Regular and Substantive Interactions: An Order or an Opportunity

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Regular and Substantive Interactions?  What’s that supposed to mean?  It seems every new memo brings a new requirement for online teachers, so when the latest one required that our online courses verify the use of regular and substantive interactions, it was tempting to just shake my fist at a new “mandate” or complain about additional work.  The other option, of course, was to really consider the design of my online writing class.  Was I providing substantive interaction to my students?  How do well-developed online writing courses – or any courses for that matter – naturally provide us with ways to interact with our students in ways that actually make meaningful connections with the content and with each other?

At its basis, the federal requirement that online courses provide “regular and substantive interactions” ensures that we aren’t just handing our students a package of material and wishing them good luck as they work through the class materials.  At its best, it provides a menu of effective practices that are already embedded into our writing classes while offering the opportunity to add some new tools to our belt.

One characteristic of RSI is that the instructor initiates the interactions, and there are multiple ways we do this. We set up welcome messages, we create discussion boards, and we invite them to come by our office hours, but how can we initiate conversations without adding extra work for ourselves?  Providing personalized feedback on an assignment is considered an instructor-initiated interaction, and how we choose to phrase that feedback can go a long way towards encouraging the students to interact with us.  Instead of writing a comment about WHAT a student did in an essay, why not ask a question about WHY the student made a certain writing decision?  Instead of asking students to write a reflective paragraph about their graded work, why not ask them to write a revision plan based on your feedback and bring it to their next conference? Make feedback an invitation to a conversation rather than the ending point of an assignment.

Another characteristic of RSI is that interactions are frequent and consistent.  This can be something as simple as laying out a clear communication schedule letting students know they can expect an email every Monday and Friday or posting weekly announcements.  It can, however, also be providing more frequent feedback on assignments.  No, we can’t grade more essays, but we can add more checkpoints to what we already assign, more scaffolding to larger projects.  We can turn big projects into multi-step projects, especially if we stop defining “drafts” as completed essays and use drafts to check just one part of the project – the thesis, a synthesis of a source, body paragraphs without introductions or conclusions.  These take less time for an instructor to check and present students with more frequent interactions at points where that feedback can still affect change in the final product.

Of course, our interactions must also be substantive, which simply means that we need to provide our students with actionable feedback.  Telling them what is right or wrong with their work simply isn’t enough for students.  Our feedback needs to direct students to the tools they need to build their skills.  This can take the form of links to relevant textbook sections, interactive grammar tutorials, or even links to extra mini-lectures designed by the instructor. Sometimes, it’s not enough to lead the horse to water, we really do need to show them how to drink.

None of these concepts are new.  They’re already available to us and many of us use them in our online and traditional classes already.  New calls to document RSI shouldn’t be seen as additional work but as a way to highlight what we already do well and to reassess whether the way we offer feedback invites conversation or simply justifies our grades. 





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