UPDATED: October 14, 2015, at 1:46 a.m.
After launching “Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul,” which claims to be the world’s largest Bible class with more than 32,000 participants, the Harvard Divinity School is aiming even higher with the introduction of its second online course called “Scripture,” which one Divinity School faculty member said she hopes will attract 50,000 students.
The class, which will be taught by six faculty members and focus on the texts of the world’s major religions, will premiere this spring through edX, the non-profit MOOC provider that Harvard and MIT founded in 2012.
Divinity School senior lecturer Diane L. Moore said she hopes for 15,000 students in each of the six modules and 50,000 unique students for the course as a whole.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about religion that has profound consequences both intellectually and civically,” she said. “We know how interesting the scriptures are to lots of people, and so we thought that organizing a course that would have a subtheme of better understanding religion through scripture would both attract a large audience and also be fun for us to put together.”
Moore, who will be teaching about religious literacy, said she had the idea for the course in spring of 2013 and was motivated by her work on the public’s understanding of religion.
For Faculty of Arts and Sciences professor Ali S. Asani, who will focus on the Quran in his lectures, the recent spike in Islamophobia was a driving factor in his participation.
“There are all kinds of wild stereotypes about the Quran in the light of Islamophobia. Some have claimed that the Quran is the work of the devil or that it is a book that espouses terrorism,” he said. “What I’m hoping is that my module will provide an informed and educated framework with which to think about this text.”
Despite the diverse range of texts and religions in the course, Asani noted that the teaching team has been planning to use comparative frameworks to highlight commonalities among the texts.
“We had several meetings in spring where we discussed key themes that we are going to be bringing up in each of our modules so there can be consistency across the modules,” he said. “I can imagine that in my module there may be a session with a panel discussion about themes and ideas that are shared by the scriptures.”
For Charles S. Hallisey, a senior lecturer at the Divinity School who will teach about Buddhist scriptures, the course also presents an opportunity to try out the edX platform.
“Part of my getting into this class was because I had misgivings about the phenomenon of online teaching,” he said. “Since getting involved, I’ve started to rethink the misgivings, and it’s been an interesting endeavor to rethink what is it that you want to do when you’re teaching.”
Overall, Moore says she hopes that the course will lead to a more nuanced understanding of scriptures and religion.
“Scriptures are wonderful religious resources that do have impact throughout all of human experience, and we’re excited to be able to share that knowledge and to hear from participants about their own experiences as they respond to the course,” she said.—Staff writer Michael S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at email@example.com.
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