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Easy Ways to Include Regular and Substantive Interaction in Online Courses

Here’s what regular and substantive interaction looks like in practice.

female student on laptop

By now, the word is out…The U.S. Department of Education requires that all online courses for which students receive federal financial aid involve “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.”

So let’s break it down. Effective July 2021, online courses must demonstrate that:

Instructors engage in at least two forms of substantive interaction during each course. That interaction should be regular, scheduled, predictable and focused on the course subject.

In other words, students should know when they can expect to engage with their instructor, and those opportunities for engagement should happen throughout the entire academic term.

What Counts as RSI

Regular and substantive interaction is more than a federal requirement. It is a hallmark of effective teaching and learning. And while RSI is specifically mentioned in the US Department of Education’s definition of distance education, it is applicable to any class regardless of instructional modality — synchronous or asynchronous.

Decades of research have established that instructor-to-student interactions are an essential component of learning. Both quality student/instructor interactions and instructor presence are key online course elements that foster student motivation and success (Baker, 2010; Cole, et al, 2017). So while it may be tempting to see the Department of Education’s mandate as an imposed burden, the reality is that ensuring regular and substantive interaction is entirely consistent with the principles of student-centered learning and success.

Definitions of Regular and Substantive Interaction

Substantive interaction refers to engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and includes at least two of the following instructor activities:

  • Providing direct instruction
  • Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework
  • Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency
  • Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency
  • Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency

Regular interaction requires the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and regular basis. To qualify as regular, instructor/student interactions should be:

  • conducted throughout the course on a predictable, scheduled basis
  • proportionate to the course length and amount of content/competency involved
  • initiated by a qualified instructor (i.e., accredited), who monitors student academic engagement and success; and
  • initiated by the instructor who monitors students’ engagement and, or at the request of a student, promptly and proactively engages with the student to provide the needed support

As an example, a real-time synchronous video lecture could count as direct instruction. Based on the Department of Education’s April 2021 webinar, a recorded lecture ALONE would likely not count as direct instruction; however if other activities or discussions emanate from the recorded lecture, then it could be counted as direct instruction.

What RSI Is Not

For interactions to be considered RSI, they need to be mostly instructor-initiated, regular, scheduled, and substantive. That means, not all course communication counts as RSI.

To give you a better idea, the following course activities, while standard and essential, would NOT count as regular & substantive interaction.

  1. Assigning recorded webinars, podcasts, videos, and reading materials without instructor-initiated interaction
  2. Assigning course readings only, without any commentary
  3. Contact with instructors not related to the course subject matter
  4. Adding numeric grades to the course gradebook
  5. A student submits a quiz that is automatically graded or you post grades
  6. Sending a welcome message during the first week of class
  7. Encouraging students to participate in an optional, one-time online review session before the final exam
  8. Reminding students of the course attendance policy
  9. Posting an announcement about an upcoming assignment deadline
  10. Providing an open-ended online forum that is not moderated by the instructor
  11. Hosting office hours
  12. Sharing personal anecdotes unrelated to the academic/course concept

So while necessary when administering an online course, most of these examples aren’t frequent, scheduled, consistent, focused on course subject, or instructor initiated.

Characteristics of Regular and Substantive Interaction

Let’s explore three key areas of regular and substantive interactions. 

Initiated by the Instructor

To count as RSI, interactions should be started by instructors. Not to say you should discourage students from contacting you or asking questions. But you should expect to take an active part in initiating and guiding a range of interactions with your students throughout the academic term. This ensures that interactions are not optional and left up to each student’s individual discretion; rather, this reinforces that interactions are an integral part of your instructional plan for the course.

What this looks like:

✔ You post a discussion question and actively facilitate the ensuing conversation.

✔ You moderate small working or study groups.

✔ You ask a student to visit you during office hours or to schedule a phone call or video conference with you.

✔ You provide personalized feedback on an assignment submitted by a student.

✔ You provide post-assessment debriefings.

Frequent and Consistent

Interactions with students should be reasonably frequent and consistently repeated throughout the term. Once a course begins, long intervals of time shouldn’t pass between the interactions you initiate with students. The mode of interaction may vary throughout the course, depending on your aims and the needs of your students, but the regular cadence of interactions you establish should remain as consistent as possible. Given the online nature of the course, daily communication isn’t required; however, you should seek to interact with every student on an established, regular cadence.

