Open Courses From America Find Ea­ger Au­di­ences in Chi­na

Open Yale Courses

Shelly Kagan, a philosopher at Yale U. who teaches a popular course on death, says he enjoys the e-mails he receives from around the world about his online lectures.
October 01, 2012
Open Courses From America Find Ea­ger Au­di­ences in Chi­na

Open Yale Courses

Shelly Kagan, a philosopher at Yale U. who teaches a popular course on death, says he enjoys the e-mails he receives from around the world about his online lectures.

Mo Li, a Chinese post­doctoral fellow at the University of Mich­i­gan at Ann Arbor, wrote to a Yale University philosophy professor last year with a strange re­quest. Mr. Li had never met the professor, Shelly Kagan, nor had he ever at­tend­ed Yale.

But while working on a doctorate in developmental biology at the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, in Bei­jing, Mr. Li and his girlfriend had watched free online lec­tures of Mr. Ka­gan's philosophy course "Death" in the summer of 2010. They liked the course—and the professor—so much that when the two decided to marry, Mr. Li asked Mr. Ka­gan to surprise his future wife with "a sen­tence or two of con­grat­u­la­tions on our mar­riage." Mr. Ka­gan did, and Mr. Li and his wife were de­light­ed to hear from the pro­fes­sor whose open courses have made him a star in a coun­try he has nev­er vis­it­ed.

As more and more courses are offered free to anyone with an Internet connection, some American professors have developed a huge following abroad, particularly in China. Another such scholar is Mi­chael J. San­del, a Harvard University professor whose highly popular po­lit­i­cal-phi­los­o­phy course "Justice" was the first Harvard course to be offered free online.

He and Mr. Kagan are among the most rec­og­niz­able Amer­i­can pro­fes­sors in China, says Cici Yue, a grad­u­at­e of Nan­kai University, in Tian­jin, and the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences. The courses are wide­ly ac­ces­si­ble there, es­pe­cial­ly af­ter be­ing sub­ti­tled in Man­da­rin by a group of stu­dent vol­un­teers.

Five years af­ter "Death" was first made avail­a­ble on­line, Mr. Ka­gan still re­ceives e-mails from peo­ple around the world who watched the course and want to engage him in debate. "The num­ber of e-mails has nev­er a­bat­ed," he says. "If any­thing, it's just got­ten larg­er and larg­er, in a way that was a de­light­ful sur­prise for me."

The most recent Google Analytics numbers, from July 2009 to January of this year, show that Mr. Kagan's videos on the Open Yale Courses Web site were receiving 3,000 hits per week from China, says Diana Kleiner, director of Open Yale Courses. The actual number of viewers is probably much higher: Since the videos are licensed under Creative Commons, they are also available through third-party sites, such as Youku and Tudou, used by many Chinese students to gain access to the videos. Yale cannot track viewership from those sources. Mr. Kagan's course has re­ceived cov­er­age from out­lets such as Xin­hua, China's official news agency; Chi­na Daily; and Chi­na National Radio. Once, one of Mr. Kagan's colleagues, while in Chi­na, even saw a photo of Mr. Ka­gan in the Eng­lish ver­sion of a na­tion­al news­pa­per.

As for Mr. San­del, he was named the most influential foreign figure of the year by China Newsweek, a state-run magazine, last year and commanded huge audiences at lectures he gave during a recent trip to China. Students staked out the lec­ture hall hours in ad­vance, hop­ing to get a chance to hear him speak. In fact, when Mr. San­del gives lec­tures based on the course, he needs to change the ex­am­ples he uses be­cause Chi­nese stu­dents are al­ready so fa­mil­iar with the orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­al.

One explanation for the huge following may be that these courses pro­vide a glimpse into a very dif­fer­ent educational system, says Jing Lei, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion at Syr­a­cuse University. The Ivy League brand is also a big draw, and the courses help people im­prove their Eng­lish.

But there's another important reason. Mr. San­del and Mr. Ka­gan both be­lieve that their pop­u­lar­i­ty also stems from the big-pic­ture ques­tions that "Death" and "Justice" dis­cuss. In Chi­na, where the edu­ca­tion­al fo­cus is large­ly on sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing, attention to such ques­tions has cap­ti­vat­ed stu­dents.

