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Regular and Substantive Interaction: A key to quality and effective online course design

Xinyao Zhang
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
|
January 31, 2023
Table of Contents

From July 1, 2021, the Final Rules on Distance Education and Innovation released by the U.S. Department of Education went into effect. This regulation demands distance education to include Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI), and the Department of Education has the authority to audit online courses or programs to validate whether this requirement is met.

But what exactly is RSI and how can it be incorporated into online/hybrid course design? In this article, we explore the definition, benefits, and criteria of RSI. On a more practical side, we also offer 4 top tips to incorporate RSI into your online course design (for both asynchronous and synchronous learning), with the help of the FeedbackFruits tool suite.

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What is RSI and why is it important?

As its name implies, the definition of RSI includes two parts: regular interaction and substantive interaction. Substantive interaction requires engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment activities consistent with the content under discussion, and includes at least two of the following [1]:

  1. Providing direct instruction;  
  2. Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework; 
  3. Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency;   
  4. Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or 
  5. Other instructional activities approved by the institution or program’s accrediting agency.

Regular interaction, on the other hand, implies that these substantive interactions should happen on a predictable and regular basis [1]. In this process, instructors monitor the learning progress and provide feedback proactively.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, RSI is what distinguishes online/distance education from correspondence education. Correspondence education is typically self-paced, covers limited teacher-student interactions, and interactions are mostly initiated by students [2]. Online education, on the contrary, should be routinely planned and provides quality teacher-student interactions mostly initiated by the instructor.

Previous research has established that teacher-student interaction positively influences online learning outcomes, and hence is a key component of online education [3]. Ensuring RSI will facilitate the effective delivery of educational content, encourage student engagement, and improve learning outcomes. As stated by SUNY Empire State College:

“Including regular and substantive interaction in courses is more than a federal requirement. It is also a hallmark of effective teaching.” [2]

3 Key Criteria of RSI

As summarized in an online quality course checklist published by SUNY Empire State College, for interactions to be considered RSI, they must meet three key criteria: instructor-initiated, regular, and substantive [2].

Criterion 1: Interactions should be mostly instructor-initiated

In correspondence courses, interactions are mostly initiated by students. Course materials are provided to students, but without instructor-led discussions or progress monitoring from the instructor’s side. This makes teacher-student interactions largely optional, and if a student does not solicit help, there will be simply no interaction.

In online courses, activities should instead be initiated mostly by the instructors, who provide guidance and lead students through the learning process. Instructor-initiated interactions include, for example, personalized feedback from the teacher and instructor-facilitated discussions [2]. By doing so, interactions become an integral –instead of optional– part of the course.

Criterion 2: Interactions should be regular

The second criterion for RSI is that interactions should be regular and predictable. Specifically, before teaching and learning take place, learning activities should already be designed regularly. Although the actual interactions may vary in mode and format along the learning process, they follow a consistent and predictable schedule [2].

Compared to correspondence courses where learning is mostly self-paced and without routine schedules, online courses are designed to ensure a consistent learning flow—for example, participation in weekly assignments, workshops, and seminars. By doing so, students’ learning activities are kept on track, which contributes to a better comprehension of the material.

Criterion 3: Interactions should be substantive

Finally, interactions should also be substantive, focusing on the content under the discussion. As such, scheduling regular learning activities alone is not enough, rather they must be accompanied by features such as the preview and review of the study materials, or prompts for students to keep in mind while learning [2]. Features like these will personalize students’ learning journeys and activate meaningful interactions based on the learning materials.

However, incorporating RSI in online and hybrid learning remains a challenge for instructors and course designers. First, unlike face-to-face classrooms, remote learning often leads to less engagement and motivation from students, due to the physical distance [4]. It is therefore harder to stimulate substantive interactions for online learning. Moreover, with the recent transformation from online to hybrid learning, it becomes even more challenging to engage students both online and offline. To tackle these challenges, we summarize 4 top tips to incorporate RSI in online/hybrid course design with the help of FeedbackFruits. 

4 tips to incorporate RSI in your online course

Tip 1:  Design the course syllabus to ensure regular learning activities

A grounding feature of RSI is the incorporation of regular and predictable learning activities. Therefore, prior to the start of the course, instructors should provide a clear course syllabus or manual detailing how learning activities will be scheduled and at what time intervals. This way, students will have a clear picture of the learning process: what is the learning goal, how is the workload divided, and what tasks need to be completed at each interval. Meanwhile, learning activities should also be mostly initiated by the instructor, rather than relying solely on students soliciting feedback. For example, instructors can pre-schedule a series of weekly seminars to discuss the learning contents, or reserve regular virtual office hours to give feedback. 

Of course, a pre-designed manual detailing regular learning activities alone is not sufficient. During the learning process, instructors should also keep track of student’s learning progress and make adjustments when necessary. FeedbackFruits’ Learning Analytics feature can provide instructors with a real-time overview of students’ learning process. Based on these insights, instructors can identify the existing gaps and challenges, thus providing timely intervention and support for students. 

Learning analytics dashboard in Peer Review
Learning analytics dashboard in Peer Review

Tip 2: Stimulate substantive interactions with interactive learning activities

Learning activities planned on a regular basis constitute regular interactions, but are not by themselves substantive ones. To make regular interactions also substantive, meaningful engagements that commensurate with the learning materials are required. This has always been a challenge for online and hybrid learning, where learning activities do not occur in the same space and time. Yet with the help of technology, instructors can still stimulate substantive interactions in asynchronous learning environments. 

