The type of interaction that takes place between instructors and students in online courses is a key factor in distinguishing distance education from correspondence courses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, correspondence courses have limited interaction between instructors and students and, if any interaction does occur, it “is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student.” However, in order to be recognized as distance education, one of the features online courses must have is regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students.
What is Regular and Substantive Interaction?
On July 1, 2021, new rules from the U.S. Department of Education went into effect clarifying a variety of regulations, including what constitutes regular and substantive interaction in distance higher education. Although the new rules apply to the use of Title IV financial aid, the reasoning behind the particular requirement of regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students is that “The role of the instructor is critical in high-quality distance education.” That principle is a good reminder to all instructors about the importance of regular and substantive interaction with students in their courses, whether federal financial aid funds are involved or not.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, substantive interaction means “engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion” and involves instructors providing at least two of the following:
Direct instruction to the students in the course
Assessment and feedback on students’ coursework
Information or responses regarding students’ questions about the course or competency
Facilitation of discussions with students regarding the course content or competency
Instructional activities approved by an institution or accrediting agency
What qualifies substantive interaction as regular, according to the Department of Education, is if it also involves instructors providing both of the following:
Opportunities for substantive interaction with students that is predictable and scheduled in a manner commensurate with the duration and content of a course or competency
Monitoring of student engagement and success followed up by prompt and proactive substantive interaction when needed or requested
Why is Regular and Substantive Interaction Important?
When courses are offered online, it can be easy to have a set-it-and-forget-it mentality like using a crockpot or instant pot for cooking meals when the cook puts in all the ingredients, turns on the machine, and then walks away until the food is done. That method is great for cooking but not for education. Just because all of a course’s material is put online and ready to go on its own does not mean an instructor can be absent or inactive and expect the end product to be considered high-quality education. High-quality online courses must have instructors engaging in regular and substantive interaction with students throughout those courses.
Imagine if students entered a physical classroom with no instructor present. At the designated start time, videos automatically played on a screen at the front of the room. After the videos ended, students read the provided course material. Then they discussed the course content they had just watched or read only with each other. The assignments they completed were not graded by an instructor. And if they wanted to ask the absent instructor a question, they had to either make a phone call or send an email. It is doubtful that such a scenario would be considered high-quality education. Yet, sometimes those methods are the way that online courses are delivered, which means they are nothing more than virtual correspondence courses because there is not regular and substantive interaction between an instructor and students.
Online courses, in order to be considered high-quality distance education, must have qualified instructors regularly and substantively interacting with students for the duration of the courses, even if and when courseware (videos, readings, assessments, etc.) created by themselves or others is already placed into their virtual classrooms.