YU Joins World of Online Education with Arch of Titus Class
Although Chanukah has concluded, Yeshiva University is still trying to spread its light as far as it can. In early December, the university took a big step in expanding its global impact by releasing a course entitled, “Arch of Titus: Rome and the Menorah,” on Coursera, a company that works with top universities to make some of their courses available online as massive open online courses (known colloquially as MOOCs).
This project was initiated by Dr. Akiva Covitz, who serves both as a visiting professor in Yeshiva College as well as the Executive Director for Strategy at YU Global. Covitz formerly worked as the Vice President of edX, another MOOC provider, and felt that putting this course out for the worldwide audience would be a perfect way to extend the YU message to the public eye. For this project, Covitz worked closely with YU Global’s Senior Product Developer Ben Bowman as well as Dr. Steven Fine, who is the course instructor and whose international Arch of Titus project provided the content for this course. The team worked diligently to create the course materials that would be placed online. It is a product of their tireless efforts, along with major contributions from the entire YU Global staff, that allowed this course to become YU’s first public online course. “This was really YU’s first major foray onto an international platform,” said Covitz regarding the immense effort put in to make this course, “so we wanted it to be right, good, beautiful, educationally sound and compelling”.
Braced with the exciting task of being able to create a course that would represent YU and that could potentially be viewed by thousands of people, the team had to answer a few basic questions for themselves. Firstly, ‘what is the message YU is uniquely capable of spreading to the world?’ Would it be a Jewish Philosophy class? Principles of Talmud? Perhaps an Intro to Bible? After making this selection in consultation with Provost Selma Botman, they would then have to determine how to ensure the proliferation of their desired message, by presenting the course in the most inviting way possible, thereby attracting many students and allowing them to gain as much as possible from the course. In order to do accomplish these goals they needed a course with universal appeal.
After much contemplation, the team sought out a course topic that really builds upon YU expertise. The first step came in teaming up with Professor Fine, the Churgin Professor of Jewish History at YU, and his international Arch of Titus Project (yu.edu/cis). Professor Fine, a renowned expert on the history of Judaism in Roman times, has been thinking about this topic since high school. He is world renowned for his discoveries; some even calling him the “Jewish Indiana Jones”. He has written several books on the topic, including one set to be put out by Harvard University Press in the fall on the history of the Menorah. In addition to his personal research, Professor Fine is also an incredibly knowledgeable and passionate professor who engages his students and gets them excited about the pursuit of historical truths.
The Arch of Titus is an artifact of history that has universal cultural appeal and can be used to portray a profound perspective on the last 2000 years of Jewish and World history. The Jewish relevance of this structure is clear. The arch was constructed in 82 A.D. by the Emperor Domitian in honor of his brother Titus on the Via Sacra in Rome, where it still stands today. On the Southern side of this arch is an image that celebrates Titus’ victory over the Jews in 70 A.D. This victory is coincidentally one of the most tragic events in Jewish history, the destruction of the Second Temple, and the beginning of the Jewish exile which has lasted into the present day. The image depicts Jews leaving Jerusalem after this event, carrying many of the spoils from the Temple with them. The largest and most detailed of these vessels is the Menorah. The arch represents a marvelous piece of ancient Roman architecture, one that to this day can be found all over the world, as all of modern-day arches of any sort are patterned after the ancient Roman design. The image of the menorah is one of the most well-known symbols of the Jewish people, and one that in more recent history has taken on even more significance with its appearance on the emblem of the State of Israel. Historically, this arch represents Roman culture and the exile of the Jews from their homeland, an event which changed the course not only of Jewish history but of world history. This course, therefore, appeals to a diverse set of disciplines, while focusing on a particularly crucial time period, the understanding of which gives a great insight into Judaism and many other areas.
