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'Digital Confucius' introduces Chinese students to liberal arts at Yale and beyond

Hundreds of thousands of young Chinese are joining a new craze: auditing American university courses available online. Of most interest: topics like happiness and justice.

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When Prof. Shelly Kagan sat cross-legged on his desk in front of a class of Yale University students in the spring of 2007, introducing his course “Philosophy 176 – Death,” he could hardly have expected that he would one day gather an enormous and avid fan base in China.

But that is precisely what has happened. Professor Kagan is at the forefront of a new craze sweeping educated young Chinese: auditing the courses that Yale and other top universities around the world now post on their websites.

Several hundred thousand Chinese have begun following Kagan’s sometimes abstruse classes since Netease, one of China’s largest Web portals, posted them last October says Zhang Rui, deputy chief editor of the site.

But the Yale philosopher is not alone in drawing such virtual mega-crowds to his video-recorded lectures.

“We want to be like a digital Confucius, spreading knowledge” says Mr. Zhang, whose site has posted scores of courses – under Creative Commons licenses – given at Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and other leading seats of learning.

Teaming up for maximum benefit

The courses have spawned online study groups, dedicated to particular courses.

“It is hard for people to keep at it alone” says Zhao Xing, a young public relations executive who established the “Get Up Early in the Morning and Take an Online Course Each Day” group on Douban, a website popular with young intellectuals.

“When a lot of us do it together, we feel the strength of a team” Ms. Zhao says. “The ones who understand help the ones who don’t.” Zhao set her group up in early November and within a month it had drawn 2,000 members, the most that Douban allows in a group.

Something for the heart, not just the mind

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