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7 Ways to Win Regular and Substantive Interaction with Harmonize

Harmonize is built to promote regular and substantive interaction with modern, collaborative tools students and instructors love.

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By now, everyone knows that all online and distance education courses in which students use Title IV funds must now include regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students. Otherwise, institutions risk losing funding and could face fines if found in non-compliance. But you might still be struggling to operationalize these requirements in your online courses, and looking for a hassle-free way to demonstrate that compliance.

In this article, we’ll share seven ways to use Harmonize to easily meet the Department of Education’s definition of regular & substantive interaction. The best part is that when you implement these practices, you’ll better engage your online students, and soon, RSI will become both an easy and a natural part of your online and distance education courses. That’s a win-win!

At the Heart of RSI: Student Engagement

Aside from it now being a federal requirement, regular and substantive interaction is a central component of learning that ensures high-quality course design and delivery.

Like in the classroom, instructor-student interaction is a key component to learning, and this is no less true for distance education and online education. The student is responsible for knowing the syllabus, assignment deadlines, school policies, and reviewing all communication from instructors. The instructor is responsible for initiating regular and consistent contact with each student in order to engage them with feedback that will help the student improve. This is what’s at the core of RSI — and for good reason.

  • Students who are highly engaged are 1.5 times more likely to complete a degree (Svanum and Bigatti, 2009).
  • Engaged students, on average, require one fewer semester to complete their degree (Svanum and Bigatti, 2009).
  • Students who actively participate are more motivated (Frisby & Myers, 2008; Junn, 1994), engage in more critical thinking (Garside, 1996), and show improvement in communication skills (Dancer & Kamvounias, 2005).

Studies continue to show that RSI improves student engagement, retention, motivation and confidence in academic performance, as well as fosters a sense of community — critically important for online students who are removed from the physical space of a traditional classroom.

In addition to ensuring your online and distance education courses remain in good standing, think of RSI as the fuel for engaging — or reengaging — students in your course.

Here are the seven best ways to drive regular and substantive interactions.

The first five activities here will help you address the substantive requirements. To be considered substantive, interactions should engage students in teaching, learning, and assessment activities related to course content or competencies. And remember, to successfully comply with RSI, you only need to check off two of the first five!

1. Facilitate & moderate online discussion boards in ways that drive participation.

Requirement: Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency

It’s almost like Harmonize was built for RSI! It’s purpose-built to drive online discussions — and to keep students coming back to the conversation. With an array of powerful tools, you have the flexibility and control to provide socially engaging, instructor-facilitated discussions and the kinds of dynamic interactions that won’t end up lost in a hundred different threads. That’s because its social media-like interface is modern, intuitive, and familiar to students — which means it draws students in and keeps them engaged.

You know as well as anyone that students will engage at levels they’re comfortable with, and it’s generally the most outgoing students who speak up. This leaves a lot of shy or struggling students behind. When in a physical classroom, it’s easier to spot and re-engage those students. In Harmonize discussions, you can allow students to post anonymously when appropriate, use a variety of multimedia like video and images, share reactions, and you can tag students in order to coax them back into the fold. You can also use milestones — multiple due dates — to encourage ongoing participation and keep students coming back to the conversation. 

When you facilitate online discussions this way, you’re helping students collaborate and share their diversity of thought, as well as promoting an inclusive approach to learning and creating a sense of community — that’s a huge win for online learners!

2. Use Q&A forums, question flagging, chats, and polls to stay communicative with students.

Requirement: Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency

It’s easy to miss an email or 10 — and quickly fall behind in your inbox! We’ve all been there! You’ll be able to keep your communication organized and easily documented when it’s centralized in Harmonize. Instructors and students can use Q&A boards for asynchronous communication and chats for real-time communication to exchange information; students can flag questions in their posts for instructors to respond and provide additional feedback on; and instructors can create polls to ask students for collective feedback that can be used to inform future instruction.  

Pulling on multiple levers to interact with students in your online courses, you’ll be sure students have their information and responses they need to move forward in their coursework. Students will feel heard and seen, keeping them motivated and engaged; and you get to maintain a more manageable inbox!

3. Easily assess and provide feedback with streamlined grading & annotation.

Requirement: Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework

Instead of spending time transferring grades, searching for posts, scanning threads of replies, or manually checking for authenticity, Harmonize makes it easy to focus on assessing student participation and work.

