Research confirms that interaction among students and between students and instructors fosters learning and increases student satisfaction. Interaction is a hallmark of effective teaching, regardless of whether the teaching occurs in a physical or digital environment.
However, because of the challenges posed by distance, instructors have to be especially intentional about creating regular opportunities for interaction when designing online courses. Interaction is so important to online learner success that the U.S. Department of Education requires that all distance education (i.e., online courses) for which students may use financial aid include “regular and substantive interaction” (RSI). (34 CFR § 600.2)
What is “regular and substantive interaction”?
Rather than running as totally independent, self-paced activities, the U.S. Department of Education expects online courses to include scheduled and predictable opportunities for learners to interact with the instructor and other students. Broadly speaking, “regular and substantive interaction” is interaction that:
- Is initiated by the instructor, and
- Pertains to the subject of the course, and
- Occurs frequently and consistently throughout the term
To meet the federal threshold of “substantive,” online instructors must engage in at least two of the following five forms of interaction:
- 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
- Providing direct instruction
- Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency
Please note there is a further requirement that courses adhere to the dates of instruction listed in the academic calendar. Students are expected to participate in classes during the first week of the quarter and finish all coursework by the end of the quarter, regardless of course mode. Not doing so can impact eligibility for financial aid.
Recommendations for fostering regular and substantive interaction in online courses
When designing interaction, instructors should consider the course learning objectives and student needs. Students sometimes choose online courses to help them balance work/life commitments or because they appreciate how asynchronous instruction gives them time to process information at a pacing different from real-time learning environments. So, Zoom-based lecturing may not be the best way to meet the expectation for “regular and substantive interaction.”
Here are some strategies that can help you foster regular and substantive interaction.
1. Articulate how students can connect with you
- Use your syllabus to let students know how and when they can reach you by email or through other communication platforms and how quickly they can expect a response.
- Post your office hours or availability for individual appointments in your syllabus.
- Create a “Community Forum” online discussion board in Canvas as a place where students can ask questions about the course. The Community Forum allows all students in your course the opportunity to see your responses to others students’ questions about the course. It also allows students to help and interact with each other.
2. Post regular announcements in Canvas
Use Canvas announcements to preview the coming week, provide general feedback on a recent assignment, or call attention to current events that relate to course material. Consider configuring your announcements to allow students to “Like” or comment on your announcements.
3. Provide timely, constructive, and in-depth feedback on student assignments
Auto-graded quizzes and self-checks are terrific formative assessments that can help students build knowledge – the RSI requirement should not discourage you from developing and assigning auto-graded quizzes or self-checks. But to meet the threshold for “regular and substantive interaction,” online courses should:
- Include additional assignments that you or your TA grade. Your grading should include feedback/comments on the students’ ideas and/or performance.
- Supplement auto-graded quizzes with class announcements that discuss common mistakes made in the quizzes and/or offer additional instructional support around difficult concepts. In short, use auto-graded assignments as the foundation for additional instruction.
4. Create discussion forums in which students can interact and explore concepts
Allow students to interact with and explore concepts related to content they encounter in video lectures, assigned readings, etc. Without dominating the discussion, consider ways to deepen student engagement by periodically posting follow-up questions, summarizing themes across multiple replies, or strategically responding to students’ ideas.
5. Create and distribute assignments and deadlines throughout the term
Short-term deadlines not only help keep students on track, but also increase points of interaction between instructors and students. If your course is designed around a big term project, consider developing smaller assignments that scaffold to the term project.
6. Schedule a check-in with students who aren’t submitting work or participating in activities
Keep an eye on students who aren’t participating in activities (e.g., discussion board, group work) or who aren’t visiting the course site. Canvas analytics can indicate whether students are engaging with course content. The Canvas gradebook provides instructors with opportunities to reach out to struggling students.