I’ve always wanted to go to Harvard.  And MIT.  And Berkeley.  And possibly Cornell.  But I never in my wildest, giddiest, germiest dreams imagined I could go to all four of them.   I’m an education junkie, and I admit I have an addiction to learning.  I went to college and graduate school.  And I stayed on to teach.  And kept teaching.  I was a Fulbright scholar.  I taught more.  And while I love teaching, what I really love is learning.  Nothing excites me like a new idea, richly presented and exploding with destiny.   So, when I discovered that Harvard was offering a free online course on China I knew I wanted to be a part of that experience.  ChinaX is taught by Harvard professors Peter Bol and William Kirby, with significant contributions by Professor Michael Puett, as well as a very talented staff of graduate students.


Don’t get me wrong– you don’t need an extensive educational background to participate in ChinaX, or any of the edx classes.   The classes are designed to be fun, accessible, yet rigorous enough to demand your focused attention and sincere effort.  And like any part of your education, you can get out of it what you put in to it.  But unlike any other education, you and 10,000 classmates worldwide can enjoy the very best that online education has to offer from the best teachers at the best institutions in a community that is dedicated to learning for the love of learning.  It’s inspiring.

Each week there are short video lectures and activities.  The resources of Harvard are brought into play through museum exhibits, detailed maps, and artifacts that would be unavailable in other formats.  Graduate students offer their expertise as well as ask questions of the instructors that many students may have as well.  There is an online discussion, and while it is admittedly a bit unwieldy, the ChinaX team has found playful yet effective ways to manage their thousands of students.  Sometimes groups are divided by Chinese zodiac, sometimes by letter of last name, but always there is a vibrant group of people from every conceivable walk of life and country of origin.  Sharing thoughts, questions, insights and ideas as we journey together through China’s history.

Professor Bol brings warmth and charm to the students through not only his “mini lectures” but also the office hours he holds weekly.  While it is impractical to answer all students’ questions, he answers many representative ones.   The interaction between Bol and Kirby is dynamic and instructive.  They don’t always agree and that productive tension forces students to engage the material at an authentic level.  Readings are provided online, at no cost to the student, and are engaging and manageable.

High school and college students could certainly manage this class, and edX has some strategies if you want to do so for credit.  You can also elect to take the class through Harvard Extension for credit for a fee.  Both of those options would be well worth the time and effort, but you get the same class for free if you choose to audit or take for an honors certificate.  The short assessments are auto-graded and participation in discussion is on the honor system.  A score of 75% or better in the course earns a certificate.

ChinaX is different from many other edX courses in that it is organized in nine “mini-courses.”  Students can participate in some or all.  The entire curriculum looks to be about 15 months as opposed to most courses which are completed in two.  And I will confide in you that less than three months into it I am already worried how I am going to get my ChinaX fix when it is over.  I love sitting down at my desk with a cup of coffee, my pug, Molly (who I am teaching Chinese– so far I can tell her not to eat newspapers and read apples), and listening to Peter Bol talk about the history, philosophy, and culture of China.  Professor Bol, I very much hope to sit down with you one day and talk about Lao Tzu.  I believe there is more there than you see.  But I am here to tell you that you are a rock star.  You are touching many people’s lives and reminding them that there are no limits to learning.  And there are no boundaries to learning communities. And you are bringing out the best in what technology can do for learning.

I love ChinaX.   Love it.

R. Shannon Duval is a Ph.D in philosophy, Fulbright Scholar, second degree black belt in TaeKwonDo, and a national champion in kali arnis.  Known as "The Wonder Ninja" for her dual careers in philosophy and martial arts, Germ's Educational Director (and Consulting Editor of Germ U) has traveled to lands far and near, and has discovered that while the pen is mightier than the sword in all of them, swords are still an awful lot of fun.  She loves playing hide and seek in things that are bigger on the inside than the outside, simultaneously wielding distinctions and edged weapons, and pondering the original nature of snowmen. Have a great idea for using Germ in the classroom? Contact her at


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