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Regular and Substantive Interactions: The Accreditation Dance of Online Courses

“The Department urges UMKC to enforce standards of substantive interaction institution­-wide in its distance education courses. Additionally, UMKC should ensure compliance with the Program Integrity Regulations (75 FR 66832), published in the Federal Register on October 29, 2010, some of which specifically impact institutions offering distance education courses.” [Letter to UMKC from the U.S. Department of Education dated November 2, 2016]

Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost, Online Learning

Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost, Online Learning

As warnings go, this was very clear! UMKC must do a better job with the design and delivery of its online courses or potentially face some very significant consequences when the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) re-accreditation visit occurs in 2019. But first, let’s take a step back to see where this warning came from.

In the 2016 fall term, the USDOE notified UMKC that it would be doing a “surprise” site visit to review the institution relative to its eligibility for federal financial aid. This included a review of its online programs and courses. The USDOE requested and received a list of all online courses taught at UMKC and selected ten to review. As you also know, online courses are not like face-to-face courses in that they can be viewed in their entirety. A person reviewing a course can click through the course to see all of the materials, videos, activities, assignments, and so on. They can look at activity logs and see how frequently students or instructors log into a course, how much time they spend on various activities, and what the levels of interactions are occurring within the course. For example, does the instructor provide timely and thoughtful feedback? Do students have the opportunity to interact with other students? This is exactly what the USDOE did when they visited the UMKC campus. Of the ten courses reviewed, four failed to meet the federal standards of having regular and substantive interactions between faculty and students and between students. That is 40%!

Of the ten [UMKC] courses reviewed, four failed to meet the federal standards of having regular and substantive interactions between faculty and students and between students. That is 40%!

What are some of the things the USDOE found to lead them to this conclusion? Instructors not logging into their courses or logging into courses for only a few minutes in a week. Courses where instructors had recorded their lecturers (some greater than ten or fifteen years ago) and students taking automatically graded quizzes based on those lectures. Courses with absolutely no opportunity for interactions, not even the ability for students to ask questions of the instructor or other students. No online office hours or ways to communicate with the instructor. Unfortunately, the list goes on from there. If we extrapolate this out to all online courses taught in a typical semester, this would represent approximately 150-160 courses. This is not good! The importance of regular and substantive interactions is based on sound educational research conducted over many years and is not some bureaucratic imposed requirement. Students learn better when there is someone actually involved with teaching the course and who cares about their learning.

One thing that was in UMKC’s favor is the fact that we have implemented a policy that all online courses and instructors must be certified. Unfortunately, the policy does not come into full effect until the fall of 2019. None of the courses cited by the USDOE had been certified. With the policy coming online in the next year, our hope is that we will see fewer uncertified courses being taught at UMKC. That said, there are things you can do within your department and within your course to help ensure UMKC meets the national standards in time for its 2019 Higher Learning Commission accreditation visit. These include:

  • Implementing a departmental review of all online courses. I would suggest having a peer-review process. UMKC Online can help your department with establishing this process.
  • Have your faculty complete the certification training offered free of charge by UMKC Online.
  • Have your faculty attend the OLC or QM training. These are online training programs paid for by UMKC Online.
  • Have your courses certified.
  • Attend the FaCET/UMKC Online faculty conferences on learning in the fall and winter.
  • Conduct regular evaluations of the instructors and courses.
  • Share your courses with others. Let them see the great things you are doing.
  • Work with the UMKC Online instructional designers on the development and improvement of your course. Their services are free.

Teaching, whether face-to-face or online, takes dedication, work and caring about student learning. That said, online teaching takes an entirely different approach and requires an entirely different skill set. Interactions are not always real time but are an essential part of the online learning experience. The bottom line is that substantive interactions, in all their forms, make online courses more engaging for both the instructor and students. In the long run, it is not about regulations, it is about the teaching and learning.