As online programming in higher education continues to surge, the need to assess course and program quality to deliver a rigorous and engaging learner experience is on the rise. Instructional design that recognizes the inherently social aspects of learning must be present and consistent across modalities. Online education is a modality that is in a unique position to address enrollment growth at a time when a drop-off of traditional, in-person admissions, is projected over the next few years, per the National Center for Education Statistics.

McKinsey Insights’ analysis of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) total enrollment data shows that, while the overall market for degree programs decreased approximately three percent from 2019 to 2020, four of the largest open-access online education providers—Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Liberty University, Western Governors University (WGU), and Grand Canyon University (GCU)—grew their total enrollment by 11 percent on average.

Program quality and learner experience are driving factors to better understand and integrate regular and substantive interaction (RSI) standards for online education. This blog explores how to achieve online education RSI compliance, and how to implement best practices for RSI in online education. Thoughtful planning and implementation of RSI standards will require engaging faculty as part of the process and intentional design-centric to the learner experience.

What are RSI standards for online education?

RSI standards for online education have been a widely discussed topic since their introduction as an evaluation mechanism for institutions’ online programs. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education released new guidelines defining “regular and substantive interaction” as interactions that satisfy at least two of the following five conditions:

  • 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 approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency

Class, as an organization, sees the beginning of a shift in higher education. This transformation is learner-centric, focusing on student equity and ensuring quality experiences. These elements also inform the attitude behind RSI standards. Class recently brought together a panel of industry experts to discuss the state of online education, RSI guidelines for e-learning, and best practices for RSI in online education.

Since online learning standards are shifting and changing, this can serve as a catalyst for redesigning elements in our instructional technology shops with more substantive interactions. The goal should be to ensure there are both peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student interactions happening in learning experiences.

Is online education RSI compliance difficult to achieve?

When answering the question, “Is online education RSI compliance difficult to achieve?” it’s important to recognize the rationale for these standards. The goal of RSI standards for online education has been to identify—and enforce—a benchmark expectation to ensure learners, regardless of where they enroll, can experience quality education.

Sarah Dysart, Ph. D., Senior Director of Online Learning at the University of Michigan, doesn’t believe compliance is difficult to achieve with the right approach, stating, “If you are focused on creating good interactive experiences, if you’re focusing on good pedagogy, you’re likely going to address many of those RSI standards.”

Sara Carter, M.Ed., Director of Instructional Design & Technology for Delaware Technical Community College, also encourages institutions to remember that, “at the core [of] what we do, we try to approach [online education] with a culture of quality” rather than a culture of compliance.

Both Carter and Paul Huckett, Assistant Dean of Learning Design and Innovation at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, echo Dysart’s sentiment, with Huckett adding, “If you are following best practices in course design and implementing effective pedagogies, these things [RSI standards] don’t even really matter.”

What are the best practices for RSI in online education?

Best practices for RSI in online education can center on a number of approaches. A few highly relevant examples our panel identified include data leveraging, hands-on activities, and internal collaboration.

Data leveraging

Michael Matthews, Vice President of Technology and Innovation & CIO for Oral Roberts University, notes that his institution utilizes data science to help personalize learning and identify correlations between student behaviors (inside and outside the classroom) and their aspirations.

Hassam Kashou, Ph.D., Dean of Online Learning, Technology, & Learning Resources at Long Beach City College, also cautions that technologies shouldn’t be seen as the ending point for online education. Kashou elaborates, “When we go online, we think of access to technology as good enough. We gave the students access to the tools, they should be successful, [but] beyond access, [there are] digital literacy, digital equity, [and] learning skills.” Kashou sees each of these as distinctly important to quality online learning programs.

Hands-on activities

Jennifer Brock, Vice President of Online Education Services for Academy of Art University, states, “We believe strongly that [online] hands-on activities, as much as possible, [are] a great way to bring students in.” Brock suggests using video, not just as instruction, but also as providing students the ability to demonstrate their attempts and get feedback from faculty. This can exist in real-time (synchronous) or be utilized as an after-the-fact review (asynchronous). This can also facilitate assistance from other classmates, as well, who have either run into a similar problem and solved it or can see solutions another classmate found that expound on the instructor’s guidance.

Internal collaboration

Dysart lays out a few key behaviors which she has seen elevate the online programming experience at her institution while creating faculty buy-in:

  • Focus on ensuring faculty are building toward RSI guidelines for e-learning by using the critical components of a quality online course. Huckett reaffirms this, adding a reminder to do this from the start rather than attempting to retroactively fix the issues created by skipping this step.
  • Identify ways to reinforce that compliance with RSI standards isn’t at odds with an institution’s mission
  • Blend the compliance aspects in with the quality assurance elements to make sure coursework follows correct standards while also upholding the values and methodologies inherent to the institution

Champion engaging online programming

Ready to champion engaging online programming for your institution? Eager to learn more about best practices for RSI in online education? Discover even more detail from this insightful panel by watching our “How Quality Online Learning Programs Drive Enrollment” webinar for yourself.

Excited to see how a partnership with Class can elevate your online programming, empower your faculty, and result in next-level online student engagement? Schedule a demo today!

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

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