What are the expectations for faculty-student interaction in an online class?
Faculty often ask this question as they are developing new online courses or online versions of current courses. Indeed, the question is a valid one, as the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General has set regulations for what they call "regular and substantive interaction." These regulations were needed to ensure federal financial aid funds were used appropriately. Details and expectations around those regulations are rather unclear, however, which has led many institutions to make their own interpretations based on guidance from Dear Colleague letters and accrediting bodies.
Common Misconceptions Dispelled
To understand regular and substantive interaction it's helpful to dispel some misconceptions about online learning. Distance education, in the context of credit-bearing courses in higher education, are not "self-paced" nor should it be a solitary experience for students. However, models of "correspondence education" more closely align with those characteristics. The point is, correspondence education and distance education are not to be confused. Below are two descriptions from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) that help to outline the differences.
- Correspondence Education: Education provided through one or more courses in which the institution provides instructional materials and examinations by mail or electronic transmission to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and the student is not regular and substantive, and it is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced. Correspondence education is not distance education and students taking correspondence courses are provided very limited (if any) financial aid support.
- Distance Learning (Distance Education): Education that delivers instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and that supports regular and substantive interaction between students and the instructor synchronously or asynchronously using one or more of the following technologies: the internet; one-way and two-way transmission through open broadcast, closed-circuit cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communication devices; audio-conferencing; or videocassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs used in conjunction with any of the other technologies.
Four Elements of Regular and Substantive Interaction
Over time and through the gathering of various interpretations, "regular and substantive interaction" is defined by four elements, outlined in more depth in the article Interpreting what is Required for Regular and Substantive Interaction.
To sum up the elements:
- Interaction initiated by instructor: While in distance courses students have a heightened responsibility to take ownership of their learning, the faculty presence, guidance, and initiation of contact is critical. In distance courses, the flow, sequence, and deadlines of the course must be directed by the instructor and the timing of the course set through use of learning activities, online discussion, lectures, etc. In comparison, in correspondence courses students submit work when they finish it and initiate questions when they have them with little or no guidance from the instructor.
- Initiation of interaction must be regular and pretty frequent: This element is probably one of the least defined of the bunch. Essentially interaction with students should happen fairly frequently and regularly where students are likely to grow to expect it. A weekly interaction is a good baseline.
- Interaction must be meaningful or of an academic nature: Essentially, the interaction should lead toward increased learning and might consist of things like:
- Regularly scheduled synchronous activities. At The Ohio State University this might equate to regular use of CarmenZoom.
- Facilitating a study group or online discussion forum.
- Facilitating faculty-guided independent study.
- Announcements, email, or social media check-ins initiated by the instructor about aspects of the course, additional guidance, etc.
- Interaction must be initiated by academic personnel who meet accrediting body standards: Essentially, interaction should be initiated by someone who is qualified to do so as it relates to the subject matter. At Ohio State, this would fall to qualified faculty or those who meet similar requirements of faculty, lecturers, instructors, etc. For competency-based programs this has been defined by the HLC as "appropriate academic credentials and experience in the applicable knowledge domain."
The Plain and Simple
Distance Education can only be successful with a strong instructor presence and regular constructive interactions with qualified faculty. The myth that online learning is a solitary experience is from an earlier day when we knew much less about how people learn and succeed online. Now we know more and the regulatory bodies are driving higher quality interactions and experiences.
Knowing this, here's what you can do as a faculty member:
- Design your course from the ground up to integrate strategic points for faculty interaction, perhaps on a weekly basis.
- Develop a communication plan to help guide and manage your interactions.
- Set up regular announcements to go out automatically at strategic points.
- Identify students struggling to reach mastery through observation of discussion activity, assessment completion, or even user activity and offer additional opportunities for interaction.
In the Office of Technology and Digital Innovation (ODTI), we recommend use of the Instructor Communication Plan to help plan out your interactions.
References and further reading
Canvas Community. (n.d.). How do I delay posting an announcement until a specific day in the course? Retrieved from https://guides.instructure.com/m/4152/l/50735-how-do-i-delay-posting-an-announcement-until-a-specific-date-in-a-course
Fain, P. (2015, June 17). Defining competency. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/06/17/new-letters-us-and-accreditors-provide-framework-approval-competency-based-degrees
Higher Learning Commission. (n.d.). Understanding the statement of affiliation status and organizational profile. Retrieved from
Lombardo, T. (2016). Faculty communication plan. The Ohio State University Office of Distance Education and eLearning.
Poulin, R., & Davis, V. (n.d.). Interpreting regular and substantive interaction. WCET Frontiers. Retrieved from https://wcetfrontiers.org/2016/09/30/interpreting-regular-and-substantive-interaction/