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Virtual Counseling Center provides online guidance

May 04, 2009

His office is overflowing with stacks of research reports on career counseling, stress reduction and how to improve the quality of our lives, so it is a wonder he can locate anything.

Yet it takes just seconds and a couple mouse clicks for ASU professor John Horan to discover how anyone’s career test results will match with massive information on nearly a thousand occupations, each linked to relevant degree programs offered by 7,000 educational institutions.

The Virtual Counseling Center (VCC), a golden example of university-community embeddedness, is offered free to everyone in the country, all under an ASU banner via the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education.

Through the VCC, an array of scientifically validated career exploration tests can be taken and scored online.

 “The merged career and educational databases are huge, with 350,000 URLs (uniform resource listings) packed with text, data and videos,” Horan says.

If a career test matches a person's interests to the job of aerospace engineer, for example, that person is led to videos about that career, along with information such as comparing median salaries in Tucson and Phoenix, and listing universities across the country offering majors in aerospace engineering.

Navigating to the Web site will bring up state-of-the-art career assessment and planning resources, along with evidence-based programs designed to improve academic and life skills.

All of this work grew from Horan tinkering with an Apple ][e computer he bought for his children in the 1980s. In his counseling psychology research, he had found that low self-esteem was caused by certain kinds of irrational thinking, so he wrote a computer program that taught people to think more rationally, and thus improve their self-esteem. That early effort morphed into "The Subject is Me!" program on the VCC.

When the Internet first allowed speech, Horan was waiting with the "Believe It!" program that uses a counseling procedure called “cognitive restructuring” to audibly challenge the irrational career beliefs of young women who may think some careers are unsuitable for their gender. That program was the first of its kind in the nation, and today it is joined by dozens more in the STEM Career Depot, a collection of online resources designed to foster interest and persistence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“If there’s a way to measure people and match them to jobs, we’ve got it on the VCC, as well as programs to help them stay the course,” Horan says, noting that one reason students drop out is because they don’t understand the connection between their curriculum and the world of work.

“The VCC is a terrific resource for our students,” says Elizabeth D. Capaldi, ASU’s executive vice president and provost. “Linking ‘Degree Search’ to the VCC's extensive career database will allow our students to think past graduation and help understand what careers are possible for each major."

“During the first seven years, I couldn’t get anyone to pay attention,” Horan says. “Several of my graduate students did proof-of-concept studies, but I had no traction anywhere else. Everybody ‘gets it’ now.”  

"The Virtual Counseling Center is absolutely mind-blowing," says Andy Hogg, a recent president of the Arizona Psychological Association. "John Horan has always been a decade ahead of the profession."

The VCC began to take off three years ago with the help of professor Marilyn Carlson, who included Horan in her National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership grant. The funding provided a Web platform and some of the resources to flesh out his concept.

The VCC is now supported by other grants and administered by ASU’s Center for Research on Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (CRESMET).   

Terence Tracey, ASU professor of counseling psychology, contributed two empirically sound career assessment devices to help get the VCC started. His "Inventory of Children’s Activities" is the only standardized career assessment device applicable to middle-school children. Both English and Spanish editions are available in the VCC.

A year ago, the Arizona State School Board passed a requirement that all Arizona high school students have an "Education and Career Action Plan." Horan says the VCC is adding a couple tweaks to its automated adviser program that will enable 500,000 Arizona high school students to fulfill this graduation requirement in collaboration with their parents and counselors, all for free.

Given the condition of the national economy, this is welcome news to school districts and taxpayers, as well as being enormously beneficial to the students themselves.

Other counseling resources available on the VCC include practice items for the AIMS and other high-stakes tests, health and wellness tutorials, and an array of stress reduction programs, such as relaxation training and an online cognitive therapy curriculum.

 “In the beginning, I thought I would have to create and experimentally evaluate all these programs myself,” Horan says. “But now other researchers have caught the vision. and I am happy to link to their work.” 

The amount of material on the VCC is overwhelming, and graphic artists are working on improving its appearance and user interface.

Building the Virtual Counseling Center has become a second career for the full-time professor of counseling psychology, who says he has “lost the distinction between work and play.” But he also adds that “there are many lifetimes of research and development activity ahead.”