"I think there is a great hun­ger, es­pe­cial­ly a­mong stu­dents around the world, to en­gage with big philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that mat­ter to their lives," says Mr. San­del.

Mr. Li, the post­doctoral fellow at Mich­i­gan, says Mr. Ka­gan's course "opened up new gates for me to un­der­stand our lives and deaths."

"My stud­ies al­ways fo­cused on bi­ol­o­gy, so of phi­los­o­phy I know lit­tle," he says. "I think it's some­thing I can't learn from a lab, from an ex­peri­ment."

He's not alone. Ms. Lei of Syracuse thinks that such open, online lib­er­al-arts courses are shaping a new gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese stu­dents who are seeking intellectual in­ter­ac­tion and want to ask ques­tions. "Crit­i­cal think­ing is very im­por­tant to them," she says. "The tra­di­tion­al way of teach­ing in the class­room is al­ready out­dat­ed."

Con­sid­er the case of Ms. Yue, the graduate of Nan­kai and the Academy of Sciences. Although it's been several years since she first watched Mr. San­del's vid­eos, she still re­mem­bers that he begins the first lec­ture by pre­sent­ing a mor­al di­lem­ma and ask­ing stu­dents for so­lu­tions. "When I lis­tened to the lec­ture, I had to think a­bout it, I had to an­a­lyze the sit­u­a­tion and I had to give dif­fer­ent prop­o­si­tions," she says. "In Chi­na, we tend to have stand­ard an­swers in ev­ery class."

The difference between Chinese and Amer­i­can courses is ap­par­ent even in classes that cov­er the same ma­te­ri­al, says Ryan Sun, a Chinese student who graduated from North­east Ag­ri­cul­tur­al University and Shang­hai Jiao Tong University. "Chi­nese courses on eco­nom­ics pro­vide the­o­ries and knowl­edge, and we just ac­cept this in­for­ma­tion," he says, "but in some Amer­i­can busi­ness and his­tory courses I watched, the pro­fes­sor will ask so many ques­tions.

"This doesn't hap­pen in Chi­na."

The enormous pop­u­lar­i­ty of Amer­i­can open course­ware is starting to influence Chinese higher education, says Ms. Lei. Although Mr. Sandel's and Mr. Kagan's courses appear to be the runaway favorites, Chinese students also follow free online courses offered by American universities in subjects like economics, chemistry, and engineering, say directors of several open-courseware programs.

On­line and traditional courses in China are pro­fes­sor-cen­tered rather than stu­dent-cen­tered, and con­sid­ered "bor­ing" by Chi­nese stu­dents like Ms. Yue, who en­joyed Mr. San­del's course in large part be­cause of his en­gag­ing lec­tur­ing style. Many Chinese students who contact Mr. Ka­gan com­ment on his informal teach­ing style, the professor says. In the vid­eos he sits on his desk, lec­tures with­out notes, and asks stu­dents to call him by his first name. "I cer­tain­ly have got­ten a num­ber of e-mails from peo­ple in Chi­na say­ing, 'I've nev­er seen any­one like you be­fore in my life, cer­tain­ly not among my pro­fes­sors,'" Mr. Ka­gan says.

Now that open course­ware has ex­posed Chi­nese stu­dents to dif­fer­ent courses and lec­tur­ing styles, pres­sure is mounting on Chinese educators to make their own on­line courses, which are becoming increasingly widespread and more in­ter­est­ing, says Ms. Lei. Tsin­ghua University, one of China's most prestigious, has even started offering a version of Mr. San­del's course. (He helped consult on it.) But Yong Zhao, as­so­ciate dean for glob­al education at the University of Or­e­gon's College of Education, notes that broad adop­tion of cur­ric­u­la focused on critical thinking would be dif­fi­cult be­cause the Chinese gov­ern­ment still wants to con­trol course con­tent.

Mr. San­del, meanwhile, hopes to extend the pop­u­lar­i­ty of "Justice" by enabling stu­dents in dif­fer­ent coun­tries to participate in his regular class lectures through vid­eo-con­fer­ence technology.

"If we can cre­ate a dialogue, en­gag­ing with stu­dents around the world who may bring their own ideas and per­spec­tives to these ques­tions," he says, "I think we have a lot to learn."