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What Is Regular and Substantive Interaction? The Term that Has Defined Online Learning Still Lacks Clear Definition

By Henry Kronk
March 08, 2019

There’s an issue with online higher education that has yet to be resolved. For learners to apply for federal student loans, and for institutions to receive these Title IV funds, online or distance programs must demonstrate “regular and substantive interaction” (RSI) between students and instructors. There’s just one issue in following this guideline. No policymaker has ever clearly defined RSI. Three groups—The University Professional and Continuing Education Association, the Online Learning Consortium, and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies—have teamed up to offer a series of policy recommendations, including guidelines for RSI. 

The Emergence of Online Learning

When online learning, especially in higher education, grew more and more viable in the 1990s, Congress struggled to accommodate the new modality. While lawmakers wanted to leave room for innovation, they also wanted to protect the consumer. During the George H. W. Bush administration, massive fraud had been unearthed amid for-profit correspondence course programs. This prompted then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to support what became known as the 50% rule, which prohibited “students from receiving Title IV, HEA assistance for correspondence courses, and eliminating the eligibility of schools that offer 50 percent or more of their courses by correspondence.” 

But internet-based communication made it possible for learners to have more intimate communication with an instructor via correspondence than, say, a 400-student lecture. This called for updated legislation.

As the authors of the policy recommendation write: 

In 2005, the Higher Education Reconciliation Act rescinded the fifty percent rule’s applicability to distance education and, as a result, distinguished between distance education and correspondence education … The new definition of distance education found in 34 C.F.R. §600.2 included the requirement that there be regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students. This key phrase, “regular and substantive interaction,” was never defined, thus creating numerous conversations and arguments about the role of and types of interaction pedagogically appropriate in online education.

To further complicate this issue, the Act also opened the way for students to use federal financial aid for Department of Education approved direct assessment programs, which 34 C.F.R. §668.10 defines as “an instructional program that, in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning… [This] means a measure by the institution of what a student knows and can do… Examples of direct 3 measures include projects, papers, examinations, presentations, performances, and portfolios” (34 C.F.R. §668.10(a)(1) and (2)).”

Regulation Begins, but Regular and Substantive Interaction Still Lacks Definition

No one touched the policy for seven years until, in 2012, the DoE audited Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and found that the institution did not maintain regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty. 

In response, St. Mary’s argued that the DoE Office of the Inspector General had defined RSI retroactively. The school is still negotiating with the DoE.

Controversy continued in 2014 when Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Lynn Mahaffie circulated a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter that partially defined RSI by describing what it is not:

We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction (Department of Education, 2014).

The letter also listed a few things that might be considered RSI. 

The authors continue:

The most recent discussion of what constitutes regular and substantive interaction can be found in the Office of Inspector General’s September 2017 audit of Western Governors University (WGU), the largest competency-based education provider in the country. After admitting that there is not a statutory definition of regular and substantive interaction, the OIG laid out what it believed to be the “ordinary meaning” of “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors. 

Substantive interaction is defined as “relevant to the subject matter” and involves a “student interaction with a course mentor or required an individual submission of a performance task for which an evaluator provided the student feedback” (OIG, 2017). Most importantly, the OIG went on to define what is NOT substantive interaction. Substantive interaction does NOT include: 

-Computer-generated feedback on objective assessments.

-Recorded webinars, videos, and reading materials if the course design materials did not require the students to watch the webinars and then interact with an instructor.

-Contact with mentoring staff who are not directly providing instruction on the course’s subject matter (OIG, 2017).

The authors then list various regulatory and statutory concerns posed by the continued lack of clear definition of RSI and provide the following guiding principles:

Fairness to all students and institutions regardless of the educational modality. 

• Students should have the same access to federal financial aid regardless of instructional modality. 

• Treat all modalities with the same expectations to achieve high quality learning. Do not hold non-face-to-face modalities to a different set of standards. 

Incentivize, don’t punish, institutions for being innovative and creating programs that expand educational opportunity. 

• Create clear regulations around RSI and apply those regulations in a uniform way. 

Develop new measures of quality assurance and transparency that rely less on “input” measures and more on “outputs.” 

• The Department of Education plays a critical role in student consumer protection as well as protecting the multi-billion-dollar investment of taxpayer money. The Department must continue this critical role while also finding ways to balance protection with expanding educational access for an increasingly post-traditional student population. 

• Although the Department plays a critical role in quality assurance, it is only one part of the triad—there are equally important roles for accreditors and state government. All three parts of the triad should be equally engaged in quality assurance discussions and responsibilities. 

• The Department currently relies on “input” measures like credit hours and regular and substantive interaction as proxies for quality assurance. However, input measures are not always dependable indicators of educational quality, something that is essentially an “outcome.” The Department should work with higher education stakeholders to recommend alternative measures of quality assurance that focus on demonstrations of quality. 

-Simplify regulations around financial aid program eligibility requirements, especially around RSI.

Read the full document here.

Featured Image: Bonnie Kittle, Unsplash.