Activity reporting provides an at-a-glance dashboard that includes all the information you need to assess the student. Auto-grading along with video and image annotation allow you to quickly evaluate student participation and make it easier to share feedback visually with students. With LMS gradebook integrations, plagiarism detection integrations, and an activity dashboard for assessment, Harmonize eliminates time-consuming manual tasks so you can focus on what matters most — providing the kind of feedback that can help that student improve.

4. Mixing synchronous & asynchronous learning activities for effective direct instruction.

Requirement: Providing direct instruction

Research shows that active and engaged learning leads to better outcomes in courses and reduces equity-related performance gaps. One of the most impactful ways to engage learners is by blending asynchronous and synchronous learning activities. Doing so fosters better inclusion of different types of learners, and that often translates into more engaged students.

When it comes to RSI, the DoE does not define “direct instruction.” In an April 2021 webcast on the regulations, the Department indicated that direct instruction is intended to be a situation in a synchronous environment where both the instructor and student are present at the same time and are both engaged. In this case, the instructor is most likely using meeting/video conferencing solutions — which integrate with Harmonize

However, recorded video lectures would likely NOT count as direct instruction. That is, unless it’s coupled with other direct instruction activities, which often include asynchronous learning activities like a pre- or post discussion boards related to the lecture, providing collective class or individual student feedback, or scheduling office hours with a student focused on the lecture. When you mix both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities, it resonates with students more, and you successfully meet an RSI requirement — score! 

5. Launching student-facilitated discussions, peer review, collaboration, and other innovative instructional activities.

Requirement: Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency

Weird one, right? But we think it’s an opportunity — a way to keep the door open on other strategies and modes of instruction that are creating meaningful interactions between students and with instructors. And that’s what Harmonize is all about — encouraging more meaningful  student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instruction interaction. 

For example, using student-facilitated discussion boards often leads to more productive learning and better engaged students. It’s an opportunity for students to flourish, learn from each other, as well as practice leadership and facilitation. 

Similarly, tools in Harmonoize that enable peer review, small group, and other unique online collaboration activities can lead to meaningful and substantive interaction among students and with instructors. So if you’re doing any of these things in Harmonize and want it to count as RSI, you’ll have to have the activity approved by your institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.

Now about this ‘regular’ requirement…Harmonize addresses both components of ensuring regular interaction: frequency/consistency & monitoring engagement. 

6. Keeping a regular cadence of interaction with students.

Requirement: 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

To be considered regular, the interactions should be scheduled, predictable, and initiated by the instructor.  Interactions with students should be frequently and consistently repeated throughout the semester. It is not strictly required that interactions take place on a weekly basis, but once a course begins, long intervals of time should not pass between the initial instructor interaction with students. When you use Harmonize’s rich multimedia options, you can easily and frequently post video announcements, send reminders of due dates, create informational posts, take class polls, and reach out to individual students to set up office hour meetings. 

During course design and planning, be sure to use the syllabus to specify the frequency of interaction students can expect, which can include times and dates of virtual office hours, grading feedback, announcements, and other potential communications. 

7. Gain visibility into a student’s level of engagement without having to be a data analytics pro!

Requirement: Monitoring a 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

Traditionally, it’s been hard to know which students are engaged and which are not. And sometimes, by the time you get a good sense, that student had dropped off entirely. If you’re using Harmonize, then you know that’s a thing of the past. 

From an easy-to-read dashboard, instructors have greater visibility into how students are progressing toward goals. You can see who, how, and when students are participating in their courses. Instructors can see which students are struggling or need more attention and which topics worked best. Serving as an early-warning system, Harmonize’s Engagement Insights let an instructor trigger customized outreach to specific students — promptly and proactively reengaging them in discussion and working to get them back on track.


Achieving RSI compliance is about sustaining frequent and meaningful communication. So when planning an online course, be prepared to build in multiple opportunities for instructor-to-student and student-to-student contact, encourage students to ask questions, and provide feedback related to course competencies or subject matter in a timely manner. 

The result: a check in the win column for you, your students, and the institution. 

To see how institutions are putting RSI into practice, check out the article, What Regular & Substantive Interaction Looks Like in Practice. And remember, if some current activities don’t count as regular & substantive interactions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t  important. It simply means there is opportunity to create additional interactions throughout your course that can enable meaningful connection, engagement, and community — and Harmonize can help!

If you’re exploring ways to leverage tools within your LMS to better engage students, power meaningful connection, and further support student success, we’d love to connect with you.

Key RSI Resources