Reflecting on Federal Definitions of Interaction

Since January, I’ve been working hard on creating new Andrews University definitions of distance education that match these federal definitions (34 Code of Federal Regulations 602.3):

Correspondence education means:

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.

  • Interaction between the instructor and the student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student.
  • Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.
  • Correspondence education is not distance education.

Distance education means:

Education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may 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. Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3).


The emphasis in the quotes above is mine. I find it very interesting that the focus of the difference between the two types of education is interaction. It reminds me of the development of the AVLN standards in the early 2000s. What did we emphasize? Interaction:

Courses developed shall address the relational basis of learning

  • a design for interaction between learner and content
  • a design for interaction between learner and learner
  • a design for interaction between learner and teacher
  • a design for interaction between learner and self (reflection)
  • a design for interaction between learner and the community (includes service)
Interaction (photo by ConferenceBasics)

At best, correspondence courses only address the interaction between learner and content, and learner and self; and may not even do reflection well if the course uses primarily objective assessment methods like multiple choice, true/false, and matching.

Is Correspondence “Old”?

I have found it interesting to observe the objections and concerns on campus about the term correspondence. It is a term that makes people think of paper correspondence courses from the World War II era. However, given the federal definitions, many online courses are actually correspondence courses!

  • Courses that are self-directed and self-paced (what about independent studies?!)
  • The concept of putting syllabi and PowerPoints online to make an “online course”. Problematic! No interaction!
  • Even a course consisting of video clips, recorded lectures, either online streaming or on DVD/CD is correspondence is there isn’t INTERACTION.
  • If a course doesn’t have a thriving discussion area, is it correspondence?
  • If a course consists of readings, assignments turned in to the instructor, and the instructor never initiates communication with the student, is it correspondence?


When you really think through the ramifications of these definitions, it raises the bar for the quality of the course!

I can see a focus emerging for faculty development workshops in the coming months: interaction. What is it? What does it look like? How do you design for it?

I know Carol Skyring has been researching interaction and some of you are constantly thinking about it as well. What other tips and resources do you suggest for ensuring quality interactions in all forms of distance education?

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