Islam is much more than a religion. It's also a civilization, a variety of cultural traditions and a basis for political ideologies. Islam's complexity makes it nearly impossible for one university to offer enough courses to cover it all.
To fill the gaps, the University of Michigan is joining other Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago in establishing a distance-learning program that allows students to take courses about Islam not offered at their own institutions. The new program – the Islamic Studies Virtual Curriculum – is funded with a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Classes begin in the fall of 2015 and will involve sophisticated video equipment allowing students to be active participants in courses at the universities in the group, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.
"Students want to learn about Islam, but they don't always have the opportunity," said Pauline Jones Luong, director of U-M's Islamic Studies Program. "There is a lot of misinformation about Islam and Muslims around the world. There is a real need for students to understand the diversity and expansiveness of the religion itself."
The program will also involve teaching assistants, or graduate-student instructors, based at the students' own universities. They will help grade papers, give exams, answer questions and staff office hours for the professor.
"It will be active learning," Luong said. "The students just won't be listening to a lecture and going back to their dormitory and having no one to talk to. They're going to have an actual instructor at the graduate-student level to help them with the course material."
Also key to the program is that it will offer a well-structured curriculum with enough classes for students to do a minor – and possibly even a major – in Islamic studies, Jones Luong said. For many students, this would be impossible to do because their universities don't have enough courses or can't offer them consistently.
"Demystifying Islam is really important," Luong said. "At the same time it's important to give students a real sense of how diverse Islam is, both as a religion and culture as it is practiced on the ground."