What this looks like:

✔ You routinely post announcements or course-specific messages.

✔ You actively facilitate a required online discussion for every course unit.

✔ You hold a required one-hour online review session every other week during the term.

✔ You use digital learning tools to identify and reach out to students who need additional support.

Focused on the Course Subject Matter

Interactions should be connected to the subject of the course and contribute to a student’s progress toward student, course and program learning objectives. Routine procedural interactions, such as reminders of upcoming deadlines, aren’t substantive on their own; neither are activities like assigning grades, unless they are accompanied by personalized feedback or suggestions for improvement. This doesn’t mean that interactions designed to welcome students or build classroom community are not important — they are. But they are not sufficient by themselves to count as RSI.

What this looks like:

✔You send a message previewing concepts introduced in the next unit and listing questions for students to have in mind when completing the reading.

✔ You post a real-world example using current events to illustrate a specific course concept.

Regular and Substantive Interaction in Action

In the end, there are many ways to promote regular and substantive interaction online. The following recommendations are general suggestions for incorporating interaction into your course, but you should freely adapt and personalize them to support course objectives, the needs of your students, and your own teaching goals.

  • Actively facilitate online discussions, chat, or Q&A sessions focused on a particular course topic
  • Create intentional space for student-instructor dialogue, not just direct instruction from instructor to student
  • Use the syllabus to set clear expectations for regular or mandatory interaction
  • Post course announcements, send emails, or other messages in support of instruction at regular intervals throughout the semester
  • Actively participate in regularly scheduled learning sessions, where there is an opportunity for direct interaction between instructor and student
  • Design and incorporate scaffolded assignments in which students have the opportunity to revise and resubmit assignments based on instructor’s feedback
  • Provide timely, individualized feedback on student work including personalized comments for an individual student’s assignment or exam
  • Collect mid-term feedback from students. Use surveys or other types of formative assessment to find out how students feel about the quantity and quality of interactions they have experienced in the course so far.
  • Leverage the integration features available in your LMS to drive these strategies

And when all else fails, ask for feedback from your colleagues. If you aren’t sure your online course includes regular and substantive interaction, have peers from within and outside your department observe the course and then provide you with detailed, constructive feedback. This will help you gain perspective from both disciplinary experts and non-experts.

Here are some examples of Regular & Substantive Interaction in action.

RSI in Action: Fayetteville State University

To better connect its distance learners and foster a better sense of classroom community for these students, Fayetteville State provided instructors with the tools to facilitate more interaction in online courses. The institution introduced a modern and more engaging approach to discussion boards, which led to a thriving online learning community.

RSI in Action: Meridian Community College

With the goal of building the best online distance education program in the country, MCC is working to increase student collaboration and student-to-instructor communication by leveraging the digital tools that drive online engagement.

RSI in Action: Virginia Community College System

In order to expand and enrich learning options, the VCCS focused on increasing student engagement through better opportunities for student-to-faculty interactions in both synchronous & asynchronous courses, and using engagement insights to proactively reach out to students needing more support.

Choose Online Tools that Make Interactions Easy

Finally, one of the best ways you can support RSI is by using the types of digital learning tools that can power these kinds of interactions. An online discussion and collaboration tool that integrates with your LMS can effectively facilitate chat, surveys, polls, Q&A, discussions, and all sorts of synchronous and asynchronous online learning activities that make interactions a natural and cohesive part of the course. You’ll also have the kind of record of instructor and student interactions that aptly reflects what RSI should look like.

What’s more important, you’ll have clear indicators for when RSI can benefit students the most. For example, what if instructors knew which students in online courses were struggling or needed more attention? What if they could tell which topics and activities worked best? If they could track the engagement of your students over time?

When you have access to engagement insights right from the very tool that powers your courses online interactions, you’ll enable instructors with the data they need to initiate outreach to the students who need it most.

And when possible, select tools that integrate with your LMS so you can easily document and report on communications and outreach to students — eliminating any last-minute, manual cobbling of documentation. Regardless of the tools you use, be sure to have a plan for documenting interactions in the course; this will help ensure you’re prepared in case you are asked to provide evidence of regular and substantive interaction in the future.