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.