On October 14th, the Canvas Network will launch a new massive open online course inspired by the popular television series The Walking DeadInstructure has teamed with faculty from the University of California Irvine, and AMC, the producers of the show, to create the MOOC. I took the opportunity to speak with Melissa Loble, the Associate Dean of Distance Learning at UCI, about what it was like to create a MOOC based on the ideas raised by a television show, and the relationship between popular culture and online education.

Sean Michael Morris: Let’s start with the obvious question: Why a MOOC centered on “The Walking Dead”? What was the inspiration?
Melissa Loble: To be honest, we weren’t the ones that came up with the idea. Instructure reached out to us once they had AMC on board to see if we would be interested in teaching the course. Instructure saw this as a great promotional opportunity and a way to perhaps “think way outside the box,” something that higher education institutions often forget to do. We jumped at the chance to participate.

UCI has a long history of commitment to open education, that started over 12 years ago with our participation in OpenCourseWare and continues to date with fairly active MOOC participation. UCI is also very interested in uncovering better ways to engage students, specifically in the online space. For the show itself, our faculty believe there are strong academic undercurrents associated with topics from public health and social science to even physics and mathematics very present in all three seasons that make this a great learning example, or “thread,” that we can carry throughout the course.

SMM: Pairing a well-known university (UC-Irvine) with a technology firm (Instructure) and an entertainment company (AMC) must have made for some interesting collaborations. What do you see as the advantage to this approach? Specifically, I’m interested to know how the pedagogical thrust of the course-design fared with so many cooks in the kitchen.

ML: We have been very lucky in that both Instructure and AMC have given us a lot of space to determine the design and structure of the course. We often turn to Instructure for guidance and feedback, but are still very much leading the development of the course. The relationships however have given us an opportunity to garner the experience of the hundreds of faculty that have taught MOOCs through the Canvas Network before us and to utilize clips, stills, and even exclusive actor interviews from the show.

SMM: A lot of teachers are concerned about the role that educational technologists have played in the orientation of digital teaching and learning. In the press release for the course, Theresa Beyer of AMC said that “AMC is excited to be the first entertainment group to make the foray into the online education arena…” It’s likely some educators will be worried that this may signal a trend toward learning as entertainment. Can you address this idea?

I have been hearing “edutainment” get bantered around a lot with this course. While we certainly want to ensure the course is engaging and the quality of the lecture design is very high, we also plan to focus on the core academic learning that we hope will happen each week. The learning should not, and truly cannot, happen with TV-show, high-budget style videos alone. As educators, we all know that the learning really happens when students start to connect the dots and apply the concepts they are presented with in other, often real-world situations. Therefore we are investing as much time in the design of the the overall course, discussion prompts, self-assessments (quizzes), readings, and other resources provided as we are the actual recorded lectures. We believe it is the whole package that makes a great course, not just great video content, and that the use of “The Walking Dead” as a consistent thread through all elements is what will make this successful.

SMM: You say “real-world situations”, and I wonder how you’ll be asking students to take lessons from the show, and information from the course, and apply it in relevant, meaningful ways.

ML: We are using “The Walking Dead” as our main example; however, the faculty will challenge students to apply the concepts learned to other situations. For example, in the infectious diseases section we will be discussing the zombie disease as an example of a rapidly spreading disease. We will compare and contrast this with slow spreading diseases like diabetes and obesity.

SMM: One aspect of the Canvas learning environment that Jesse Stommel and I have relied on for our MOOCs is its permeability. Canvas makes it easy to break the wall between the LMS and the Internet. How will this course take advantage of web technologies that live outside of Canvas?

ML:This is a great question and one I am not 100% certain of yet. We would love to bring in other technologies and tools available via the web, but we have to watch the size of the course very closely. If enrollment for the course ends up in the six figures, we may not be able to utilize other technologies too much for fear of system failures. We all watched this happen with one of the first instructional design MOOCs offered through Coursera that tried to utilize Google Docs. With so many people you run the risk of breaking the backend infrastructure and shifting the focus in the course from what you hope students learn to how they access and utilize the various tools.

For the primary experience, we hope that students stay within Canvas to interact, discuss, and build knowledge. However, we will encourage, and try to make evident, outside activity as well. We hope that students will blog about their experiences. We hope that many Facebook pages will be generated so students can connect with one another beyond the confines of the course. And we definitely hope there will be lots of tweeting. In fact, we will be setting up our own Facebook pages and tweeting ourselves as the course is developed and delivered.

SMM: When offering MOOCs, Hybrid Pedagogy (along with many others) has run into time zone problems with synchronous events in the course. “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’” faces the additional problem that it will follow the television series as it plays out. How have you compensated for a global audience in the MOOC to facilitate collaboration and learning, and to avoid spoilers?

