We are working this year with our wonderful partners in Social Work for an Innovation Project centered on increasing instructor presence in the online classroom. We believe that strong instructor presence increases students’ sense of learning and connectedness, which may ultimately lead to increased performance and retention. Being present in the classroom, we believe, is just as critical online as it is on campus.
The Department of Education seems to believe so as well.
At the end of 2014, the DoE issued a Dear Colleague letter that indicated some requirements for Competency Based Education (CBE). CBE is an interesting topic on its own, but the more pertinent part of the letter was a requirement laid out for any Title IV program (that is, any program who’s students are eligible for federal aid):
All Title IV eligible programs, except correspondence programs, must be designed to ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. (A9)
The letter clarifies a bit further on the next answer.
We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction. (A10)
The implications for online programs and online instructors could be huge; this turned out to be the case for Western Governor’s University after an audit by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General concluded that they should repay $713 million in federal student aid.
This conclusion was based primarily on a 1992 law defining eligibility for federal aid for distance programs, and its possible that this recommendation from the Inspector General will not be enforced. The law was created in a time before online education was a normal process for so many universities, and many have expressed that this law needs revising.
But regardless of how outdated the law may be, there is a lot of value behind the sentiment. Instructors in an on-campus course are expected to interact with their students in a classroom for 2-3 hours a week. Shouldn’t online instructors be held to a similar expectation? That interaction might look substantially different in an online classroom, of course, but students deserve this interaction. And as noted in Answer 10 in the Dear Colleague letter, perhaps the interactions should be instructor-initiated.
It’s easy to forget that online education is still very new. I’ve heard faculty ask “what is the online classroom? Where does it begin and end?” It’s a good question. The immediate instinct is to say “the learning management system is the online classroom.” But that doesn’t seem right when you consider that learning could happen in email, a Zoom session, or in the community with an experiential learning assignment.
I’m not sure that we’ll be able to answer that question in the immediate future, but we’ll continue thinking and keep experimenting with our campus partners. We’re working with multiple groups on campus to increase instructor presence, either directly or indirectly, but we’d love to hear from others what they are doing.