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MOOCs and Jewish Studies: A Match Made in Digital Heaven

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

People usually have puzzled reactions when I tell them that I’ve produced a MOOC on the Talmud. This term, it seems, is not that widely known. Juxtaposing “MOOC” with Talmud leads to the assumption that I’ve referred to some Hebrew or Aramaic concept. Typically, I follow my statement that I’ve produced a MOOC on the Talmud with a little Rashi-style commentary: “MOOC,” I’ll say, “stands for Massive Open Online Course.” MOOCs came of age in 2012, when three companies (edX, Udacity and Coursera) associated with premier private American universities began hosting online courses that combine university content with the bells and whistles of internet content delivery. Early MOOCs focused on technology and computer science with the aim of providing easy international access to foundational skills and concepts. As time has passed, the number of MOOCs has grown, and the subject matter has expanded. Though initially there were few MOOCs produced in the humanities, there are now an increasing number. In the past year, several Jewish Studies MOOCs have launched on both edX and Coursera. These include a couple of classes on the Hebrew Bible, a class on the Arch of Titus and my own course on the Talmud.

The reception of MOOCs among academics has been guarded. The promise of scalable web content creates the scary possibility that many of us will find our positions eliminated in favor of online learning. This fear is, in my opinion, misguided. MOOCs are fantastic vehicles for conveying small quantities of information in an enticing and digestible way. But MOOCs as currently conceived do not approach the experience of a higher education course both in terms of quantity and quality of content. The production costs of a MOOC with its high quality videos and interactive websites can be prohibitive. The process of videography is extremely time consuming and does not allow for the slow development of a concept; subtlety is not the MOOC’s forte. Today’s MOOCs are best analogized to introductory textbooks rather than substitute academic courses.

MOOCs are excellent resources for adult education. They require the self-motivation of learners who are there for knowledge rather than credit. The content they provide is perfect for the avocational student squeezing in a class after a workday or on a weekend. The affiliation of MOOCs with American higher education invites MOOC students to feel as though they are returning to the college classroom.

With the decline in demographic support for the humanities, Jewish Studies needs to take stock of its strengths and weaknesses. As a humanities subject, Jewish Studies is in trouble; courses are sometimes cancelled, the numbers of curricular majors and minors are down, and we regularly face pressure to justify ourselves in pre-professional ways.

But Jewish Studies has two important defenses against these weaknesses. First, Jewish Studies, like Gender Studies or African American Studies, has a role to play not only in content delivery, but in identity formation. While the relationship between Jewish Studies and Jewishness has always caused considerable anxiety—and for good reason—the time has come for Jewish Studies to accept the demographic realities of Jewish interest in the field and the pedagogical understanding that university instruction is about both identity formation and knowledge acquisition. Jewishness is an important intellectual thought category for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds and Jewish Studies needs to stress its relevance to the broadest possible group of people. But Jewish Studies also can play a special role in identity formation for those of Jewish heritage. The Talmud MOOC has attracted interest from all over the world, and I have personally engaged with several international students who are not Jewish and were eager to study this material. A large percentage of the Talmud MOOC students, though, are Jewish adults who are hungry for the high quality intellectual fare that only academic Jewish Studies can provide. I think that an increased number of Jewish Studies MOOCs will increase the size of this audience as a larger segment of the public learns about online education.

If our first defense is the relationship between Jewish Studies and ethnic identity, the second is the broad base of financial support for Jewish Studies that exists off campus in the Jewish community. The largesse of the American Jewish community has created many institutes and centers of Jewish Studies across the country. This external support is related to the value that Jews as a group place on education and adult education. Often this support results in endowed public lectures that are attended by wide swaths of the Jewish community in addition to a broader university and off-campus public; donors have been persuaded by the idea that Jewish Studies centers would not just teach those on campus. The continued production of MOOCs in Jewish Studies has the potential to weld a stronger bond between Jewish Studies and the larger Jewish community and ensure that the financial support continues in the next generation.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Law at Northwestern University.