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RSI (regular and substantive interaction) is a key part of teaching online courses.

Our local distance learning policy (AP 4105) interprets the federal and state education codes, where RSI is a critical requirement that distinguishes distance education courses (which students can take using federal financial aid) from correspondence courses (which do not qualify for such aid).  

If you are regularly communicating with your students about the how’s and why’s of your instructional content – that is RSI

Components of RSI

RSI is a term of art that provides a short way of summarizing a set of requirements. Regulatory language can sometimes make things sound more complicated than they are, but RSI really comes down to a few commonsense elements:

  • the professor is pacing the course
  • the professor is clearly and regularly present in the course
  • the professor interacts with students about the substance of the course.

What does it mean to say “pacing the course”? This means you (the professor) make decisions about what content students have access to rather than letting students decide how fast or slow they move through the content. All of the course’s content is not open from start to end of the course, but there is no requirement on how much you show students at one time. Typically, the content you’ve already covered remains available, and new content is rolled out one unit at a time. For your class, a unit may be a week. Perhaps you have good pedagogical reasons for opening less or more than a week’s content, and that’s the important part. You are making the decisions and they have a justifiable, pedagogical reason behind them.

The other requirement – that you (the professor) regularly interact or communicate with the students about the course’s substance – is probably what most people just simply think of as instruction or teaching. In distance education, regulations have to spell out what this means. When we interpret the regulations, RSI can mean you offer students context and tips for what to pay attention to within readings and content, and you ask questions and make suggestions related to learning your subject matter. There are many ways to accomplish these goals in the online environment. One is instructing directly through video lecture or in Canvas pages. Another is sending announcements. Another is connecting the dots for students to help them see the relationships between the various content you’ve assigned, or between content and assignments, or between both of those things and the course’s overall objectives. Interacting with students in online discussions and offering personalized feedback on assignments with tips on how to improve are also forms of RSI.

Basically, if you are regularly communicating with your students about the how’s and why’s of your instructional content – that is RSI! The rules specify that professors need to do at least two forms of RSI (at least two of the five areas below), but most courses with best practices are easily doing quite a bit more than that.  

RSI throughout Your DL Course

Below, find some suggestions for where RSI fits into a distance learning course from beginning to end. This may help you recognize current practices of yours that meet RSI or identify where you can expand your presence to strengthen your regular, substantive interaction with students.

RSI In the Syllabus

  • Include information about communication in the syllabus, including when and how often you will contact students.
  • Explain the best ways for students to initiate contact with you. Where should they post questions? What are your typical response times to answer student questions and grade assignments (e.g., 24-48 hours)?
  • Add an orientation to the course in the syllabus, where you explicitly point out important patterns to how the course operates.
    • Example: “The class works best if you plan to complete the assigned reading between Saturday and Wednesday. A quiz is due every Wednesday by midnight, and a discussion post due every Thursday, except weeks 6 and 12 because those weeks have exams/holidays.”
    • Example: “This course is divided into three-week segments, where we cover one topic/reading. A short paper is due about that reading/topic on Friday every three weeks.”

RSI through Direct Communication

  • Schedule and send regular course announcements offering advice each time you start a new unit in the course. These can help direct student attention to how the materials are connected to one another, to things you’ve already covered, or to course objectives. Pose compelling questions that will be addressed in the week ahead. Conduct a poll, or find other ways to encourage engagement. It is also a great practice to remind students of administrative details such as due dates, but remember that this content is not considered substantive. It is perfectly acceptable to do a little of both, but to be considered substantive, include something that helps students understand the materials through the lens of your discipline.
  • Interact with students. Whether through discussion, Q&A boards, inbox messaging, chat sessions, videoconferencing office hours, or formative work they complete during the week, find ways to reach out to the students in your course. You don’t have to communicate individually with every student every week, but make sure you vary who you talk to over the weeks to create an inclusive environment.
    • “Message students who…” is available in the Gradebook for feedback to targeted groups and is received by students as an individual email (no one sees who else it was sent to except for the instructor). This useful messaging option can be used for those who didn’t complete something, those who underperformed, or as a way to acknowledge those who did really well.
    • “Message students who…” is also available in New Analytics for more scenarios, such as page views and content other than assignments, allowing you to not just interact but use it to show proactive monitoring of student success.

RSI: Direct Instruction

  • Use content you create. Whether it is writing in Canvas, video lectures, slides, lessons, or handouts and documents, instructional content you create counts as regular and substantive interaction.
  • Contextualize content. Having said that, nearly all courses use content that wasn’t instructor-created: publisher materials, books, journal articles and primary readings, videos and movies, and many other forms of existing content are expected in any course. RSI comes in when you introduce these items and explain their relevance in the context of your course.
    • At most basic, you should instruct students what to do with the material, especially in asynchronous online courses. Even if it seems obvious (read or watch the material), an instruction is the minimum expectation. Even better: when telling them what do do, offer a few tidbits on what they should focus on, how it relates to the course, and how it will relate to what they do next in the course or to future assignments. Ask a question or two that they should think about when reading or watching to help them know as they go into it: what should they attend to? Now it is really valuable – and substantive!
    • Example: “Please watch this 4-minute video, ideally after you’ve read this week’s textbook reading. Do you notice any instances of [the reading’s concepts] in the actions of the people in the video? Does it fit with what [last week’s article] proposed about the relationship between [concept1] and [concept2]? Did it raise any questions in your mind about [concept1]? This could be a good jumping off point for writing this week’s discussion post about [concepts 1 &2].”

RSI through Assignments and Feedback

  • Offer students varied assignment types. Ideally include low-stakes assignments where students practice and you offer feedback. Practice opportunities are critical. They engage active learning and help students retain ideas and more accurately self-assess how much they know . Summative work is where students demonstrate mastery. They should only be asked to do that after they have had opportunities to practice and receive feedback. Your substantive feedback on formative assignments can be the most important part of the learning process.
  • Create assignments for which you offer personalized feedback. You don’t need to give every single assignment personalized feedback, but strategically providing such feedback can have the most impact for students. To be considered RSI, feedback must offer suggestions that can help students improve on the skills and topics of the course, and be individualized to their progress.
  • Be present where discussions happen in your course. Again, no one expects the instructor to respond to every single student post in every discussion. In fact, that might stifle student expression and self-direction in the discussion. Instead, this is a place to stoke ideas, ask compelling questions, and encourage those on the right track. Establish a regular, active and strategic presence in graded discussions or interactive group spaces in the course to show you are offering students guidance and mentorship, even as you are elevating their voices and agency.
  • Use Canvas rubrics. Rubrics can be an effective and efficient way to offer consistent, substantive feedback, but only if they contain useful feedback on the substance of the assignment.

RSI through Monitoring and Responsiveness

Tell Us Your RSI Tips & Questions!

As you review these tips, I hope you feel reassured about how to assess your own regular and substantive practices in your online classes. Do you do two or more of these in your courses? Great job!

We’d love to hear additional suggestions or examples you have for meeting RSI in one of the categories above. Perhaps this raised questions about RSI or specific course design or Canvas technical questions. Either way, send them our way by putting them in the comments below – or reach out to your friendly instructional designers in the Faculty Center for Learning Technology (FCLT) for individualized consultation and feedback. RSI appointments can be made here.

2 thoughts on “Unpacking Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI)

  1. Great article! I love the New Analytics for grade checks. I used to send grade checks by checking grades manually which was tedious and it’s great that we can now sort grades for students. Yay!
    Also liked the “warm demander” approach to feedback.

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