Thousands Enroll in Harvard Divinity School’s First edX Course

Harvard Divinity School
The Harvard Divinity School's first online course is running this term through HarvardX. The course on Paul's letters has already attracted over 28,000 students.

More than 28,000 students from 183 countries have enrolled in HDS1544.1x: “Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul,” Harvard Divinity School’s first foray into edX, which launched Jan. 6—a figure more than 220 times the size of the school’s 2013 graduating class.

The course, christened “BibleX” by the media and taught by Divinity School professor Laura S. Nasrallah, examines the political and religious context of Paul’s letters and the lasting impact that the letters have had on modern religious debate.

The course consists of video lectures, annotation assignments, online discussions, and other short videos that help students gain a glimpse into the historical world Paul occupied and the controversies, both ancient and new, that surround his letters.

“One of my goals was to really engage in this new online learning,” said Nasrallah, an expert on the New Testament and early Christianity. “I think a lot of people are really curious about the Bible and ancient history,” she added.

Tyler M. Schwaller, a Ph.D. candidate at the Divinity School who helps staff the course, said that he did not initially expect the amount of attention that the course would receive from the public.

“I thought there was potential for a few thousand people,” Schwaller said.

Sergiy O. Nesterko, a HarvardX research fellow, said that the course’s success was doubly impressive given that humanities courses usually attract fewer registrants on the platform than science or technical courses. Harvard has offered a handful of humanities courses on the platform since it co-founded edX with MIT in May 2012.

“The subject of the course contributed to the level of popularity of the course,” said Nesterko, adding later, “It’s a very wide reach, but I wouldn’t say it is atypical for any HarvardX courses. These courses generally attract registrants from many different countries from around the world.”

The course makes use not only of discussion platforms through HarvardX, but also uses Facebook to promote debate between all class participants. Nasrallah also encourages students to use the website Poetry Genius to annotate texts of Paul’s letters.

Unlike some other HarvardX courses, there is no residential equivalent of “The Letters of Paul” this semester.

Both Schwaller and Nasrallah said that the course has attracted students from religious and non-religious backgrounds.

“We know the ways in which the religious subjects we study can really spark a passionate debate,” Nasrallah said.

While Schwaller and Nasrallah are not sure whether they will offer more courses through HarvardX in the future, both agree that creating an online course has improved their teaching skills.

“[The course] helps me think more broadly about different ways to teach,” said Schwaller.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at tdelwiche@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Michael V. Rothberg can be reached at mrothberg@college.harvard.edu.

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