This blog post will explore new federal US Department of Education (DoE) regulatory definitions of distance education that require institutions to ensure regular and substantive interaction (RSI) between a student and an instructor(s).* We are grateful to WCET and to SUNY OSCQR for providing guidance on how to interpret and apply these guidelines. Much of this post is excerpted from that material.
Updated Definition of Distance Education
Distance education is defined by the U.S. Department of Education at the course level, which makes both course design and instruction of great importance. Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) is a hallmark of quality online course delivery at FHSU and is also incorporated into the FHSU Strategic Plan.
Distance education: (1) Education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (2)(i) through (iv) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor or instructors and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously.
(2)The technologies that may be used to offer distance education include –
(i) The internet;
(ii) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;
(iii) Audio conference; or
(iv) Other media used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (2)(i) through (iii) of this definition.
(3) For purposes of this definition, an instructor is an individual responsible for delivering course content and who meets the qualifications for instruction established by an institution’s accrediting agency.
(4) For purposes of this definition, substantive interaction is engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following –
(i) Providing direct instruction;
(ii) Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework;
(iii) Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency;
(iv) Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or
(v) Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.
(5) An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors by, prior to the student’s completion of a course or competency –
(i) Providing the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency; and
(ii) Monitoring the student’s academic engagement and success and ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.
The updated definition brings increased focus on the significant role of the instructor in delivering distance education course content with greater elaboration on both regular and substantive interaction.
Regular and Substantive Interaction and Alignment
Regular and substantive interaction, referred to as RSI, should not be seen as an incumbrance or be the last section of a course review checklist. Understanding “what is and what is not considered to be RSI” is critical to course design and instruction.
An emphasis on regular and substantive interaction is entirely consistent with well-documented research-based effective practices in online course design and delivery. In online teaching and learning environments of any kind, (asynchronous, synchronous, blended/hybrid), regular and substantive interactions must:
- Be with an instructor as defined by the institution’s accreditor.
- Be initiated by the instructor.
- Be scheduled and predictable.
- Be academic in nature and relevant to the course.
- Substantive interaction assumes direct interaction between the learner and the instructor and requires direct instruction from the instructor including:
- Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework.
- Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course.
- Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency.
- Sending regular specific announcements to summarize course content and address student concerns or questions, etc
- Responding to students’ questions
- Meeting students through office hours
- Sending out individualized emails to students to check in
- Providing constructive and specific feedback on student’s assignments on a weekly basis
- Giving a lecture through Zoom
- Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.
Feedback Fruits, an FHSU Ed Tech Partner has created a blogpost on RSI that summarizes RSI and demonstrates how their suite of tools can be used to support it.
What Types of Activities are Not Considered as RSI
Remember, it is not considered to be RSI if there is no interaction involved, or interactions are not substantive or regular.
- Auto-graded quizzes
- Numeric grades for assignments
- Recorded webinars or video lectures
- Reading materials
- Feedback at the end of the semester
- One-time welcome announcement
- Reminder emails or announcements related to late and upcoming assignments or students’ motivation.
- Assignment of recorded webinars, videos, and reading materials if the course design does not require the students to review the assigned material and then interact with the instructor
- Contact with instructors not related to the course subject matter.
- Sending a welcome message during the first week of class and another around mid-semester.
- Encouraging students to participate in an optional, one-time online review session before the final exam.
- Reminding students of the course attendance policy.
- Providing an open-ended online forum that is not moderated by the instructor.
RSI is a part of good course design elements but does not mean applying RSI is equal to quality courses. RSI mainly forces regular and substantive interaction, but for the quality course, there are many additional considerations for faculty who develop courses.