In order to deliver online education, institutions have always been held to a standard that impacts the ability to distribute federal financial aid to qualifying students. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) shared regulatory and statutory concerns as more and more students accessed education outside of the traditional brick and mortar classroom. 

Fraudulent use of Title IV funds and concerns over quality led to the development of the 50 percent rule found in the 1992 amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) – a regulation that disallowed students from receiving federal financial aid if more than half the student population at an institution were enrolled in correspondence courses. The original act was modified over time as technology enhanced the possibilities of distance education. 

Congress differentiated between correspondence courses and distance courses with the distinction of regular and substantive interaction correspondence courses being: “limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student.”


Institutional compliance is required and non-compliance can have a variety of consequences, including:

  • University fines
  • Individual disciplinary action for faculty and or staff
  • Loss of the:
    • ability to award federal financial aid to students
    • ability to serve U.S. military, veteran, or dependent students
    • ability to offer online education
    • ability to approve new courses and or programs

These are not empty or idle threats.

Decorative topo lines


ED sought $713 million in federal financial aid reimbursement from Western Governors University after an audit report determined their courses did not meet the criteria (regular and substantive interaction) to be labeled distance education. 

ED determined in a federal audit that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College improperly distributed $42 million in federal financial aid to students who were enrolled in similarly mislabeled distance education courses and the college was required to return the full amount. 

Accreditation agencies also get involved. Scottsdale Community College’s request for 48 new online programs was denied approval by the Higher Learning Commission due in large part to inconsistent standards in the proposed courses and programs and by a marked lack of faculty training for online instruction.

Distance Education and Innovation

In September of 2020, ED put out a new regulatory action on Distance Education and Innovation that amended the establishing, maintaining, and losing eligibility section of the Institutional Eligibility regulations of the HEA as it relates to distance education and innovation. The rule became effective on July 1, 2021. 

The most significant change of this action was to clarify the definitions of distance education and correspondence courses. Distance education supports regular and substantive interaction  between the students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously. 

An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors by, prior to the student’s completion of a course or competency–

  1. Providing 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; and
  2. Monitoring the student’s academic engagement and success and ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student. 

Substantive interaction is engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following–

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

Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) Guidance

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, RSI with the instructor is essential to differentiate between correspondence courses and interactive distance education courses (online synchronous, asynchronous, and hybrid modalities). This is necessary to comply with federal regulations for financial aid disbursement and NWCCU distance education accreditation policy

To address requests for guidance on the Distance Education and Innovation regulations, ED published a response letter in March of 2022 with the following select points of clarification on RSI: 

  • “Direct instruction” refers to live, synchronous instruction only 
  • Auto-graded responses do not count as substantive interaction; however providing personalized feedback to students does 
  • Holding office hours meets the requirement for regular interaction by offering students the opportunity for substantive interaction about a course or competency even if students choose not to participate in the opportunity 

Important note about regular interaction: to be fully compliant, interaction must go beyond scheduled and predictable. The regulation highlights monitoring the academic success and engagement levels of students and interacting with them when needed as a result of that monitoring. The intent is not to add daily monitoring of each individual student’s activity within an online course on top of normal teaching activities. Rather, to ensure that instructors are aware of whether or not a student is engaged and actively participating in an online course and to take appropriate action to interact with that student as needed. 

Examples of this type of monitoring might include: 

  • Utilizing the “Message Students Who” tool in the Canvas Gradebook to reach out to students who meet certain criteria (such as a missing assignment or low grade).
  • Encourage participation in campus tutoring services as appropriate
  • Review Canvas “New Analytics” on a regular basis
  • Issue a Nanook Navigator alert
  • Note any changes to the quality of a student’s assignment submissions
  • Evaluate a student’s level of mastery of a concept and provide additional resources

Important notes about substantive interaction: while direct instruction refers to synchronous instruction, online asynchronous courses can still be filled with RSI. Additionally, the regulation requires at least two criteria be used to demonstrate substantive interaction; however the intent is not to have instructors, programs, or even institutions document each and every interaction that occurs in every course. ED clarified in the March 2022 response letter that the expectation is for institutions to establish policies and procedures for RSI that includes regular compliance evaluation in distance education courses. 

