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Metro Beijing

An Ivy League education online

Updated: 2010-07-20 07:48
By Eric Jou and Wang Wei ( China Daily)

An Ivy League education online

Ever dreamed of attending a top-notch university such as Harvard, Yale or MIT? Well now is your chance to sit in on lectures from some of the most esteemed universities in the world, as they start offering free online access.

Many prestigious Western universities have been offering free lectures for the masses through the Internet since 2002 as part of the Open Courseware initiative funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. These videos include lectures from renowned US institutions such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University.

"I've watched the Harvard videos," said Katharine Zhan, 22, a recent college graduate and professional Chinese-to-English translator. "Harvard is so famous and the lessons are so popular online."

"There's something different about the way the classes are held, the content and the way classes are held is different from our own," said Zhan.

Students and recent graduates alike are fond of the courses, which are completely available online through video-sharing websites such as and, with Chinese subtitles. The subtitles, provided by a user translations group, are not only accurate but greatly welcomed.

"Having subtitles made a lot of the more abstract ideas easier to understand," said Fei Yingyi, 24, a graduate student studying Chinese and English at Fudan University in Shanghai. "I really enjoyed watching the philosophy lectures. They were so different from the ones we take in China."

The lectures, while informative, can only go so far. They offer no chance for students to gain further clarification and participate in class in the way Western education is structured and there is no way to test the knowledge gained from the lectures.

An Ivy League education online

Stuart Leitch, 22, an American student who has been studying Chinese in Shanghai for two years, has watched the Oxford and Yale lectures and said he sees immediately the difference in the way an Ivy League course is structured compared with his experiences in China.

"These classes provoke free thinking," Leitch said. "They're designed to stimulate, rather than for students to blindly follow."

"My classes in Chinese are different than those in the lectures and back home. The students just copy down what's on the board, and then go over the textbook. It's different from how classes were held in the University of Washington," said Leitch.

"Here, it's all about the course material, but back home it's about what you can make with the course material."

The free online videos not only provide the chance for Chinese students to have a glimpse of Western education, but also allow academics to see the shortcomings of their own instruction.

Sun Yunxiao, deputy director of the China Youth and Children Research Center believes that the way Harvard and other open courses are held is fascinating, and that Chinese professors can use the courses as a reference point when they teach their own classes.

He is particularly fond of the way Professor Michael Sandel begins his lecture "the moral side of murder".

It starts with the question: If you are a driver of a trolley car and five people are working on the track in front of the car, then the brakes suddenly stop working, will you keep driving or switch to the other track on which it has only one person working?

"This kind of cornered and challenging question can immediately trigger students to think. The class environment becomes more interactive," he said.

"However, many Chinese professors normally start class with theories and narrations, in which students may lose interest soon," he added.

Sun also applauded the inventive ways of sharing education resources.

"Many Chinese students may never get a chance to study in a university in the US, but the open courses clips give them a platform to share their US counterparts' wisdom," he said.

He suggests prestigious Chinese universities start similar practices to let people who don't study there enjoy the fruit of China's education resources.