Luckily, Professor Fine has a particular interest in new technologies for higher education and was excited by the idea. He spent much of this past year filming the lectures that would be part of the class-- in Los Angeles, New York, Rome and Jerusalem. He spent hours upon hours editing to make sure he was both clear enough to be understood by different levels of students and thorough enough to engage the viewer in the subject in a real way. Professor Fine has taught this course twice in YU, including this year’s fall semester. “Professor Fine is very, very passionate about what he’s teaching,” said Zach Sterman, a first-year student who took the course this fall, “This is his life study, and he is truly emotionally invested in the course.”
In reality, the course as it appears on Coursera has appeal for many more reasons than the topic of study. Capitalizing on the possibilities of an online course, the videos display Dr. Fine not in a classroom lecture setting, but walking through different museums, sitting on park benches, and in many other locations that make the learning come to life. Throughout the videos, Professor Fine is meeting and talking with people in all of the places that he goes. YU History Professor William Stenhouse and Professor Jacob Wisse, director of YU Museum both appear in the course, together with scholars in Los Angeles and New York city. The course features virtual field trips to such museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, YU Museum and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; historical sites such as Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and a symposium built around Prof. Fine’s work at the University of Southern California. Students “visit” with internationally known scholars and curators and in all of those places.
The course was designed as a series of 3-7 minute videos, based on the amount of time that the average Youtube clip can hold a viewer’s attention. The videos themselves are of a theatre-like quality, a product of the incredible work done by Executive Producer and Creative Director, Abby Russell and her team. The product is aesthetically impressive and hopes to give a very positive impression of YU.
Another way the team utilized the online forum is through the unique assignments that Bowman and Fine created for the course. As he does in his “brick and mortar” courses, Fine calls on students to be creative. In fact, all of the assignments in the online course were tested out on Professor Fine’s Cultures over Time course on the Arch of Titus. The online assignments require students to display their understanding of the material in different ways such as taking pictures of arches that they see near their homes or wherever they are. These assignments are designed to pique the students interest in the topic, as well as to highlight the relevance of the topic in their everyday lives. The goal in all this is be as user-friendly as possible, so that many people will be able to enjoy this course.
The content and format of this course are designed to attract many different types of people, and particularly different types of Jews. “The cool thing for me is that my "students" for this course include both members of our own Jewish community, the general population worldwide, and people from every walk of life,” said Fine. “I have already heard of YU alumni who have taken the course, but also Hareidim, Chabadniks and reform Jews from the US, Israel and Europe!”
With all this said, there is a profound message that is intended to be understood by the students of this course. In many ways, this course is one that explores Jewish ideas through the lens of the larger world. This truly represents one of the main ideals that YU holds dear. “The goal is to show students how to live as part of the larger world and the Jewish community simultaneously. I show them how to live fully and interestingly, while maintaining that strong attitude of communal dignity. These courses teach how to bridge and connect to the world, viewing Torah u’Madda as having a connecting “vav” and not merely one that simply means plus,” said Fine. “What YU is truly about is creating sophistication, and this course allows us to study a time when our great sages navigated and were formed as a community”. This is the main goal of the YU learning experience, and is exactly the message they seek to spread to the world. “If I can help one person to think a bit bigger and want to aspire higher, then this is a worthwhile project,” Fine said. ”In fact, I hope that she or he will reach out and find me someday.”
By joining Coursera, YU has taken yet another step in establishing its place as one of the the world’s premier institutions. YU will now be able to interact with other quality universities who are connected to Coursera, and hopes to be able to take insight from these large and prestigious institutions on how to achieve the greatest level of success.
A course of this nature being spread to the public should be a great source of pride for the YU community. The course displays YU faculty going out into the world and discovering; representative of the hopes that YU has for all of its students to engage in the world around them. “The message is clear,” said Dr. Fine, “We are in the center of the culture and not peripheral to it. Of course we’re on Coursera! Our faculty is really tops, and this is our moment. The YU Global team has done a marvelous job!”
“The Arch of Titus: Rome and the Menorah” can be found on Coursera.org. As of print, there have been 955 people worldwide who have viewed the course. Participation has steadily increased since the launch in December. All are welcome to participate, at no cost.