The UAF Chancellor’s Policy for RSI is currently being developed and reviewed by governance bodies. Opportunity for feedback will be available through shared governance and specific questions can be directed to CTL executive director, Jenn Pedersen.

Essential Characteristics of RSI

It is the responsibility of the instructor to meet RSI requirements for each online course they teach. They may do so themselves or with the help of another instructor, instructional staff, or TA (undergraduate or graduate) provided they also meet the qualifications established by the NWCCU. In fact, that is one of the four essential characteristics of RSI: 

  1. Initiated by the instructor
  2. Frequent and consistent
  3. Academic in nature and relevant to the course
  4. With an instructor(s) who meets accrediting agency standards

Though RSI is now a federal mandate that must be present in all online courses, it is nothing new. It is simply a new name for a set of pedagogical best practices that are widely accepted across every teaching modality.   Decades of research have shown that student engagement and interaction in online courses is essential to student success. RSI has always been a key component of the faculty support resources, programming, and initiatives provided by UAF CTL. The Pedagogy Resources page of CTL is a good starting point to explore those resources. 

Though it may be tempting to think of RSI as an additional burden imposed by ED on an already full faculty workload, ensuring that regular and substantive interaction occurs in all UAF online and distance courses aligns with our vision of providing excellence through transformative experiences, regardless of modality.

Initiated by the Instructor

In order to meet the criteria for regular and substantive, interactions need to be initiated by the instructor. This by no means indicates that students should be discouraged from reaching out to their instructors! Instructors should plan for active participation throughout the length of the course and intentional interaction should be an integral part of course design and delivery.

  • Send individualized emails to students 
  • Provide personalized grading feedback 
  • Actively facilitate discussions or chats (Discussion Boards, Slack, VoiceThread, etc.)
  • Ask a student to visit office hours or schedule a 1-1 meeting 

Frequent and Consistent

In order for interactions to meet the characteristic of frequent and consistent, long periods of time shouldn’t elapse between interactions, and students should be left wondering when the next interaction will occur. Interactions can, and should, vary based on the flow of the course, but the frequency of interactions should be as consistent as possible.  ED doesn’t mandate daily or weekly interaction, but the NWCCU does require UAF to specify a minimum expectation for the frequency of interaction.  Watch for the Faculty Senate Implementation Policy on RSI for guidance. 

  • Post announcements that clarify course material at regular intervals
  • Post weekly summaries that highlights the main points learned and or provides supplemental resources that support the course content
  • Set regular office hours
  • Provide regularly scheduled review sessions that cover course-related topics

Academic in Nature

Certain types of interaction are valuable in a course, but do not constitute RSI on their own. These new regulations do not prohibit instructors from sending out a quick clarification on an assignment or due date, troubleshooting issues with course software, or using informal conversations to build a classroom community – they simply state that communication must also include substantive engagement with the academic content of the course. There are also many ways to build upon routine or informal communication to make it more substantive.

  • Share news stories or memes and add context relating them back to the course content, or use them as a starting point for discussion
  • Send a due date reminder that includes a recap of the Big Questions that students should keep in mind as they complete the assignment
  • Include a question in the introductory discussion board that prompts students to reflect on their personal connections to the course topic

RSI Interactive Worksheet

Go directly to this worksheet in Google slides and make a copy for yourself.

Additional Resources

Regular and Substantive Interaction: Background, Concerns, and Guiding Principles. (PDF)
This in-depth article from three of the major online learning organizations in higher education covers three things: 

  1. The history of how the HEA has regulated distance education over the past thirty years. 
  2. Concerns and questions about the new rules from a statutory and regulatory standpoint
  3. Principles that guide the advocacy efforts of these organizations.

RSI Primer from Everett Community College (PDF) 
A straight-forward list that clarifies what type of interactions do and do not qualify as RSI.

Where’s the Beef? Having Fun Teaching and Ensuring Regular and Substantive Interaction
Sara Nafzgar and Carrie Patterson at Moreno Valley College share the ways they worked with faculty to ensure accreditation, and how humor and straightforwardness was key to their success.

Latest RSI Information

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