China Audits American Online College Course

While China pushes its youth toward science and engineering, online college courses from the U.S. expose Chinese students to larger questions of philosophy and ethics.

Photo of Shelly Kagan

Sandel and 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.

Photo Courtesy Shelly Kagan

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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. 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, Li and his girlfriend had watched free online college course lectures of 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, Li asked Kagan to surprise his future wife with “a sentence or two of congratulations on our marriage.” Kagan did, and 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 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, Kagan still receives emails from people around the world who watched the course and want to engage him in debate. “The number of emails 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 2012, show that 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. Kagan’s course has also received coverage from outlets such as Xinhua, China’s official news agency; China Daily; and China National Radio.

As for Sandel, he was named the most influential foreign figure of the year by China Newsweek, a state-run magazine, in 2011, 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 Sandel gives lectures based on the online college 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. San­del and 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,” says San­del.

Li, the post­doctoral fellow at Mich­i­gan, says 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. Jing 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 Cici Yue, the graduate of Nan­kai and the Academy of Sciences. Although it’s been several years since she first watched 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.”

On­line and traditional courses in China are pro­fes­sor-cen­tered rather than stu­dent-cen­tered, and con­sid­ered “bor­ing” by Chi­nese stu­dents like Yue, who en­joyed San­del’s course in large part because of his en­gag­ing lec­tur­ing style. Many Chinese students who contact Ka­gan com­ment on his informal teach­ing style, the professor 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 Lei. Tsin­ghua University, one of China’s most prestigious, has even started offering a version of San­del’s online college course. 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.

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.”

Angela Chen is a journalist who writes and edits for a variety of outlets including Guernica Magazine, The Morning News, The New Inquiry and Dart Society. Excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 1, 2012), the No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators.