“Regular and Content Interaction” in Online College – Inside Higher Ed | Team Cansler

In 2017, the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Education audited Western Governors University and labeled it a provider of “distance learning” rather than “correspondence learning.”

Only online colleges that provide “regular and substantial interaction” between faculty members and students are considered distance learning providers; those who fall short are in distance learning. The regulation is intended to prevent bad actors from gaining access to federal funding for deserted courses. The inspector general found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of Western Governors’ students in the 2014 exam sample took at least one course that did not meet distance learning requirements. That finding crossed the government’s 50 percent mark and prompted the government to tell western governors to refund $713 million in federal financial aid money.

Later, in 2019, the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid ruled that western governors do not have to pay, citing “the ambiguity of the laws and regulations and the lack of clear guidance that was available at the time of the review period.” That ambiguity persists today, even as the Department of Education and colleges across the country are urging each other to clarify what “regular and substantive interaction” means in distance learning.

“We have to be careful what we ask for because we might just get it,” said Russell Poulin, executive director at WCET and vice president for technology-enhanced education at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, noting they want guidance on that is as clear as possible. The Commission, which advocates for digital learning in post-secondary education, analyses, interprets and tries to provide examples of what the Department of Education’s guidelines might look like in practice, so that its member institutions comply with the sometimes unwritten guidelines.

To be clear, both the universities and the Department of Education seem to engage in this dialogue in good faith. That means they share a common goal of protecting students as consumers and ensuring federal grants are spent wisely. But here’s the conundrum: If the Department of Education provides too much guidance on what “regular and substantial interaction” means, then colleges may struggle to design and deliver creative, quality programs that meet the needs of their unique student populations. At the same time, if the Department of Education provides too little guidance, colleges can run afoul of inarticulate rules.

In 2018, through a negotiated rulemaking process, the Trump administration sought to allow more regulatory flexibility in distance learning, defining “regular and substantive interaction” as meeting the standard when it met two of five conditions: “Providing face-to-face instruction; evaluating or providing feedback on a student’s coursework; Providing information or answering questions about the content of a course or competency; Facilitating a group discussion about the content of a course or competency; or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.” However, this standard has been criticized, particularly as the last criterion allowed institutions to define “substantive” for themselves.

Last year, Kathryn Kerensky, WCET’s Director of Digital Learning, Policies and Compliance, wrote to the education department with additional, specific questions about the definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance learning. The notice was one in a series of requests over the past few years attempting to articulate the importance of “regular and substantive interaction.” Of note is a 2016 WCET blog post co-authored by Poulin, which offers a remarkable amount of interpretation on the Department of Education’s incomplete guidance on “regular and substantive interaction” in online learning, contributing to its status as the most-read post on the website, to Poulin.

The Department of Education responded to Kerensky’s recent inquiries in a letter in March. (The letter was “delayed,” as Kerensky received it in October.) As was the case in this modern saga, the letter provided both new insights and unanswered questions.

New guidance on “regular and material”

The Department of Education’s 2022 letter to WCET offered some new guidance on what “regular and substantive interaction” means in distance learning. Concretely, direct instruction means “synchronous live instruction where both the instructor and the student are online and communicating at the same time”.

“That clarity was very helpful,” Poulin said, noting that member institutions had different interpretations, including some viewing asynchronous video lectures as direct instruction. Asynchronous videos can still be a value-added component of a course, Poulin noted, but they can’t “count” as part of direct instruction.

Planned consultation hours “can meet part of the requirement for regular exchange between teachers and students,” says the letter. Again, this was helpful as some WCET member institutions had reported that some in the grant community disagreed with this interpretation.

Also, the Department of Education confirmed that it requires accreditors to have the instructor qualifications needed to provide “substantial interaction.” So far, for example, it has been unclear to universities whether teaching assistants, doctoral students or team teaching can count towards this requirement. In the 2017 v. Western Governors case, the government cited concerns about the inadequate role played by faculty in the institution’s distance learning programs. (The competency-based university has an unusual faculty model, with multiple people taking on traditional teaching duties.) Although the letter from the Department of Education did not address the matter, it did indicate where colleges might find the answer, which Poulin called a “very helpful” trend in the Department of Education’s responses in recent years.

Persistent Questions About “Regular and Substantial”

Some colleges were unsure of the extent to which faculty involvement in online group discussions is required for an activity to qualify as regular and substantial interaction. For example, one institution reported that some online educators developed patterns of initiating discussions and only returned to the discussion at the end to evaluate them, according to the letter from the Ministry of Education. When asked about teacher engagement, the education department plans to respond on a case-by-case basis.

“What evidence could an institution come up with to demonstrate this?” Poulin asked, pointing out that college administrators could, for example, coordinate their efforts with campus units that can pull data from learning management systems. “It would have been nice to see some examples.”

“With compliance, you want to have these black and white standards,” Kerensky said. “It is a challenge for institutions not to have clear answers. But the disadvantage of very prescribed standards is that there is no room to develop beyond them. We appreciate their perspective of leaving some things open-ended.”

Some colleges have been looking for evidence of evidence that faculty is engaging in content interactions with students, especially as the Department of Education previously stated that institutions are not required to “document the precise amount of time expended on any particular type of content interaction.” In this most recent letter, the Department of Education reiterated previous guidance that institutions should maintain policies or procedures that “create expectations for faculty to interact substantively with students,” but declined to comment further on how institutions implement those policies and could prevail.

WCET member institutions also asked the department for guidance on how programming could demonstrate that interactions between instructors and students were “prompt and proactive,” as required by regulations. Previously, the department noted that institutions are not required to document “every single” interaction. However, in the most recent communication, the agency declined to offer criteria such as guidelines or metrics to determine whether interactions are prompt and proactive. Instead, the Department of Education said it would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

When college administrators and faculty members are unsure how to comply with Department of Education rules, it would be wise to have defensible processes in place, Kerensky said. That is, a college’s policy of supporting regular and substantive interactions should be clear and include a process to ensure the policy is enforced. Also, administrators and faculty should be able to argue why the policies and procedures are the way they are. In this way, should an audited institution be subpoenaed for a violation, its defense is prepared.

This bureaucratic dance between the Department of Education and online colleges may be imperfect, but neither party seems motivated to change the status quo as they negotiate distance learning requirements.

“We’re trying to get the department to be as clear as possible, but also be mindful of what we’re asking,” Poulin said, pausing before repeating “we don’t want to push them too far.”

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