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Divinity School Launches Online Religious Literacy Course

By Gabrielle M. Williams, Crimson Staff Writer

The Divinity School is preparing to launch its newest edX course next Tuesday aimed at promoting religious literacy, and Harvard expects tens of thousands of participants over the course of its initial six month run.

The course, titled “World Religions Through Their Scriptures,” consists of six month-long modules covering an introduction to religious literacy and five of the major world religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, according to the course’s site.

Combining pre-recorded instructional videos with discussion boards, course sessions will be gradually released twice a week to foster “real-time” engagement among the course participants, according to Diane L. Moore, the faculty lead for the course and director of the Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project. Moore will share the teaching burden with five other instructors.

For the first month, course participants will be able to join weekly live discussions with their professors through Google Hangouts. At the end of its first six month run, the course will be archived so that future participants can proceed at their own pace, Moore said.

Between 50 to 100 thousand participants are expected to sign up for the course, according to Zachary S. Davis, the HarvardX project lead who was involved in the production and implementation of the course.

“I think there’s a huge hunger to understand religion better, and I think most of the resources available don’t approach religion from a cultural understanding,” Davis said. “What our course is helping people to do is to get a holistic view of these religions.”

The program has been in development for the past year, Davis said, pointing to collaboration between the six instructors.

“Getting faculty to work together collaboratively is not something that Harvard is typically known for, but in this case, HarvardX is really providing a new way for this kind of group collaboration to take place, and it’s producing some extraordinary results,” Davis said.

Moore highlighted the level of cohesion among the modules and subject matter as a key aspect of the course, and said common themes were developed and interwoven throughout the modules.

“We do have a shared framework, a shared message that we are trying to respond to so that there’s consistency across the modules, while there’s also lots of opportunity for individual creativity,” Moore said.

The course professors received substantial support from the HarvardX team in developing the material, according to Moore.

“It’s been quite a learning curve for all of us,” Moore said. “And it’s been fascinating, actually, to think creatively about pedagogy in this context.”

Faculty of Arts and Sciences professor Ali S. Asani ’77, who will be teaching the Islam module of the course, said the lack of religious literacy is both an international and national issue.

“The whole project of democracy is threatened,” Asani said. “When you pick on a minority group and you seek to exclude it from the national discourse, you think about it as the ‘other’.”

Asani said educating people about the complexities of religions and cultures not only improves religious literacy, but also overcomes stereotypes and fosters trust among citizens despite their religious differences.

“We’re seeing growing polarizations in the world, due to all kinds of difference, but particularly religious difference,” Asani said.

Religious illiteracy in the United States has specifically contributed to feelings of anti-Muslim prejudice, Asani said.

“They very often focus on the Quran, and they call the Quran a text of terrorism,” Asani said. “That’s because they’re uneducated about really how scriptures work, how religions traditions work, and how people interpret scriptures in many different ways.”

A panel of professors involved in the project will speak at the Divinity School next Tuesday, when the first installment of the course is set to launch.

—Staff writer Gabrielle M. Williams can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GabWilliams23.

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