Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI)

The U.S. Department of Education requires that all online courses for which students may use Title IV funds (federal financial aid) “ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” What does that mean and how can you ensure you’re compliant? Here are some resources that can help: 

What Is RSI?

Under federal law, courses must provide instruction that is both regular and substantive. What does that mean?

Regular interaction requires an institution to ensure “before the student completes a course or competency” that there is “the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency.” In addition, the institution must monitor student engagement and success and ensuring that instructors are providing substantive interaction with the student. 

Substantive interaction is engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion. It must include at least two of five components:

  • Providing direct instruction
  • 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
  • Other instructional activities are approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.

 

 

Why Does RSI Matter? 

RSI compliance is a legal federal requirement that distinguishes the status of courses between distance education and correspondence courses. Correspondence courses are not eligible for financial aid. Institutions risk losing access to student financial aid if the institution is audited by the US Department of Education’s (DoE) Office of Inspector General, or as part of a periodic Departmental financial aid program review, and found to be out of compliance. Institutions may be required to repay financial aid associated with the correspondence courses and students. 

RSI Best Practices

There are as many ways to promote regular and substantive interaction online as there are approaches to teaching face-to-face courses. The following recommendations are general suggestions for incorporating interaction into your course, but you should freely adapt and personalize them to support course objectives, the needs of your students, and your own teaching goals.

Set clear expectations for interaction in the syllabus.

The syllabus is a good place to tell your students how you’ll communicate with them as well as how you expect them to communicate with you. Let students know how frequently they can expect to hear from you, when you will or will not be available to respond to messages, and how quickly they can expect a response to questions and to work they submit. If you have participation expectations for your students, be sure to include those as well—especially if they affect students’ grades.

Provide timely, individualized, and in-depth feedback on student work.

Research shows faculty feedback is most beneficial when it comes soon after students submit work, so avoid lengthy delays in providing students with comments about their progress. Feedback can take many forms: written comments, audio or video notes, individual conferences conducted in person or via online meeting tools, and so on. In all cases, though, feedback should go beyond simply assigning a grade or automatically displaying pre-written comments or general statements (‘good work’, ‘needs improvement’, etc.). Effective feedback communicates to students both what they have accomplished and areas where they may need to improve. It also often offers examples and concrete suggestions for actions students can take in the future to make further progress in their learning.

Send course announcements or other messages at regular intervals.

Announcements often focus on procedural information, like reminders of course deadlines, but they can also be used to support instruction. For instance, a weekly announcement can: synthesize and then comment on questions from the previous week; note trends observed in assignments; or highlight, contextualize, or illustrate key concepts students will encounter. Try to establish a general rhythm for course communications, using a pattern that is consistent with the structure or thematic organization of the course. Regardless of their frequency, announcements can be treated as genuine invitations into the subject matter of the course rather than mere reminders.

Conduct regularly scheduled online review sessions, tutorials, office hours, or individual appointments.

Online office hours provide a forum for students to ask their own questions, but they can also be used to supplement instruction in more intentional ways. For instance, you might incorporate brief structured lessons at the beginning of an open-ended study session. While it is important not to artificially limit the flexibility of online instruction, you might require students to meet online at times mutually convenient for themselves and you. For example, you could require students to participate in some regularly scheduled synchronous (real-time) online sessions provided these are made known to students at the time of registration and clearly identified as part of the course requirements outlined in the course syllabus.

Collect mid-semester feedback from students

Every course and faculty can benefit from mid-course student feedback. You may already be using midterm surveys or other types of formative assessment to find out more about your students’ perceptions partway through your classes. If so, consider adding a question or two about interactions in the course. For example, you can ask students whether they feel they hear from you frequently enough, what types of interactions they consider to be most valuable, or whether they have expectations about interaction that aren’t being met. Once you’ve had a chance to consider your students’ responses, tell them what you learned and what (if anything) you intend to change during the second part of the course.

As with all midterm feedback, this is also an opportunity to ask students to reflect on their own contributions to the class. Invite students to suggest one or two changes they could make to enhance interactions or to help those interactions contribute more fully to their learning. This will help reinforce the idea that a successful course depends on the efforts of both teacher and students. It may also give you a few new ideas for helping students engage more fully with one another and with you.

Actively facilitate online discussions and chats.

A common misconception about online discussions is that faculty shouldn’t play an active role in facilitating them. While it’s true that a hands-off approach can be appropriate in some contexts, there are many benefits to facilitated discussions. Consider posting regularly to course discussion forums in order to: pose guiding questions related to the academic subject; propose counterpoints or alternative points of view that students may not be considering; establish connections among students’ ideas; engage in Socratic dialogue; and provide encouragement for students who may be struggling with the complexities of the subject. If the only voices regularly present in discussions are those of students, your course is missing a valuable mode of online instruction.

Choose online tools and learning environments that make interactions easy – and easy to document.

When selecting online tools or platforms, consider carefully how they are likely to affect ease of communication for you and your students. When possible, select ones that help you document your communications. Email, discussions, chats, or the Blackboard gradebook will do this automatically. But it’s good idea to apply extra scrutiny to external platforms, such as those operated by publishers. These can sometimes be difficult to access after a course has concluded, making it hard to go back later to retrieve messages or feedback you gave students. If you do use publisher platforms, be sure to have a plan for documenting interactions in the course; this will help ensure you’re prepared in case you are asked to provide evidence of regular and substantive interaction in the future.

Ask for feedback from trusted colleagues.

One way to be sure that your online course includes regular and substantive interaction is to have a colleague observe the course and then provide you with detailed, constructive feedback. If you are serious about collecting feedback, consider asking more than one person to observe. Ask a trusted colleague in your department and someone from outside your department or division. This will help you gain perspective both disciplinary experts and non-experts. If possible, ask for the observation to extend over a period of a week or more, while the course is in session, to ensure your observers have a chance to see the full range of interactions you facilitate in the course.

RSI Resources

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