In Hanna-Barbera’s 1962-63 space age cartoon, The Jetsons, Jetson’s son Elroy is enrolled in Little Dipper School with a robotic teacher, Miss Brainmocker. In this depiction, there is not a human teacher in sight, just robotic Miss Brainmocker.

It’s safe to say, that in the future there is either no Department of Education or a Department that has made its peace with the role of technology-assisted instruction, or at least the role of artificial intelligence. As more and more faculty are experimenting with AI in their classes, institutions need to be increasingly careful that they are in compliance with federal regulations governing regular and substantive interaction (RSI) and Title IV financial aid eligibility.

Background: What is RSI and why should you care?

WCET staff have written extensively on regular and substantive interaction and the Department of Education regulations governing RSI for a number of years now. For an in-depth dive into RSI, you should review two of WCET’s excellent blogs—New Regulations Review #1: Regular and Substantive Interaction published on April 3, 2020, and Regular and Substantive Interaction Update: Where Do We Go From Here? published on November 8, 2022.

In a nutshell, however, RSI is one of the key sets of requirements that institutions are required to meet if their students are going to be eligible to receive Title IV federal financial aid. Found in 34 CFR 600.2, regular and substantive interaction is a key component in the federal definition of distance education. This definition of distance education is quoted below:

Distance education: 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.

  1. 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.
  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.
  3. For purposes of this definition, substantive interaction is 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.
  4. An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors by, 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 regular basis commensurate with 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.

Why is it important for institutions to adhere to this definition of distance education and include both regular and substantive interaction? Failure to do so comes with dire consequences like:

  • large fines from the Department of Education,
  • being required to refund federal financial aid dollars to the government, and,
  • (in egregious cases) the loss of Title IV financial aid eligibility.

What Does This Mean for Artificial Intelligence?

Keen observers will note that the first part of the definition of distance education references interactions between instructor(s) and students: “support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously.”

A woman using a video conference platform.
Photo by Antoni Shkraba:

For our purposes, the modality (either synchronous or asynchronous) of the learning is inconsequential; what matters is who is primarily involved in the delivery of instruction. In the Supplementary Information accompanying the final regulations released by the Department of Education in 2020, the Department takes pains to address the role of artificial intelligence and other technology-mediated instruction. At the time, the Department wrote,

“Only individuals responsible for delivering course content and who meet the qualifications for instruction established by an institution’s accrediting agency can fulfill the requirements for regular and substantive interaction with students. The Department does not prohibit other forms of substantive interaction that do not involve qualified instructors, but under the statutory definition such interaction cannot meet the requirements in the definition of ‘distance education.’”

The Department went on to write (emphasis added),

“Interaction with artificial intelligence, adaptive learning systems, or other forms of interactive computer-assisted instructional tools quality as types of ‘academic engagement,’ but in this limited context those forms of engagement do not meet the statutory requirements for regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors… [T]he definition currently requires regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors; substantive interactions with machines or other forms of technology that do not involve in [an] instructor would, therefore, not qualify.”

Thus, as one can see, the Department is clear that it is not allowable for artificial intelligence to be used to supplant rather than augment an instructor for courses eligible for federal financial aid.

What should you do if you are worried about the use of AI in your courses?

First and foremost, you need to make sure that your institution has a clear RSI policy and that all distance education faculty receive training on that policy. Document that this training has been completed.

Second, you should review your existing RSI policy to make sure that you directly address the role of AI in your courses and take steps to ensure instructors understand how they can and can’t leverage AI in meeting the Department of Education’s definition of distance education and regular and substantive interaction. Institutions may need to be explicit that artificial intelligence cannot substitute for instructor interactions with students.

 In the release of those 2020 regulations, the Department was careful to not ban the use of artificial intelligence in the classroom and even suggested that such technologies might improve student-instructor interactions. But the Department has also been careful to clearly state that AI and related technologies can in no way substitute for the instructor.

One can’t help but wonder how a Jetson’s era Department of Education would interpret Little Dipper School’s reliance on Miss Brainmocker and whether or not Elroy and his classmates are receiving a quality education. Is anyone writing a Jetson’s spinoff show yet? Perhaps they will cover that story there.

Van Davis

Chief Strategy Officer, WCET

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