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In my previous article on community building, I discussed a study in the broad application of andragogy that focused on recognizing and fostering moments of community. If these moments are often unforeseen and difficult to discern in real life, then they may be impossible online. Nevertheless, community is all the more important to build in online courses, where physical proximity, body language, and nuanced communication are lacking.

Setting the Stage

Of course, without certain things in place, there can be no community on which to practice community building. It’s vital to the community building process, for instance, that online courses include opportunities for discussion and interaction between instructors and learners as well as amongst learners themselves. While many educational institutions are working to streamline courses at the expense of this interaction, the interaction itself helps with learners’ grasp of course content. It is within community that we learn and grow the most, from families to church to work teams and small groups. We are social creatures capable of far more within the context of community.

Community is so important to online learning that Quality Matters devotes multiple standards to this cause. Among those standards, one in particular can help set the stage: netiquette (net etiquette), a system of both explicit and unwritten rules — thought QM and I recommend making them very clear — about how learners within the community should behave. By establishing clear boundaries and procedures, instructors may set up the context in which healthy community may grow.

Trust in the Holy Spirit

Etiquette, as a system of rules, is quite natural. What takes community building to the next level is supernatural. The most important part of community building in any online Catholic course is the Holy Spirit. It is He, after all, who inspires these moments of community in real life interactions, He who helps instructors and facilitators to recognize and foster them. Instructors must keep the Holy Spirit at the center of courses, not necessarily in material, but always in heart. They key here is to build up docility in yourself and in your learners. You want them attentive to the Holy Spirit.

Begin and end each course and each lesson with prayer to the Holy Spirit.

Especially when instructors have so many things to do, it’s common to focus on our human efforts. Catechists and other instructors must remember, however, that every good work we do is an effort first of God in us. Only then may we act as cooperators with God and participants in His grace. By keeping the Holy Spirit at the center of our interactions, we can only make our courses better and our community building more effective.

Adjust your tone.

Foster a tone in lectures that is slow-paced, reflective, and complementary to the docility you want from students. When I teach, I tend to speak quickly in a rushed tone, hurriedly tackling the issues on my checklist so I don’t lag. It’s a terrible habit and especially harmful for lessons that need to be prayerful and meditative. Be sure instead to foster in your speech a practice of leaving appropriate pauses for reflection, taking time to be clear and to build in your listeners their own good habit of deep thinking about their learning.

Dive deep.

Jesus tells us to ”cast into the deep” (Luke 5:4). We should go to thorough, even extreme, efforts in evangelization as well as in learning our faith. It is often at the higher levels of learning (see Bloom’s Taxonomy) that the Holy Spirit can touch our hearts in the most meaningful ways. After all, these higher levels of learning require us to apply the gospel to our lives.

By building a solid framework for online social interaction and entrusting your learners to the work of the Holy Spirit, you can foster the kind of interactive learning that leads to moments of community.