FeedbackFruits Interactive Study Materials tools, such as Interactive Video and Interactive Document, can help instructors turn passive learning into active engagement with the content, thus facilitating collaborative learning and social annotations. With the press of a button, instructors can add discussion prompts to the routinely assigned materials. When studying the assigned materials, students bear these prompts in mind, answering questions and making annotations. This process helps students build a deeper understanding of the study materials, and ensures substantive interactions for asynchronous learning.

Interactive Study Material tools allow instructors to add questions and discussions to stimulate interactions
Enrich reading materials with questions and discussion prompts to stimulate frequent interactions

Our use case with South Plains College documents how interactive materials were used to improve student engagement in a language learning class. In Interactive Video, learning materials such as explanatory videos were annotated with discussion questions and prompts, such that students can actively participate and respond while watching the video. The Peer Review tool was used for students to submit essays and give feedback to each other. These tools helped to create a smooth and satisfying teaching and learning experience for teachers and students.

Tip 3: Stimulate substantive interactions in synchronous learning with engaging lectures and quizzes

Furthermore, substantive interactions should also be stimulated in synchronous learning, such as live lecture presentations. For lecture presentations, a long-lasting problem is that students typically only receive inputs passively, without active engagement with these inputs. Additionally, with the transformation of online learning toward hybrid modes, it can be more challenging to stimulate substantive interactions when learning takes place both online and offline, as it becomes even harder to engage all students.

FeedbackFruits’ tools are here to help. With the Interactive Presentation tool, instructors can add questions and interactive discussion points to their slides. Instead of only passively viewing the slides, students now have to actively participate by answering questions or joining the discussions. When creating questions, the Quiz tool may also be employed to make engaging knowledge tests. 

What is more, the presentation can even be turned into a summative assessment, where students’ performance on the slide questions is graded, reflecting students’ participation and investments in learning. Compared to grading based solely on a final exam, this also offers a more holistic and authentic assessment of students’ learning performance.

Our use case with Eastern Nazarene College shows how Interactive Presentation was used to enhance interaction and engagement in a business online course. During the weekly lectures, the slides were presented with 10 to 15 questions in between. Students completed these multiple-choice or open-ended questions during the lecture and received grades for completing these questions. Students remarked that they got a clearer understanding of the topics and reported higher general engagement.

Tip 4: Stimulate substantive group interactions through collaborative learning activities and assessments

Finally, including group activities such as team-based learning techniques can help to stimulate substantive group activities in synchronous settings. Here, students are assigned to different groups. In the first phase, students individually engage with the study content and test their knowledge by answering questions. Next, in the second phase, they answer the same set of questions, but this time as teams. This process tells instructors which knowledge points students get wrong most often, and which points need further clarification. During team discussions, students benefit from increased interactions and engagements within the group, which help to develop their collaboration skills.

FeedbackFruits Team-Based Learning tool makes this process easy to operate. Instructors can assign teams automatically or manually, and initiate the two test phases with a few simple clicks. Instructors also have real-time access to question analytics and result summaries, which allows them to quickly identify which questions are difficult to answer and need further clarification, and how students perform individually as well as in a team. Besides, our Peer Review, Discussion on Topic, and Group Member Evaluation tools can also be employed to create an interactive and collaborative learning environment, facilitating group discussions.

Our use case with Central Michigan University showcases how our Team-Based Learning and Group Member Evaluation tools helped to optimize group learning activities in a science class. Students completed the individual study phase and team-based study phase sequentially. This process helped teachers to identify points that need further elaboration, generated rich student data, and helped enhance students’ group performance.

Integrating RSI throughout the learning process with technology

It is important to notice that ensuring regular and substantive interaction activities is not about just one learning step, but a continuous learning journey. However, it can be challenging to initiate RSI in online/ hybrid classrooms due to the absence of physical connections. This issue can be addressed by utilizing pedagogical technology.

FeedbackFruits tool suite, which offers 15 LMS plug-ins, helps instructors create a watertight course design with plenty of opportunities for interaction and engagement. To showcase how instructors can smoothly and effectively combine different FeedbackFruits tools to integrate RSI into online/ hybrid settings, our team has created the “RSI learning journey”. This infographic details how each stage of the course can be enriched with interaction and engagement, supported by FeedbackFruits tools. You can click on the image to download the full learning journey.

RSI learning journey: A framework to create engaging courses that is copliant with the RSI regulations
A framework to create engaging courses that is compliant with the RSI regulations

Other RSI-friendly activities

As mentioned before, incorporating RSI is more than a requirement imposed from the outside but a best practice that aligns with delivering quality and effective online education, as well as developing students’ life-long skills. 

Other than the tips mentioned above, there are many more ways to incorporate RSI into your online course design. The flipped classroom, for example, reverses the traditional ways of teaching by asking students to study lecture materials at home and reserve interactive discussions for class, for any questions they have. The result is often seen in deeper discussions which help students. See below for resources about flipping your classroom with the help of FeedbackFruits tools.

Furthermore, We offer a free certified online course to equip you with the necessary knowledge and skills to increase student engagement and interactions in online and hybrid course design. You can check out for more information and enroll for free here.

References

[1] Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. (n.d.) Regular and Substantive Interaction. Link

[2] SUNY Empire State College. (n.d.) Regular and Substantive Interaction. Link

[3] Sun, H.-L., Sun, T., Sha, F.-Y., Gu, X.-Y., Hou, X.-R., Zhu, F.-Y., & Fang, P.-T. (2022). The influence of teacher–student interaction on the effects of online learning: Based on a serial mediating model. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. Link  

[4] Burton, C. (2022). 7 Top Challenges with Online Learning For Students (and Solutions). Thinkific. Link 

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