The Walking Dead online class: Are zombies the MOOC future?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on September 4, 2013

From The News Desk

People love zombies. Fact. World War Z, Zombieland, Left 4 Dead, 28 Days Later, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, the zombie pop culture never ends. And we still can't get enough.

And now, we love them enough to study them. In a stroke of branding genius, the online class platform Instructure realized zombies were the way of the future and decided to capitalize on that. Instructure reached out to UC Irvine and entertainment company AMC to partner on a free MOOC -- Massive Open Online Course -- based on a show about a zombie infestation, "The Walking Dead."

Four faculty have signed on to teach different modules over the eight-week course, using the zombie apocalypse to examine social structures, public health, physics, and math. "For example: A little girl gets her head decapitated in one swing," Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer says. "In physics, could that have really happened?"

Other topics of discussion include the role the Center for Disease Control plays in public health, nutrition in a post apocalyptic world, and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. "We kept talking about doing a pop culture course and 'The Walking Dead' kept coming up," Whitmer says. "So we cold-called AMC, and they said they'd love to partner, and they'll provide clips."

Sarah Eichhorn will be teaching math in the Walking Dead MOOC. She’s modified existing equations for how disease spreads to account for zombie mechanics — like that fact that when someone dies they don’t stay dead. She’s excited about the opportunity the MOOC affords her to spice up math for students who might not otherwise be interested. “We are taking something people are already interested in – zombies – and using the opportunity to show them academic disciplines,” Eichhorn says.

Aside from demonstrating people love zombies enough to study them, "The Walking Dead" MOOC shows how the MOOC format can be used to experiment and innovate with news ways of teaching and engagement. MOOCs make education accessible, frequently for free, to anyone with a computer. But students don't have to finish the courses if they get bored, and the onus is on the MOOC instructor to make learning interesting enough to keep people around.

Retention rates have been a big criticism of MOOCs, with only 5-10 percent of students finishing courses. A different MOOC company -- NovoED -- is tackling the engagement problem in another way, by making it easier for students to collaborate with each other in class. NovoED is focusing on entrepreneurship, and in the pilot class students started their own companies. Instructure's approach -- using pop culture to study stodgy academic topics -- is a new take on improving MOOC outcomes.

The first wave of MOOCs, like Coursera and edX, simply stuck videos of a professor lecturing their normal class and put it online. But what they didn't realize is that a new platform requires a new way of teaching. You can't just graft what works in a classroom onto a MOOC and think people will stick around.

That's akin to companies tacking on a mobile app as an afterthought, instead of recognizing that mobile needs its own, entirely separate approach from a website. Skimming a list of available MOOC classes is enough to put anyone to sleep: Foundations of Computer Science, Sustainable Agricultural Land Management, Electricity and Magnetism. Zzzzz.

Perhaps Instructure's Walking Dead class and NovoED's entrepreneurship classes signal the coming of a second wave in MOOCs. Now that we've gotten over excitement that classes can be put online for anyone to watch, we can focus on developing classes specifically for this online format. The best part about MOOC's is that they're usually free and loads of people sign up for them, so they're an excellent place for universities to experiment and innovate with getting students engaged in the classroom. What do schools have to lose? Just thousands of MOOC students, which they're already losing by the end of every class anyway.

[Image via AMC]