A Global Collaboration

Close-up detail of an illuminated manuscript


At this point, most people are all too aware that Zoom has its challenges. The video conferencing platform freezes when there’s a bad Wi-Fi connection, the mute button seems to be a challenge for some users, and a few folks have issues with proper etiquette for passing the proverbial online mic. 

But for one University of San Diego theology class, Zoom is a tool that’s expanding their educational experience, providing increased resources, flexibility for students and valuable global interchange.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, if you asked theology professor Russell Fuller if teaching a virtual course with students from both the United States and a European country was feasible, he would’ve laughed. “We would have been required to physically travel to the location with the students, take up residence and orient them to the area and how to get around,” says Fuller.

But with Zoom, that was no longer the case.

Fuller was intrigued by the idea of pushing the limits of higher education through virtual learning. His long-time friend and colleague, Armin Lange at the University of Vienna in Austria, was also interested.

The pair decided to teach a class, leveraging the Zoom technology to teach a course focused on anti-Semitism and the Bible. Students from both USD and the University of Vienna would work together to meet and work as one class.

Fuller is a specialist in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. His research has focused on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the biblical and non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls. Lange is also a specialist in Judaism, particularly anti-Semitism. It only seemed natural that the two would create and co-teach this particular course.

Through a partnership with the Austrian National Library, students have access to digitized versions of picture Bibles from the 13th to 15th centuries. Fuller explains the books oftentimes illustrate stories from the Old Testament and pair them with New Testament typology.

By using these Medieval picture bibles, the professors are encouraging the students to look for the ways Jews were depicted and presented throughout that time period. The students are then asked to take it one step further and find ways in which these portrayals of Jews might have been passed down through time and still exist in the 21st century.

“Going back to the Black Death during the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and intentionally spreading the illness,” says Fuller, before pivoting to a modern-day example. 

“Well, guess who’s been accused of spreading the coronavirus? You can draw a straight line from one to the next. That’s what this class is doing, looking at these old accusations, none of which are true, but their persistence and application persists among anti-Semitic groups today.”

When starting this course, both Fuller and Lange knew there would be some challenges to overcome. The first was working in two different time zones; Vienna is nine hours ahead of San Diego. Fuller went to the dean’s office and requested a special class time that would allow both USD and the Austrian students to be “in class” at the same time. They settled on Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 10:50 a.m.

The second challenge was to figure out a central platform where students could have access to texts and information needed for class. USD uses the course management system Blackboard, while the University of Vienna uses Moodle (pronounced similarly to “poodle”). As it turns out, no changes were made on this front. USD students continued using Blackboard and the Austrian students continued using Moodle. The two professors shared and exchanged course materials with one another and uploaded them to their respective platforms to give students access.

Minor bugs are still being worked out. In the first class, the professors and students discovered quickly that everyone would need their own laptop and set of headphones to prevent echoing or feedback in the classroom. Since the Austrian students are all fluent in English, that’s the language in which the class is taught. 

Fuller and Lange are currently in talks with the Austrian National Library in the hopes it will host a virtual exhibit based on the students’ work throughout the semester.

The two also hope their model of a virtual, global course inspires others to test the waters.

“This would be like a second generation of international studies, a different model, that would allow us to move forward with our work in spite of anything like a pandemic,” says Fuller.

The professors also hope to write a paper on their experience of running this virtual course, have it peer-reviewed and ultimately published in an academic journal.

Whether they are able to teach the course again or not, Fuller hopes their effort has inspired colleagues to expand beyond the limitations of the normal classroom
environment and collaborate on a global scale. — Kelsey Grey

The above image is detail of page from a facsimile of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, the first printed version of the Latin Vulgate.

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