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American Classes Have Many Online Chinese Fans

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Watching online open classes of US top universities has become indispensable for many young Chinese who find it a shortcut to make their life more meaningful, in addition to learning knowledge and language.

Guo Lei, a native of Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong province, has become addicted to various open courses after she watched the online video of "Justice: What's the right thing to do."

The video clip was taken during an open class taught by Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard University.

Sandel set up a scenario in which a high-speed train with a technical problem is running towards five people who are working on the current track, while there is only one worker on the adjacent track. He inspired students to discuss what the driver should do -- to change the direction for five lives -- which apparently will kill the other -- or to do nothing and allow five people to die.

Guo said she was immediately attracted by the topic and the discussion of the Harvard students about morality and justice.

She even introduced the case to her colleagues for discussion, since Sandel did not give an answer, unlike most Chinese teachers she knew before.

Guo and her colleagues found more interesting curriculums online, such as lectures about death given by Shelly Kargan, the jeans and sneakers-clad professor at Yale University who sat cross-legged on his desk during the class.

The inspiring and lively teaching style of American professors refreshed Guo's impression about the traditional score-oriented Chinese educational system and prompted more Chinese to frequently search and watch open class resources of American top colleges, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California Berkeley.

On China's social networking websites, such as, and, netizens have spontaneously formed many study groups to share video resources and exchange opinions.

About 700 sina micro bloggers have posted different links to the videos. The Chinese portal has launched a special channel for open programs, providing more than 1,200 class hours of free videos.

Many Chinese have adjusted their daily timetable and some office workers have quit taking naps so they might watch videos at noon. Others download free online resources to their cell phones to watch while taking buses or just watching whenever and wherever possible.

On the popular portal, a netizen named "an independent cat" called upon others to get up an hour earlier in the morning to watch the videos before leaving for work, which has mobilized a great number of followers.

Online open classes became popular after MIT published the first OpenCourseWare site in 2002, containing 50 courses. By 2010, MIT had posted some 2,000 courses, attracting 100 million visits.

Many other elite universities quickly joined MIT to produce and share classes online, known as the Open Educational Resources (OER) campaign that provides teaching and learning materials without charge.

Continuous funding from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and many other investors supported the program, as the cost of producing video clips for just one class may reach more than $30,000 at Yale University.

Also, volunteers have added English or Chinese subtitles onto the videos to help more Chinese enjoy the videos without language difficulties.

Zhang Yinan, a sophomore at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade, is one of the 150 members of a translation team -- most of them are college students and white collar workers.

"The translation, proofreading and post-production process are time consuming. A lecture of 45 to 70 minutes in length usually takes more than 10 volunteers about 70 hours to finish," said Zhang.

"The prevalence of American open classes reflects the spirit of sharing," said Yu Xinke, Vice chancellor with the Continuous Education School of South China University of Technology.

Further, the willingness of American scholars and institutes to share their academic and educational achievements, and Chinese volunteers' efforts in promoting equitable opportunities for learning, is invaluable and should be encouraged, Yu said.

"The open class of American colleges set up a good example of how to change and improve our teaching methods," said Wang Zhuli, Vice director of the Modern Education Technology Research Center of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangdong.

American professors inspire students to think about profound issues such as justice, morality, death, love and happiness and guide them to open discussions, which differs from some rigid teaching styles in China that always follows textbook, he said.

He also suggested that lectures by some popular Chinese speakers and professors be translated into foreign languages and posted online to help foreign audiences understand Chinese culture.

(China Daily January 19, 2011)

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