Regular & Substantive Interaction


The terms Regular and Substantive interaction specifically pertain to the level of instructor-to-student interaction in distance education courses and carry large financial ramifications if our institution is not in compliance with their definitions. The purpose of this article is to explain how these terms: 

  • Distinguish Distance Education from Correspondence Education

  • Relate to the terms Distance Education and Instructor

  • Relate to the term Direct Instruction

  • Hold financial implications for our institution  

What do Federal Regulations have to do with Distance Education? 

A lot, actually! To understand how the terms regular and substantive interaction pertains to distance education, we must first be aware of The Distance Education and Innovation regulations put forth by the Department of Education (DOE). The DOE enacts these regulations for institutions of higher education to ensure student consumer protection, and student success and sets standards of innovation, specific to engagement in distance learning. Prior to 2019, the DOE’s Distance Education and Innovation regulations were not up-to-date with current technologies and hardly applicable to current course formats. However, this changed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought renewed attention to the need for postsecondary institutions to expand high-quality learning opportunities through the use of remote and advanced technologies to assist students in reaching their educational goals. During the DOE’s 2019 negotiated rulemaking, these final Distance Education and Innovation regulations establish the right framework to facilitate innovation while maintaining educational quality, as well as important safeguards to protect students and taxpayers. 

How is Distance Education defined? 

The final definition of distance education in 34 CFR 600.2 (Federal Regulation) in its entirety is as follows: 

Education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1)(i) through (1)(iv) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor or instructors, and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously.

The technologies that may be used to offer distance education include —

  1. The internet;

  2. One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;

  3. Audio conferencing; or

  4. Other media used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1)(i) through (1)(iii) of this definition.”

How is Correspondence Education defined? 

The final definition of correspondence education in 34 CFR 600.2 (Federal Regulation) in its entirety is as follows: 

(1) Education provided through one or more courses 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.

(2) Interaction between the instructor and the student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student.

(3) Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.

(4) Correspondence education is not distance education.


To illustrate the spectrum between correspondence and distance education, see the image below created by the State University of New York (SUNY).

Image of meter gauging regular and substantive interactions, beginning with Correspondence Education on the left and increasing to Distance Education on the right.
Image created by State University of New Year (SUNY), retrieved from

In this context, how is an Instructor defined?

Definition of Instructor, per 34 CFR 600.2: 

“For purposes of this definition, an instructor is an individual responsible for delivering course content and who meets the qualifications for instruction established by the institution’s accrediting agency.”

What are Synchronous and Asynchronous? 

  • Synchronous instruction is a type of online education that provides flexible access to content and instruction from any place, but at specific times. Students must be electronically present simultaneously with the instructor to receive instruction, typically delivered through live video.

  • Asynchronous instruction is a type of online education that provides flexible access to content and instruction at any time, from any place. Students do not have to be physically or electronically present simultaneously with the instructor. Instructional content is intentionally designed and delivered asynchronously to replace classroom instruction time (contact hours) between the student and instructor. 

How do Regular and Substantive fit into all of this? 

The definitions of regular and substantive, as previously discussed, are what differentiate distance education from correspondence education. Regular and Substantive interaction must be able to be identifiable within our distance education courses, otherwise, they will be categorized as correspondence courses. This is important as failure to comply with regular and substantive interaction requirements jeopardizes an institution’s access to federal financial aid if more than 50 percent of their courses are classified as correspondence courses, or more than 50 percent of their students are enrolled in correspondence courses.

As seen in the definition of Regular and Substantive in the coming section; the definitions in the earlier parts of this article play a key role in identifying regular and substantive interactions in our distance education courses. 

How are Regular and Substantive Interactions defined? 

Substantive Interaction

Engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following:

  1. Providing direct instruction;

  2. Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework;

  3. Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency;  

  4. Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or,

  5. Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency. 

Regular Interaction 

An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors, prior to the student’s completion of a course or competency:

  1. Providing the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis equivalent to the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency; and

  2. Monitoring the student’s academic engagement and success and ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed, on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.

Update on Regular & Substantive Interaction as of 11/8/2022

The Department of Education has provided clarification on certain terms and requirements as it pertains to Regular & Substantive Interaction. These updates are the following:

  • As used by the Department, “direct instruction” means “live, synchronous instruction where both the instructor and the student are online and in communication at the same time.”

  • Video lectures cannot be used to meet Regular & Substantive Interaction requirements.

  • Please note the emphasis on the term regular, as substantive interactions must still occur on a regular (as defined) basis to meet the requirements of the regulation. For example, it would not suffice to post only one discussion thread and grade one assessment to satisfy the requirements.

  • The Department defers to accreditors for decisions relating to the qualifications of instructors and approval of “other instructional activities” that could be considered substantive interaction.

  • Institutions have discretion on the specific methods to use to implement and enforce these policies relating to Regular & Substantive Interaction.

  • Scheduled “office hours” can fulfill part of the requirement for regular interaction between instructors and students.

  • Many questions will have to be answered on a case-by-case basis by the Department to each institution and its respective academic program.

More information regarding these updates can be found in the Regular and Substantive Interaction Update: Where Do We Go from Here? article by WCET.

What does this mean going forward? 

It is important that as designers and developers of online learning, we understand and communicate these terms and expectations of interaction levels with course instructors and consider these standards while designing each course. This will ensure that our online courses that are intended to be categorized as distance education courses are correctly identified as such within the federal regulations. 

Additional References: 


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