The Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum
Photo courtesy of DISC
The Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum
By Mekarem Eljamal
In 2013, Professor Pauline Jones (University of Michigan) and colleagues at several other Big Ten Academic Alliance universities came together to establish the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum (DISC) with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“It was the perfect storm,” Jones said. “Mellon wanted to use course-sharing methods and there was a need for Islam to be understood beyond just a religion.”
By building off of previous distance education strategies used for less commonly taught language education, participating schools have been able to expand their course offerings to highlight the breadth and depth of Islamic studies. One school physically hosts the class and, using video conferencing technology, the course is simultaneously brought into classrooms on other campuses.
The depth of an institution’s faculty base is often a limiting factor in the variety of Islamic studies courses available to students.
“It is a challenge to offer the scope of courses for students to be exposed to the multifaceted nature of Islamic studies,” Jones said. “How can one campus capture all the dimensions of Islamic studies?”
Through the course-sharing element of DISC, faculty strengths at the many participating universities can be leveraged across campuses. Professor Jonathan Brockopp at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) usually is the instructor for an introduction to Islam course; however, in Fall 2017, Penn State received Professor Mohammad Khalil’s (Michigan State University) "Introduction to Islam" course, freeing Brockopp to offer a different course on Islam for his local students.
For Professor Abla Hasan (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), that flexibility is one of the great benefits of DISC. “It allows us as faculty members and institutions to expand our capacity as educators,” she said.
With DISC, Hasan was able to develop and hone additional skills necessary for course-sharing. “Teaching distanced is a completely different experience,” Hasan said. “But it is incredibly rewarding, and far better than online courses that are too artificial. The DISC structure allows for more engagement with students; you just have to be prepared early and flexible in the moment.”
The importance of preparation is key for the faculty hosting a course. “The first time teaching is daunting,” Brockopp said. “You have to think creatively about using the technology; it isn’t an add-on, rather it needs to be integrated into your teaching so that the distance campus isn’t a passive recipient of the knowledge.”
Khalil echoes Brockopp’s sentiments about ensuring that the receiving campus is engaged in the classroom. “I try to really get to know the distanced students,” he said. The connection, with him as the instructor and with the other students, enriches the experience on all sides.
Students have the opportunity to engage with each other in ways that is not possible with traditional class structures. During football season this past fall, the cross-campus interaction proved to be quite memorable.
Katie Higgs, a current intern with DISC at Michigan State University (MSU), was also a student in Khalil’s Introduction to Islam course that was shared to Penn State. “In the class before the Penn State-MSU game, the Penn students decorated their classroom to support their team and bring a football rivalry into the classroom,” she said. “Then the next week after MSU won the game, we got Sparty, the MSU mascot, to come into our classroom. It was a ton of fun.”
The internship program that Higgs participates in is another element of DISC that promotes community and assists students in obtaining transferable skills. Ariel Mallett, the program coordinator for DISC, manages the internship program, putting together networking and professional development opportunities for the students.
Over the past five years, DISC has expanded the audience for Islamic studies courses across the Big Ten and its internship positions to the participating campuses beyond UM. Students have had the chance to connect with new peers and faculty could learn new teaching strategies from their counterparts on other campuses. Through DISC’s success, it is clear that the opportunities for spreading knowledge on Islam are expansive if people take the time to be innovative and utilize the resources available.