ML: We are not planning to hold any synchronous sessions for the course at this time because we think we may have fairly large enrollment numbers. But we are very much looking forward to crafting full class and small group discussions around much of what is happening in the show, especially as Season 4 rolls out. Instructure is working with us to create a “spoiler” tag that students can use on various forum threads to help indicate where spoilers may be living.  And we have confirmed with AMC that the show will air in almost every country within 24 hours of the air time in the US, so releasing course modules the next day should be safe.

SMM: Are there any insights you can offer into the content and/or assignments that students will find in the course?

ML: Each weekly module in the course will consist of:

  • A short video introduction to the module
  • Approximately 20 minutes of video lecture content
  • Reading assignments (All available freely online – no required textbook!)
  • Optional supplementary readings and other materials
  • Prompted discussion forums with specific assignments related to the module content
  • A short (~10 question) quiz for you to test your understanding
  • A brief “Think about this…” video segment, reading and discussion forum
  • Assorted relevant clips from Seasons 1-3 of The Walking Dead
  • Exclusive “The Walking Dead” cast interviews by the instructor
  • Open discussion forums for you to pose your own related topics to discuss with classmates

We are not planning on having any peer assignments at this time. I am personally very interested in how peer assignments fit into the MOOC world and have experimented with them in our previous MOOCs, but we wanted to keep the workload for each week of this course to between 2 and 4 hours. We don’t want potential students not taking the course for fear of balancing this with all of their other professional and personal commitments, and feel that peer assignments can be fairly time consuming for students in this space.

SMM: This brings up another question for me. Who is your intended audience?

ML: We have designed the course so that anyone interested in the topics or the show, or both, with a high school level education (or equivalent) will find the topics approachable and hopefully interesting. In higher education terms, we see this as a freshman level cross-disciplinary seminar course. We will be conducting the course entirely in English, but will provide closed captioning for the videos so that non-native English speakers will also find the course accessible.

SMM: I read in an early version of the press release that the course was designed to allow students to drop in when they wanted to, to participate as they were comfortable and in only those topics they found interesting. Can you speak to this pedagogical decision?

ML: We are designing this course as an inter-disciplinary adventure into some of the major academic themes presented by “The Walking Dead”. In doing so, we felt that we would attract more students due to the broad array of topics available. We also wanted to allow students to join the course at anytime, so we wanted to make sure students wouldn’t have to work through the weeks sequentially if they joined in perhaps weeks 3 or 4 in order to be able to understand the concepts at hand.

We did not make these decisions lightly. At first we bantered around what subject or discipline lens we should use for the course, yet we arrived at the inter-disciplinary approach for a few reasons. First, we really hope to inspire perhaps at least one student to learn about something they never thought they were interested in and maybe even pursue that subject more in-depth academically.  If we can even do this for more than one student we would be thrilled.  Second, we wanted to present the team of talent we have here at UCI and provide an example of how we approach designing interdisciplinary courses. By strongly connecting each week with “The Walking Dead”, we can show how various academic subjects interplay in the process of building applicable knowledge. And third, we are really interested in looking at participation data on a weekly, or module-by-module basis, as opposed to a course completion basis. As you know, there is a big debate in the MOOC world around what is good data for showing the success of courses offered. We are currently relying on our traditional understanding of course “success,” however MOOCs are really challenging this paradigm. So we are hoping to study this MOOC in a slightly different way.

SMM: One thing that we’ve found truly remarkable about MOOCs is their capacity to build sustainable learning communities, and to allow for learning that happens beyond the bounds of the course. Will the “Science, Society, Survival” MOOC take advantage of that capacity? In what ways will the MOOC support participant learning outside of the course?

ML: We absolutely hope this will happen. We will actively promote social opportunities for students to stay connected and are looking for ways for our faculty to be involved during and after the course is over. I think some of this will be spontaneous and it will be our responsibility to make these activities very visible and explicit.

SMM: What are you goals for this MOOC in terms of enrollment, learning outcomes, etc.? Have you set these sorts of goals, or do you see this as something of an experiment? Is there room in the design to let the MOOC unfold in unpredictable ways?

ML: We definitely see this as an experiment, however we have set forth goals for the project and learning outcomes for the course. We would love to see our enrollment figures rest solidly in the six figures. We would also love to see module completion rates that beat any full course completion rate we have seen yet with MOOCs. That said, we are ultimately hoping to use this as a way to gather great ideas about what works, and what doesn’t, with this type of approach to a MOOC. As I think I mentioned before, if we can inspire just one person to pursue a passion they never knew they had, we will be thrilled. Oh, and we would love students to have a little fun too.

Check out the course itself on Canvas.net: Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead and offer some thoughts on the pedagogical potentials in the comments on this post.

[Photo by AndYaDontStop]