Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who looks somewhat nerdy, has been affectionately called “Professor Desk” by his mainland fans ever since they saw him in a videotaped lecture sitting cross-legged on a lecture desk, talking about death.
That is a subject few professors on the mainland lecture about, and the video has drawn hundreds of thousands of viewers.
One of Kagan’s fans is Yan Lu , a journalist from Liuyang, Hunan , who said the death lecture caught her interest because Chinese people hardly discuss the subject in public, and, as a reporter, she wanted to make sense of how people commit suicide.
But she said that a video lecture course on positive psychology by Dr Tal Ben-Shahar of Harvard University had impressed her most, as it helped her “see life as not one dichotomy of being happy or being unhappy, but being happier”.
Yan, who has set up an online study group via the mainland instant message service QQ to share her studies with up to 200 enthusiasts, said that what struck her most in watching the open course videos was the way the professors interacted with the students. “Most of the time, you don’t feel they are teachers, but someone who wants to share something with you and someone who is more responsive to questions,” she said. “Teachers here don’t do that, because they are too serious and so eager to push their points of view.”
Open courses from Western universities have become wildly popular since last year, as a contrast with what some analysts see as a decline in the teaching quality of Chinese universities. They criticise mainland professors for putting ideological teaching and rote memorisation ahead of teaching independent thinking.
Besides Kagan’s and Ben-Shahar’s lectures, the open course on justice by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel is a favourite among Chinese viewers, most of whom are professionals and students.
Ben-Shahar’s positive psychology course, which was translated as “happiness” in Chinese, garnered 2.7 million viewers by the end of April since it was uploaded to the NetEase website in November, according to Jerry Zhang, deputy chief editor of NetEase, which oversees an open course project for NetEase.
One viewer left a comment after seeing Sandel’s justice course saying that regardless of any political and ideological bias some of the courses could harbour, people had to admit that such courses were the best examples of teachers “passing on moral norms, teaching know-how and answering queries”.
“They lead us to think about such core issues as justice, life and happiness,” the post said.
That goes to the heart of the issue, according to Professor Zhu Qingshi , an outspoken educator and founding president of the South University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen. In an earlier interview, Zhu said the growing popularity of open courses from world-renowned universities would certainly provoke some soul-searching among mainland universities.
He said that the world’s top universities started introducing the open-course initiative in the 1980s because they were confident of the material they could offer and they wanted public feedback to help boost the quality of their teaching.
Not many mainland universities would dare to introduce similar initiatives, because they did not have a regime for course quality control in place, he said.
“If they did, people could know for sure how lousy the schools are. They still teach [rubbish],” he said.
Zhang Yangting , a seawall engineer from Hangzhou , Zhejiang , who has followed Ben-Shahar’s entire course on positive psychology, said he was impressed when Yale University Professor Craig Wright, in one lecture of in his “listening to music” course, pressed the stop button one-third through a class to observe copyright.
“Our professors couldn’t care less,” said Zhang, who spent US$6 to buy an internet domain name, Kaifangke.com, which is the literal translation of “open courses”, for a free bulletin-board service to share his study tips with like-minded peers.
They have designed a virtual classroom setting, with roll calls and mini tests and even homework to encourage one another.
Since the lectures are in English, Chinese subtitles are necessary, and there are groups who do that free of charge.
Open courses began to reach a wider audience on the mainland after a unit of YYeTs, one of the four biggest volunteer television drama and film transcription teams on the mainland, created subtitles for Sandel’s justice lecture, to the delight of thousands of Chinese students and professionals, according to Liang Liang , who leads YYeTs.
Liang said doing the subtitles for the open courses was initially meant to fill the hiatus between two United States television seasons last year.
It has become a fixture of their endeavours ever since.
He said his team of about 200 volunteers had completed translating and subtitling 300 lectures, and the four transcription teams had finished production of 600 lectures.
The courses on justice and death and another on game theory are among the most popular.
The open-courses phenomenon began to attract attention from a wider community, and NetEase, one of three commercially run internet portals on the mainland, jumped in for its piece of open-course fever in November after a six-month preparation, according to Jerry Zhang, the NetEase editor.
He said the open-course transcription initiative at NetEase was non-profit, as NetEase founder Ding Lei has insisted, because he simply wants to help remove the language barrier between the Chinese audience and the premium courses from renowned universities.
NetEase signed an agreement in January with Open Courseware Consortium or OCWC, which bands together more than 200 universities and associated organisations including Harvard, Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, promoting open courses. Zhang said that through its co-operation with OCWC, they had secured access to more 14,000 lectures and transcribed about 800 of them.
He said they had made all 10,000 courses available online and allowed viewers to vote and give priority of transcription to those receiving most votes, and they had also introduced a Wikipedia-inspired correction mechanism for viewers.
Unlike the viewership pattern for American television dramas dubbed into Chinese, audience allegiance for the open courses holds steady.
Astrophysics by Yale Professor Charles Bailyn, a subject with limited appeal, had garnered nearly 10,000 viewers, and almost all of them stayed through to the latest unit in the course, Zhang said.
He admitted applying a certain degree of censorship to uphold “political, moral and cultural correctness” and avoid “radical views”, but it was not a big issue for NetEase, Zhang said, because most of the subjects OCWC had provided were in line with universal values anyway.
Zhang said he was personally enlightened when he first came across Sandel’s justice lecture – a critical take on the issues of justice, equality and basic human rights as well as some of the moral issues they involve. “It’s nothing like what we’ve been taught from our childhood, nor is it like the way we’re taught to make sense of the world,” he said.
“I’m telling myself how problematic and how incomplete what we’ve been taught at school has been.”
By Raymond Li with South China Morning Post