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Tuesday, January 14, 2014



China's past, present, and future: through history and geography, economy and ecology, philosophies and politics, literature and art.

About this Course

Modern China presents a dual image: a society transforming itself through economic development and infrastructure investment that aspires to global leadership; and the world's largest and oldest bureaucratic state, with multiple traditions in its cultural, economic, and political life. The modern society and state that is emerging in China will bear the indelible imprint of China's historical experience, of its patterns of philosophy and religion, and of its social and political thought and practice. Understanding China in the 21st century is inseparable from understanding China’s history as a great world civilization.


If you listen to this interview with Peter Bol, one of the professors behind Harvard’s China history MOOC, you’ll understand why ChinaX is different from any other massive online course that came before.
For starters, during a period when MOOC makers are deciding whether their courses should match the 12-16 weeks of a full semester, or focus or accelerate content delivery to fit a shorter (frequently 6-8 week) timeframe, ChinaX pulls in the opposite direction as a course broken into a series of modules that will be released over fifteen months (starting last October and continuing through January 2015).

This kind of timeline makes sense once you realize the goal of the course was to fit everything a student would get out of a full semester course into a MOOC that only demands a few hours of student commitment per week (vs. the 10-12 hours a full-time student might put into such a course on a weekly basis).  A shorter weekly demand on time makes sense for the bulk of MOOC students who have to juggle studying with other life responsibilities.  And when the math resulting from such a decision said the course would have to go on for more than a year (a calculation that would probably cause other MOOC makers to consider cutting content or asking more hours per week from students), the folks behind ChinaX team simply decided fifteen months it would be.

That’s not the only thing that sets ChinaX apart from other MOOC projects.  For Professor Bol (who also serves as Harvard's Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, which gives him responsibility over HarvardX), Professor Bill Kirby and the rest of the team behind the course want to use this project as a platform to try out as many creative teaching techniques as they can.  This might be why every innovation in online lectures I’ve seen over the last year (talking heads replaced by conversations between colleagues, integrated classroom lectures, on-location shots, office hours and interviews with visiting experts) make an appearance in ChinaX.  (In that podcast interview, Professor Bol noted that the vast majority of Harvard professors involved with China studies will be contributing to the class before it ends next year.)

Beyond lectures, the course has already introduced digital mapping and 3-D imaging into early classes and promises more as the course continues.  In addition to exposing students to new tools for understanding history (such as GPS), people studying far from the halls of Harvard will be able to look at important artifacts from the university’s museums and vaults in ways museum visitors cannot (by rotating three-dimensional digital images to look at an object form all sides, for example).

In short, this is not a course for someone most comfortable with a talking head or PowerPoint voiceover as their preferred learning mode, nor is it a class where one can expect “more of the same” from week to week.  But given that MOOCs are simultaneously delivering learning and pushing the envelope of educational experimentation, living with unpredictability is a small price to pay for some of the innovations put into practice in courses such as ChinaX.

Even with all these bells and whistles, ChinaX is still at its heart a chronological survey course.  Module 1, which covered pre-history through the Warring States period, introduced us to the Zhou dynasty as well as great thinkers such as Confucius , Sun Tzu, and other important philosophers who tried to devise cosmic, moral and political systems that could put right a world that seemed to be caught in an endless cycle of warfare.

Module 2, which started after the first of the year, takes a look at the Qin Dynasty which managed to unite (i.e., conquer) the various states that previously fell into the “warring” category, but only at the cost of suppressing many of the schools of thought that came before (including Confucianism).  This week’s lesson spends a large chunk of time on Cosmic Resonance Theory, an orthodoxy that took hold during the period of Qin that sees all simultaneous actions as potentially connected (which changes Heaven from a place that gives a mandate to a particular ruler into the source of order which binds all people and things together).

As a recently “graduated” philosophy major, I am finding discussions of intellectual history particularly fascinating, given the many parallels (and differences) between how ancient Chinese and Greek thinkers approached the same conundrums (such as figuring out  how the universe worked, what was the essence of personal morality, and how to create a just political order).

The first module of ChinaX included some optional video segments which consisted of full-length lectures by Professor Michael Puett talking about philosophers like Confucius, Zhuangzi and Loazi which contrasted sharply with the shorter (2-5 minutes) segments that make up the bulk of ChinaX videos.  And while I know “Big Data” tells us that we online students have short attention spans, I hope the course either continues providing optional “deep dives” into specific subjects (above and beyond shorter video segments and readings), or develops a comfort level with slightly longer required lecture segments that would give the professors more breathing room to cover important historic events, figures or intellectual breakthroughs.

Usually, I don’t review a course until it has completed, and with eight modules to go in ChinaX I’m only in a position to talk about a small subset of a course that, by design, is a moving target.  But if, as I’ve suggested previously, experimentation is at the heart of the MOOC project, then ChinaX should be seen as not just a course but as a prototype for what MOOCs can evolve towards if experiments in massive open learning are allowed to continue.

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