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.

| March/April 2013

  • 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

  • Photo of Shelly Kagan

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.

Jd Meyer
3/25/2013 2:40:56 PM

Great to hear that Chinese students have an interest in philosophy. Read the account of my talk, "The New Confucians"

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