer interaction, and engagement), opportunities for cocurricular research experience, and individualized professional mentorship are all microlevel challenges that emerged from this investigation that pose great potential for immediate positive outcomes. We posit that these issues may benefit from the same strategy, which is threefold. Program faculty and administrators must be (a) creative, (b) vigilant, and (c) strategically congruent.

Creativity. The opportunities for interaction and engagement come part and parcel with a face-to-face program. Though opportunities for research and professional mentorship are not inherent to a specific modality, they are certainly easier to provide and engage students when there is opportunity for students to walk by a lab space, walk by a faculty office, or have impromptu conversations at the campus coffee shop. Though not all students will take (or be able/empowered to take) advantage of these opportunities, they exist or are easier to administer as a function of the modality itself. Online programs do not have this convenience; rather, it is another factor of online pedagogy and program development that must be carefully and deliberately considered and developed with creativity.

Vigilance. All successful programs must monitor student–faculty ratios, in terms of class and cohort size. However, it is exponentially more important in an online program. As many faculty (and hopefully university administrators) are currently discovering, taking even a modest 20-seat, face-to-face graduate class online can quickly become overwhelming, and sacrifices will be made (not including the fact that simply posting a face-to-face class into a learning management system does not make it online learning; more on this below). Just as class size dictates the course format, discussions, assignments, grading, feedback, timeline, interaction, and more, overall program size dictates the amount of faculty–student interaction (sometimes even peer–peer interaction), opportunities for cocurricular involvement, and individualized advisement and professional mentorship. Online program administrators must be gatekeepers in this respect and must often do so in the face of incredible university pressure to grow.

Strategic congruence. We must exploit our IOP knowledge. We have identified these microlevel challenges, which would not have emerged if not considered valuable. If we value these components, we must prioritize them by building them into our programs’ strategic plans, so that program-level outcomes, down to individual course and cocurricular learning outcomes and competencies align with these values.

How SIOP can help at the microlevel:

  • Provide more cross-program graduate community and mentorship opportunities/activities both at and beyond the annual conference. Include graduate programs of all modalities so as not to increase feelings of disparity.
  • Provide means for faculty to crowdsource creative solutions. One example of this is the recent ongoing meetings of international IOP program directors referenced below.
  • Create an Education and Training Subcommittee to research and develop best practices for online programs, such as class and program size, student–faculty ratios, comprehensive exam items and procedures, and means for fostering the student experience. Although we acknowledge that SIOP is not an accrediting body, programs in other fields requiring accreditation tend to possess strength, rationale, and funding behind their programs at the university level. This often offers a level of protection from exponential growth and untenable expectations of online programs.

Macrolevel and Systemic Challenges

At the macrolevel, challenges that emerged from the data included misperceptions surrounding online versus remote learning, access to education based on privilege, issues of diversity, and stigmas surrounding online learning, including the stereotype that this type of education is “less than.” Though such systemic challenges are harder to address, doing so is our ethical responsibility as I-O psychologists, practitioners, and educators.  

Currently, there is a heightened focus on online education and training due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional colleges and universities are moving their programs, and even their organizational management, to online delivery for the first time. With this mass transition, the terms “online learning” and “remote learning” have been mistakenly used interchangeably. To the newcomer in online delivery, this may seem like a trivial distinction; however, for those educators and administrators who have worked tirelessly to promote online learning as a sustainable, rigorous, and valuable method of instruction and learning, making the distinction is crucial (Manfuso, 2020). Remote learning involves quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategies (Gardner, 2020). Online learning and pedagogy is well-considered, durable, and backed by decades of learning science and best practices.

