Course Review - ChinaX [Degree of Freedom]

January 13, 2014

Excerpt from Course Review - ChinaX

If you listen to his 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 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... 

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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