MOOCs Meet the Zombie Apocalypse

How do you get thousands of people excited about an online course in math, physics, and public health that will not earn them formal credit or any kind of certificate?

First, make it a MOOC.

Second, make the central text a popular TV show.

Third, add zombies.

The University of California at Irvine and Instructure, an education-technology company, are hoping that recipe will produce a successful MOOC. They have collaborated with AMC Networks to offer a massive open online course that uses The Walking Dead, a popular AMC show, as a jumping-off point for Irvine instructors to talk about various topics in mathematics, physics, and public health. Registration opened on Wednesday.

For example, Sarah Eichhorn, a math lecturer at Irvine, plans to use scenarios from the show to talk about how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use mathematical modeling to predict and contain the spread of infectious diseases through populations. Michael Dennin, a professor of physics and astronomy, will teach a unit on how surviving human beings might continue to produce and harness power amid the infrastructure damage wrought by a zombie apocalypse.

Professors often use pop-culture reference points as hooks for denser academic discussions. Among serial TV dramas, The Wire, an HBO show that explored the complex dynamics of Baltimore’s civic and criminal institutions, has been a particular favorite among college professors looking to capture their students’ attention.

Zombies, too, have been a popular trope for academics trying to inject life into various topics—scholarly publishing, academic culture, etc.—by invoking the undead.

Gary Matkin, dean of distance learning and continuing education at Irvine’s extension division, said he hoped the MOOC format would enable his colleagues to attract attention to their disciplines on an even grander scale. “Our humanities faculty, in their classrooms, frequently use pop culture as a way to look at various projects,” said Mr. Matkin, “but this is different because of its highly public nature and also the scope and reach we might achieve with this.”

The Walking Dead, set in the American South in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, is scheduled to begin airing its fourth season in October. “We joked about maybe doing Downton Abbey,” said Brian Whitmer, a co-founder of Instructure. But “a lot of people inside the company said, ‘That’s boring; let’s do zombies.’”

Apart from their scale, one of the distinguishing characteristics of MOOCs has been that they have given students the opportunity to submit work and receive grades. The Walking Dead course will not be like that, said Melissa Loble, associate dean of distance learning at UC-Irvine Extension. There will be quizzes, but only for purposes of “self-assessment,” she said. There will be no grades, and students who complete the course will not receive a certificate.

“In a way, I feel that the MOOC conversation has been hijacked by the fact that they look like academic courses and people are trying to give credit for them,” said Mr. Matkin. That is all well and good, he said, but reducing the cost of credit-bearing courses is not the only way colleges can use MOOCs to promote higher education.

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