Academic Tuesdays: May 2, 2023

Portrait of Jenn Pedersen, executive director of eCampus
UAF photo by Leif Van Cise
Jenn Pedersen, executive director of eCampus

By Jenn Pedersen, executive director of eCampus

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education updated regulatory definitions of distance learning within the Distance Education and Innovation Ruling that all higher education institutions receiving Title IV funds must comply with. The regulation became effective July 1, 2021 and requires that for all online courses for which students may use federal financial aid (Title IV funds) there is “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.”

Both Congress and the Department of Education have a long history of concern over quality assurance and consumer protection particularly when students began to access higher education outside of the traditional face-to-face classroom. The term regular and substantive interaction (RSI) first came into use in 2005 and was used to help differentiate between correspondence courses and the rapid changes technology was making to how courses could be delivered in the field of distance education. Though the term has been in use for nearly 20 years, it has only just recently been defined and mandated for all distance learning courses. You can read the full definition used by both the Department of Education and the NWCCU on the RSI page of iTeachU.

Benefits of RSI
It may be tempting to think about RSI as a burden being imposed on faculty and institutions by the government but in reality, it’s simply a name for a set of pedagogical best practices that are widely accepted across every teaching modality and aligns with UAFs vision of providing excellence through transformative experiences. Decades of research shows that student engagement and interaction in online courses is essential to student success and leads to improved student learning outcomes and greater retention. It’s a hallmark of effective teaching and high-quality education, and it allows UAF students access to federal financial aid funds.

Essential Characteristics of RSI 
To meet the criteria set forth in the definitions of regular and substantive, interaction has four essential characteristics:  

  • Initiated by the instructor
  • Frequent and consistent
  • Academic in nature and relevant to the course
  • With an instructor(s) who meets accrediting agency standards

This doesn’t mean that all interactions in a class must be limited to one or more of these characteristics: there is a place for elements such as auto-graded quizzes, due date reminders, or informal conversations used to build classroom community. What it does mean is that online instructors should keep a pulse on the changing dynamics of their classes and respond accordingly. Even when reusing content, instructors should engage with material and interact with students in a fresh new way each semester. 

What to Expect Next
NWCCU’s Standards for Accreditation require that our distance education programming be reviewed as a part of our comprehensive accreditation evaluation process. The NWCCU Distance Education Policy requires us to have policies and procedures for instructors to implement RSI in distance education courses and a system for periodically monitoring and evaluating online courses and programs to ensure RSI. 

The UAF chancellor’s policy for RSI is currently being reviewed by governance bodies. Once approved it will be listed on the UAF chancellor’s policy page. UAF faculty senate will issue guidance on implementation of the policy in the upcoming academic year. UAF eCampus and the Faculty Accelerator will be offering a variety of professional development opportunities on ways to increase RSI in distance education courses.  If you’d like to provide input on the types of resources you’d like to see, please complete the RSI Resource Survey.