Baker Academic

Friday, March 14, 2014

How to Teach a 20K Person Class: My Interview with Laura Nasrallah

Laura S. Nasrallah
A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post reported that the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for The Letters of Paul offered by Prof. Laura Nasrallah of Harvard would be "largest and most concentrated scholarly discussion of Biblical studies in history." The course is taught by Prof. Nasrallah and four PhD candidates has attracted over 20,000 registrants. I really cannot stop being baffled by this. In my experience most university professors pitch a fit over class sizes over 40! 

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Laura about her experience so far. Keep in mind, she agreed to this interview in the middle of teaching this course. So she has basically ruined the "I'm a bit too busy right now" excuse for the rest of us. Seriously, the fact that she took the time to give this interview is remarkable given how many other emails she's been answering of late.

I hope you find this new pedagogical model as fascinating as I do. I am grateful to Laura for her pioneering efforts and willingness to reflect on her experience for our benefit.

ALD: It is my understanding that you've had over 20K students enrolled in your online Paul class. Is this true and are you crazy?
LN: I’ve heard different numbers with regard to my HarvardX Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul course module: that 22K, 25K, or 28K registered. Of course, all 22-28,000 students didn’t end up taking the course module or participating! And many of those who did chose to do so on their own timing or to pick and to choose the materials they wanted to explore—that independence and ability to choose is the beauty of an online learning forum!

ALD: As far as religious education goes, your class looks to be altogether unprecedented. When did you decide that this would be something that you'd like to try? What factors contributed to your decision to do it?
LN: I think that my course may have been the first free, open, online opportunity in religious studies on the edX platform, and perhaps the first on other similar platforms. But there are others who have been using the internet or other technologies to offer courses or course materials broadly. In the subfield of New Testament alone I think of free and for-pay courses or podcasts from people like Mark Goodacre, Dale Martin, Bart Ehrman, and Luke Timothy Johnson. Perhaps part of what was different about my course module is that we as a teaching staff tried to respond critically and to encourage students as much as we could—a dynamic model, and one that offered students a place to create an academic community.
I decided that I wanted to participate in HarvardX in January 2013 when an email went out to the faculty about the opportunity. I realized that I was taking a small seminar to Greece and Turkey in the spring for three weeks, and it was the perfect (and urgent!) opportunity for us to shoot more photos and some videos that would help with the coursemodule on the Letters of Paul. Over the summer and fall, I took those materials and worked on the course module itself with the help of several amazing doctoral and masters students at Harvard. We also took time out to have conversations about ethics and online education, and I learned much with my teaching team and from them.

I wanted to engage in this experiment for many opportunities:
  • to see how or whether feminist pedagogy would work in an online learning environment
  • to provide information to students about the historical context of the production and first reception of Paul’s letters and also to point to other colleagues’ work in a section titled “GoFurther/Bibliography”—that is, to give them another access route into our ongoing scholarly conversation
  • to encourage students to focus on the historical context of the letters, to attend with discipline to the details of ancient texts and object
  • to push myself pedagogically to be clearer and more succinct
  • to fund and provide more skills training opportunities for doctoral students who worked with me
  • to be able to speak with colleagues like Prof. Anne Marie Luijendijk at Princeton who taught us about papyri letters; or Rev. John Stendahl, the son of Krister Stendahl, who talked about his father’s legacy, or Prof. Diane Moore and a former student of mine, Shauna Pellauer, who know a lot about the legalities and practicalities of teaching religion in K-12 publicschools—videos I plan to assign for my traditional classrooms
  • to gain some tools (like the time-maps) from HarvardX that I could use in my brick and mortar classrooms as well as online
  • to provide new students with the opportunity to learn about Paul’s letters, but also the opportunity to practice academic, critical, and respectful dialogue in the interpretation of scripture—often a difficult thing.
What I didn’t know is that there would be such a surge of gratitude from students, deep engagement with the materials of thecourse, and respectful and thoughtful dialogue with each other. That was an unexpected outcome and the best part of it.
ALD: How on Earth do you keep up with all of your correspondence for this course?
LN: I couldn’t, although I usually answer emails that come directly to me, unless they ask something technical about the website, in which case I’m lost! For commenting on student posts online, I have a marvelous teaching staff that helped.
ALD: For those educators considering a MOOC platform, what would you say is lost and gained pedagogically?
LN: HarvardX’s open, free, online experience can allow students to gain all sorts of content and exploratory tools; it can guide them to and provide readings; it can allow for discussion between students.What is lost is the chance to receive detailed and consistent feedback from the teaching staff to the work students submit online. Let me be clear—we responded to a lot of our students’ writing assignments, annotations of ancient texts, short paragraphs comparing scholarly approaches. We were often up all hours of the night doing so! Yet the course module truly became the students’own and I consistently observed how they learned much from each other—both in terms of content and in terms ofrespectful practices of dialogue. 
One of the best parts of teaching is the experience of students’ presence and the unexpected things that happen in the classroom that make you stop and begin to offer an entirely new lecture or to lead a discussion different from the one you had planned. Some aspects of the online learning platform allow for that responsiveness and improvisation—we had weekly teaching staff responses to student insights and to explain further materials that were challenging, for instance. I did miss the eye contact, the ability to pause in class and listen to a student for a while and to allow that conversation to help the rest of the class to learn! Yet I feel like I know many of my online students—I could rattle off usernames and the sort of helpful responses those students gave or the kinds of things I could tell they felt most interesting. I do wish I could meet them all face to face—and hopefully, one by one, I will over time!
Again, I extend my thanks to Prof. Nasrallah. Please take a moment to check out her book: An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity and her more recent: Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second-Century Church Amid the Spaces of Empirenow in paperback!


1 comment:

  1. I started off in the class, and I actually enjoyed it at first. Figuring out Paul's theology and worldview based solely on Romans 16 was enlightening. But I quickly got overwhelmed by the amount of noise (so to speak) and quit. I've taken online classes before, but something about the sheer scale of this made me lose interest. I guess I just prefer direct interaction (even online) with a traditionally-sized class.