“Regular and Substantial Interaction” in Online College
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General audited Western Governors University and labeled it a “correspondence education” provider rather than a “distance education” provider.
Only online colleges that offer “regular and substantial interaction” between faculty members and students are considered distance education providers; those who fail are in the field of distance education. The regulation aims to prevent bad actors to access federal financial aid funds for classes devoid of human interaction. The Inspector General found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of Western Governors students in the 2014 audit sample took at least one course that did not meet the requirements for distance learning. This discovery exceeded the government’s 50% limit, prompting the government to tell western governors to repay $713 million in federal financial aid funds.
Later, in 2019, the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Assistance ruled that western governors did not have to pay, citing “the ambiguity of the law and regulations and the lack of clear guidance available at the time of the audit period.” That ambiguity continues to this day, even as the Department of Education and colleges across the country push each other toward greater clarity about what “regular and substantial interaction” means in distance learning.
“We have to be careful what we ask for, because we might get it,” said Russell Poulin, executive director of WCET and vice president of technology-enabled education at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, noting that they want advice. it is as clear as possible. The commission, which advocates for digital learning in post-secondary education, analyzes, interprets and attempts to provide examples of what Ministry of Education policies might look like in practice so that its member institutions adhere to the guidelines at times unwritten.
To be clear, the colleges and the Department of Education appear to be engaging in this dialogue in good faith. That is, they share a goal of protecting students as consumers and ensuring that federal financial aid money is spent wisely. But here’s the conundrum: if the Department of Education provides too much guidance on what “regular and substantial interaction” means, colleges may struggle to design and deliver creative, quality programs that meet needs of their unique student populations. At the same time, if the Department of Education provides too little guidance, colleges may violate unarticulated rules.
In 2018, through a negotiated rulemaking process, the Trump administration sought to allow greater regulatory flexibility in distance learning by defining “regular and substantial interaction” as meeting the standard if it satisfied two out of five conditions“to provide direct instruction; evaluate or provide feedback on a student’s work; provide information or answer questions about the content of a course or skill; lead a group discussion on the content of a course or skill; or other educational activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting body. But this standard has drawn criticism, especially since the last criterion allowed institutions to define “substantial” themselves.
Last year, Kathryn Kerensky, WCET’s director of digital learning, policy and compliance, wrote to the Department of Education asking additional and specific questions about the definition of “regular and substantial interaction.” in distance education. The communication was part of a series of requests in these last years who have sought to unravel the meaning of “regular and substantial interaction”. Note a WCET 2016 blog postco-authored by Poulin, which offers a remarkable amount of interpretation on the Department for Education’s incomplete guidance on “regular and substantial interaction” in online learning, contributing to its status as the most-read publication on the site, according to Poulin.
The Education Department responded to Kerensky’s latest questions in a letter dated March. (The letter was “delayed in transitas Kerensky received it in October.) As has been the case in this modern saga, the letter delivered both new insights and unanswered questions.
New guidelines on “regular and substantial”
The 2022 edition of the Department of Education letter at WCET offered new guidance on what “regular and substantial interaction” means in distance education. Specifically, direct teaching means “live synchronous teaching where 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 had different interpretations, including some that saw asynchronous video conferencing as direct teaching. Asynchronous videos can still be a value-added component of a course, Poulin noted, but they can’t “count” as part of direct teaching.
Scheduled office hours “can partially meet the requirement for regular interaction between instructors and students,” according to the letter. This too was helpful, as some WCET member institutions had reported that some members of the financial aid community disagreed with this interpretation.
In addition, the Department of Education claimed that it defers to accreditors regarding the qualifications of instructors necessary to provide “substantial interaction.” To date, colleges have not been clear, for example, whether teaching assistants, graduate students, or team teaching could count toward this requirement. In the 2017 case against Western Governors, the government raised concerns about inadequate faculty roles in the institution’s distance learning courses. (The competency-based university has an atypical faculty model which has several people performing traditional teaching roles.) Although the letter from the Department of Education did not settle this question, it did indicate where colleges could find the answer, which Poulin said was a trend “very helpful” in Ministry of Education responses in recent years.
Persistent questions about “regular and substantial”
Some colleges have been unclear about the extent to which instructors must engage in online group discussions for an activity to be considered regular and substantial interaction. For example, one institution reported that some online faculty members had developed patterns for initiating discussions and only came back to the discussion at the end to grade them, according to the Department of Education. letter. On the question of hiring instructors, the Education Department plans to respond on a case-by-case basis.
“What is the evidence that an institution could provide to demonstrate this? Poulin asked, noting that college administrators could, for example, coordinate 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 standards in black and white,” Kerensky said. “It is difficult for institutions not to have clear answers. But the downside of having very prescriptive standards is that there’s no room to grow outside of that. We appreciate their perspective by leaving some things open.
Some colleges have asked for guidance on the type of evidence that might show that faculty are interacting in a substantial way with students, especially since the Department of Education had previously declared that institutions do not need to “document the exact time spent on a particular type of substantive interaction”. In this most recent letter, the Department of Education confirmed previous guidance that institutions should maintain policies or procedures that “create expectations for faculty to meaningfully interact with students,” but it declined to comment further on how institutions might implement and enforce these policies.
WCET member institutions also sought the department’s guidance on how the design of the program could show that interactions between instructors and students were “prompt and proactive”, as required by regulations. Earlier, the ministry had noted that institutions are not required to document “every” interaction. But in the most recent communication, the agency declined to offer criteria, such as policies or metrics, for determining whether interactions are timely and proactive. Instead, the Department for Education said it would be on a case-by-case basis.
When college administrators and faculty members don’t know how to comply with Department of Education rules, it would be wise to have defensible processes, Kerensky said. That is, a college’s policy for supporting regular and substantial interaction must be clear and must articulate a procedure to ensure that the policy is enforced. Additionally, administrators and faculty should be able to explain why the policy and procedures are what they are. This way, if an audited institution is cited for a violation, its defense will be ready.
This bureaucratic dance between the Department of Education and online colleges may be flawed, but neither side seems motivated to change the status quo on how it negotiates distance learning requirements.
“We’re trying to push the ministry to be as clear as possible, but also to be careful what we’re asking for,” Poulin said, pausing for a moment before reiterating, “we don’t want to push them too far.”