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Regular and Substantive Interactions: It Really Does Matter

Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost, Online Learning

Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost for Online Learning

Even though I married a lawyer, I think I know why I never wanted to become one! Readin­­g laws and regulations is hard work. Interpreting what they say is harder. Knowing what they mean and how they impact an institution is harder still. Nonetheless, we as individuals and we as an institution have an obligation to know and adhere to the laws and regulations that govern higher education. This is why I keep coming back to the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 and all the amendments to date. An amendment of particular importance to UMKC lies within the Code of Federal Regulations Part 600 – Institutional Eligibility Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, as Amended Subpart A – General. It sounds like a lot but in reality, this amendment is only four pages long. What is also striking about the amendment is that within those four pages are just four words that impact everything we do in online education: regular and substantive interactions.

Regular and substantive interactions between students and between faculty and students are what separates an online course from a correspondence course and distinguishes a learning management system like Blackboard from a web-based repository of materials that contain things like PowerPoint slides, videos, or lecture notes. Evidence of regular and substantive interactions has become the hallmark of a quality online course and is what accreditors of online programs look for when evaluating online programs. These are some of the things the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) looked for a few weeks back during a “surprise” site visit to UMKC. During the visit, USDOE representatives randomly selected online courses taught at UMKC to see if they met the standards outlined in the Higher Education Act. Although we will have to wait a few months to get the final report on their findings, in light of the recent visit I thought it was important for me to put down some thoughts about regular and substantive interactions.

I said in an earlier blog post that, from my experience, lack of faculty engagement is the most common complaint of online students. This ranges down the list from faculty not responding to emails or discussion posts to not returning assignments to returning assignments but not providing feedback. There are a host of other complaints along these lines but most involve a lack of presence. Although some of these are like complaints found in face-to-face courses (students hate not getting assignments or tests back and hate not knowing their grades), the difference is that a student in a face-to-face course has the opportunity to see the instructor and know there is a living breathing person responsible for the course. The student can also talk to other students in the class, form study groups, ask questions and so on and so forth.

Online learning word cloudLack of faculty engagement and the lack of opportunities for students to engage with each other in an online course is like having students show up to an empty classroom day after day and finding nothing but the homework assignment written on the board. Not a great learning experience for sure. This is counter to everything we know about active learning. Students learn more when engaged in a course. Engagement requires interaction that is not just active and regular but thoughtful. Students also need to know that there is a knowledgeable person helping to guide them through a learning process and who actually cares about their learning. This is true when teaching face-to-face or online. The difference is how you engage students in an online course. Teaching online is just flat out different than teaching in a classroom. For example, engagement does not mean that an instructor has to answer every discussion post within a class, a common rookie mistake by people new to online teaching. Rather, the role of the online instructor is to manage or moderate the discussion by engaging the class as a whole by responding to the post of individuals.

Office hours are another example of different engagement strategies. Online students generally cannot make it to a physical office location to talk one-on-one with an instructor. Setting a regular time when students know you will be available and responding to their queries through many pathways such as email, text, phone, WebEx, Collaborate, or even Skype is so essential. This may even be at night. Running course reports, which you can do in Blackboard, to see when your students log in will help you understand the online behavior of your students. This in turn helps you incorporate various engagement strategies, such as setting office hours or even planning group projects. For example, you may want to pair students with similar online behaviors.

There are many, many other practices and tools to increase engagement in online courses. Unfortunately, knowing what they are and how to use them is not always intuitive. This is why it is so important to take advantage of the various training sessions available through UMKC Online. Whether you are teaching online or enhancing your face-to-face course using Blackboard or through the use of other technologies, active engagement is a learned practice. Attending the free training sessions has more advantages. Not only will you be learning more about the tools and practices that promote engagement but, you will have the opportunity meet other faculty teaching in a variety of formats. Knowing and interacting with a community of other instructors is essential to understanding that there is a scholarship of teaching and as with any profession, it is important to stay current with that scholarship. All that said, good teaching does involve regular and substantive interactions that are thoughtful, meaningful and engaging. Although enhanced through the use of technology, at the end of the day, it is about connecting with people.

Dr. Cancilla can be reached at cancillad@umkc.edu.