Hodges et al. (2020) believe that online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite extensive research showing online education to be robust and effective. Evidence of this stigma was supported by the survey responses collected here. There is a growing fear that the hurried moves online by so many colleges and universities due to COVID-19 could perpetuate the stereotype of online learning as a weaker option (another issue of conflating online and remote learning terminologies). Furthermore, the spring 2020 triage of in-progress classes to an online modality may be misused as evidence of the oft-held, erroneous belief that online classes are easier, quicker, and more cost effective to prepare and administer, and can be done with little regard to class size. However, as noted, the triage that took place out of necessity to salvage student learning outcomes in an unprecedented time was not online pedagogy, not best practices, and not what existing rigorous, quality online programs and faculty do in their classrooms. The ongoing pressures that online program faculty face due to these misconceptions were repeatedly noted in our survey. Whereas these quick COVID-prompted moves to remote learning may lead administrators to inaccurate conclusions about online pedagogy, it seems that faculty shifting courses online for the first time may have a new, more realistic perception of what true (and successful) online learning and teaching requires. It remains to be seen if this forced adoption will yield a greater appreciation for those who are proficient at teaching in this modality or if those triage experiences will further cement the pervasive distrust, disdain, and/or dismissive view of all online pedagogy. There is a tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into developing high-quality online courses. Successful online pedagogy and course design reflects best practices and research of content and instructional design experts and covers the overall learning approach, instructional media to be used, and sequencing of learning, activities, and assessments to be used in the course (Butcher & Wilson-Strydom, 2013).

The proliferation of online I-O graduate programs predates the current pandemic and will outlast it. Likewise, students will continue to seek out the most affordable means of getting an education that enables them to continue working (often full time) and attending to other responsibilities. Gone are the days when most graduate students were fully funded, were only tasked with attending graduate school, and had few other responsibilities to juggle. Rigorous online IOP programs have the advantage of meeting students where they are in life (metaphorically and physically) and providing quality training previously only accessible to students of means and privilege. Though many of these challenges may be faced by online programs in any discipline, would-be students of more niche programs like IOP and/or who live in less populated areas do not have the luxury of suitable programs at multiple universities in their geographic location, much less the various forms of privilege required to relocate solely to attend graduate school. 

How SIOP can help at the macrolevel:

Addressing the diversity dilemma within the field of I-O starts with diversifying the pipeline—students. Since 2004, SIOP has been working to make IOP an attractive career opportunity for minority students (Kersting, 2004). This work has continued with the Committee on Ethnic and Minority Affairs (CEMA) initiating a student mentoring program, open to I-O graduate students from racial and ethnic groups currently underrepresented in our field. CEMA works to support students preparing for academic or applied jobs and lay the foundation for continued engagement with SIOP over the course of their careers (Jones, 2017). Additionally, an international ad hoc group of IOP program directors began meeting in 2019 and presented the SIOP 2020 session, “Promoting Diversity in I-O Graduate Programs: Walking the Talk.” Utilizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, this group strives to develop and promote DEI within the field and SIOP by focusing on practices and strategies for master’s and doctoral program recruiting, admissions, training, and placement.

Without SIOP’s help, issues of DEI, access, and privilege, coupled with the stereotype that online programs are lower quality/rigor, will lead to increased disparities within the field. When prompted for additional thoughts about challenges, one faculty respondent aptly put it:

I worry in general about the extent to which online and hybrid programs become home to ethnic minorities, lower SES, and other nontraditional-path students who can't afford to do a brick-and-mortar route (a stipend does not feed a family). This trend, alongside the general tendency of many to look down on these programs, is dangerous to our entire field and creates a caste system where suddenly our diverse I-Os are seen as “less than” because of where they got their degrees. This has the potential to be a crisis if not dealt with systemically.

The goal of this subcommittee and investigation was to identify challenges shared by multiple stakeholders of online IOP programs and ways in which SIOP could help. In doing so, we hope to have adequately represented and voiced the experiences of these programs’ faculty and administrators. It is true that not all online IOP graduate programs are rigorous or high quality, but neither are all face-to-face programs. We hope that an additional benefit of this subcommittee is raising awareness that rigorous and high-quality online IOP programs exist.  


[1]  If you have already read “A Peek Into the Online World: Evaluating the Current State of Online I-O Graduate Programs” in this issue, you’ll find the next three paragraphs quite familiar. Feel free to pick up again in the Results section. — Ed.


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Jones, K. (2017). CEMA wants to be here for you, let us know how! The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 55(1).

Kersting, K. (2004). Diversifying I/O: APA’s I/O division is working to attract more ethnic-minority young scientists. Monitor on Psychology, 35(7), 50.

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