Is it Possible to Facilitate Relatedness (meaningful social interaction) in Online Courses?

Online courses are difficult for me. This is because I like to build relationships with students. I like to look them in the eyes when they share something. I try to listen to what they’re sharing AND the significance of what they’re sharing has for them. In other words, I attempt to communicate to them through my patience and interest that I am more interested in the student than I am in the information they are sharing. 

I don’t know how to do this online. I have had some success with small pockets of students—at best 50%. 


Research has shown that students in online courses do not expect to be listened to or heard, so many of them ignore these ways of engaging. This was discovered by educational researchers Chen & Jang in an article titled “Motivation in Online Learning: Testing a Model of Self-Determination Theory.” Here is a brief summary of what they found, which I am excerpting from a book I am writing:


… students in online courses have lowered their expectations for relatedness because they are not sharing space and time with others, and therefore do not perceive it as a deficit or as need dissatisfying to participate in an asynchronous class in an interaction-free environment.


They also found that students in online courses do not perceive it as need dissatisfying when they are told what to do. In face-to-face classes, being told what to do decreases student autonomy and is therefore undesirable.


Taken together, I am seriously curious about how to create an online course that facilitates relatedness and autonomy, when the very environment invites students to do neither. How can an online class be about anything other than information and intellection? 

I am asking in earnest! What are your suggestions?


Citation: Chen, K., & Jang, S. (2010). Motivation in online learning: Testing a model of self-determination theory. Computers in human behavior.