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What’s In A MOOC? Online Education Lures Masses With TV-Based Courses


by Ysabel Yates

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is currently one of the most polarizing topics in education. While online education is nothing new, MOOCs in 2012 rose in prestige with the launch of edX, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT that offers free online courses. Observers see the two academic powerhouses entering the space as a potentially massive disruption to traditional education. EdX now has 29 universities participating, including Cornell, Boston University, and UC Berkeley.

Today, MOOCs are spread out on a number of different platforms and are attracting more participants every day. This popularity comes at a time when steep tuition costs, lingering recession problems and a slump in employment opportunities for recent college graduates have many people weighing a college degree’s value against its price tag.

Of course, MOOCs have their promoters and detractors, and there’s no simple answer to what their place should be alongside traditional education. To get a better handle on what MOOCs are and where they’re going, Txchnologist looks at how these platforms are changing the way education is delivered and consumed.

It’s a question that Brian Whitmer, cofounder of online learning platform Instructure, asked when his organization was about to embark on what he calls “the giant experiment” that are MOOCs.

“There’s been a lot of enthusiasm around MOOCs,” says Whitmer. “They’ve captured the attention because of the potential for scale. But existing players only focus on the scale - the lectures really aren’t that innovative.”

Whitmer wants to change this. One way he is doing it is with a new MOOC based on the AMC television’s The Walking Dead, a zombie story that is now the most-watched series in basic cable history. It’s also the most popular show among adults aged 18 - 49, a key demographic for MOOCs.

The interdisciplinary course, entitled “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons From AMC’s Walking Dead,” will be taught by University of California, Irvine professors and will focus on how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Lectures will be on topics such as using mathematical modeling to track infection outbreaks, the physics of blowing a zombie’s head off, and the best nutrition to keep your brain sharp so you can outsmart zombies. The free course, which is set to begin on Oct. 14, already has tens of thousands of people signed up.

The Walking Dead MOOC is innovative, Whitmer says, not only because it’s based on a TV show, but because it is interdisciplinary and has four professors teaching it instead of the usual one or two.

A TV-based MOOC might raise some red flags about the role of marketing in education. But Whitmer says Instructure approached AMC about creating the course, and no money has exchanged hands. “This is not AMC’s opportunity to get their biases in and they’re not buying educational experiences,” he says. “AMC has been cool about it and we’re sensitive about it.”

AMC was a good partner for this, he says, because they had previously done a Walking Dead collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a series on “teachable moments” about emergency preparedness.

But TV-inspired MOOCs aren’t the only innovation in the online education mix. A new course on MOOC platform Coursera that is taught by University of California, San Diego professors is the first to incorporate research with coursework. The course, which begins Oct. 21, is called “Bioinformatics Algorithms - Part 1.” But if the title doesn’t inspire, perhaps its description will.

“To our knowledge, this is the first major online course that prominently features massive open online research, or MOOR, rather than just regular coursework,” says Pavel Pevzner, a computer science and engineering professor who is leading the course, in a statement. “All students who sign up for the course will be given an opportunity to work on specific research projects under the leadership of prominent bioinformatics scientists from different countries, who have agreed to interact and mentor their respective teams.”

One of the course’s goals is to bring the experience of doing research to people who otherwise may not have access to the opportunity.

“The natural progression of education is for people to make a transition from learning to research, which is a huge jump for many students, and essentially impossible for students in isolated areas,” says Phillip Compeau, a doctoral student who helped develop the course. “By integrating the research with an interactive text and a MOOC, it creates a pipeline to streamline this transition.”

Top image: Computer keyboard via Shutterstock

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