Originally posted on October 17, 2017 at WCET Frontiers
A little over two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released its long-awaited and much anticipated financial aid audit of Western Governors University (WGU). Since then, there have been a number of great discussions of the report as well as its potential impact on higher education. Today, in the third post of our series on the audit, we are going to take a trip down memory lane and revisit a post that we wrote last year that reviewed all of the available information at that time on “regular and substantive interaction,” the issue at the heart of both the audit findings and the source of much discussion among online educators.
A little history on “regular and substantive”
If you follow graphic novels, or even Marvel or DC movies, you know that every hero and villain has an origin story, and “regular and substantive interaction” is no different. The ‘80s saw an explosion of postsecondary vocational education programs offered via correspondence. Unfortunately, the Department of Education found substantial amounts of fraud among these programs, leading to the expansion of the Department of Education’s regulatory authority in 1992. Under the Higher Education Amendments of 1992, institutions at which more than 50 percent of its students were enrolled in correspondence education were no longer eligible for Title IV financial aid.
After realizing in the late ‘90s that these regulations were hampering the development of distance education, Congress authorized the Distance Education Demonstration Program in the 1998 Higher Education Amendments. The Demonstration allowed students in selected distance education programs to utilize federal financial aid.
As a result of the increased regulations, Congress defined correspondence in 1992 in 81 FR 92262. Central to that definition of correspondence is this piece (emphasis added):
“A course provided by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials, by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.”
After the success of the Distance Education Demonstration Programs and in response to the explosion of distance education, especially online courses and programs, the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – the Higher Education Opportunity Act – added to statute the definition of distance education (emphasis added):
“Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.”
The statute goes on to specify four categories of technologies that include: the internet, one-way and two-way transmission broadcasts, audio conferencing, and, in some cases, recorded material.
So why this trip down memory lane? These definitions, and the “regular and substantive interaction” language embedded in them continue to be at the heart of debate over the financial aid eligibility of both competency-based education (CBE) and online education. And, in terms of the most recent OIG report, the definition of “regular and substantive interaction” appears to have shifted.
Defining “regular and substantive”—then and now
The OIG first applied “regular and substantive interaction” in its 2011 audit finding against St. Mary-of-the-Woods College (see Russ’s excellent post for more background) where it focused on the technologies used for interactions between faculty and students. According to the audit, faculty teaching distance education courses at St. Mary-of-the-Woods rarely used technologies such as a learning management system or online discussion forums. As a result, the OIG ruled that “instructors did not deliver lectures or initiate discussions with students. Tutoring and other instruction resources were provided at the student’s discretion.” Thus, St. Marys-of-the-Woods was offering correspondence education and ineligible for federal financial aid.
In December 2014, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in an effort to clarify what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction” within the context of competency-based education. In that letter, the Department indicated what “regular and substantive” was not (emphasis added):
“We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction.”
However, that still begs the question—what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction?” The same Dear Colleague letter went on to list several different types of educational activities, that at least within the context of competency-based education, might constitute “engagement” including:
- “Participating in regularly scheduled learning sessions (where there is an opportunity for direct interaction between the student and the faculty member);
- Submitting an academic assignment;
- Taking an exam, an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction;
- Attending a study group that is assigned by the institution;
- Participating in an online discussion about academic matters;
- Consultation with a faculty mentor to discuss academic course content; and
- Participation in faculty-guided independent study.”
Sadly, though, the letter quickly goes on to state, “Note that not all of the educational activities described above fulfill the requirements for regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” Nowhere does the letter go on to elaborate or clarify this last statement.
So, we’re back to the question—what’s regular and substantive interaction?
The recent OIG audit report goes a bit farther in defining “regular and substantive.” Unfortunately, those definitions have no basis in statute. On pages 14-16 of the report, the OIG lays out what they believe to be the “ordinary meaning” of “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors. Instructors are, according to the OIG, “someone who instructs or provides knowledge about the subject matter of the course,” and that includes only course mentors and evaluators. Substantive interaction is defined as “relevant to the subject matter” and involves a “student interaction with a course mentor or required an individual submission of a performance task for which an evaluator provided the student feedback.”
Most importantly, the OIG goes on to define what is NOT substantive, and here’s where online education programs should especially pay attention. Substantive interaction does NOT include:
- Computer-generated feedback on objective assessments
- “Recorded webinars, videos, and reading materials if the course design materials did not require the students to watch the webinars and then interact with an instructor.”
- Contact with mentoring staff who are not directly providing instruction on the course’s subject matter.
Finally, the OIG tackles regular interaction and defined it as “occurring with some reasonable frequency considering the school-suggested length of the course.”
What does this look like on a practical basis? We can find a hint at that on page 5 of the report where the OIG recommends that WGU should: “Ensure that the school-defined academic year will include at least 30 weeks of instructional time and each of the weeks will include at least 1 day of regularly scheduled instruction or an examination” (emphasis added). But where did this definition come from?
In March 2011, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter on program integrity. Although that document did not directly address “regular and substantive interaction,” it did delve into the definition of credit hour and “week of instructional time.” It is in that definition of “week of instructional time” that we find the following (emphasis added):
“In general, a week of instructional time is any seven-day period in which at least one day of regularly scheduled instruction or examination occurs… Thus, in any seven-day period, a student is expected to be academically engaged through, for example, classroom attendance, examinations, practica, laboratory work, internships, and supervised studio work. In the case of distance education and correspondence education, academic engagement would include, but not be limited to, submitting an academic assignment; taking an exam, an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction; attending a study group that was assigned by the institution; contributing to an academic online discussion; and initiating contact with a faculty member to ask a question about the academic subject studied in the course.”
In its recent audit report, the OIG appears to take this six-year-old description of an instructional week as the basis of what “regular and substantive interaction” might look like. In some ways we may be a little closer to at least an understanding of what the OIG believes constitutes “regular and substantive interaction.” But the OIG does not make regulatory policy; they are only supposed to interpret regulations. Unfortunately, without Department of Education clarification or Congressional action to actually define “regular and substantive interaction,” we aren’t much closer to a legal definition of what has increasingly become a key term for all forms of distance education.
In last week’s post, we laid out some suggestions about what you should be doing in light of the most recent report—react but don’t over-react; engage faculty; engage administrators; engage government affairs staff; and be open with students and employer partners. And you should do all of those things.
But we would also argue that the broader distance education community now has an opportunity to substantially engage in what may be the most critical conversation yet—how do we walk the line between crafting regulatory language that ensures that the students enrolled in all forms of online education receive a high-quality education, without stifling the very innovation that can improve student access and success?
In the meantime, let’s all find our towels and take our cue from the cover of the greatest travel book of them all– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t Panic.