"Fans of the show know that 'The Walking Dead' is about more than zombies; it's about survival, leadership and adapting to situations that are perilous and uncertain," said Theresa Beyer, vice president of promotions and activation at AMC, in a statement for the press release.
Once you accept the fantastic premise, the details of the show stand up to scientific scrutiny fairly well, according to Eichhorn. "I know our social scientist has been fairly impressed by how they're applying the themes of social science." When the physics instructor questioned the realism of how the characters' weapons worked in one particular episode, Eichhorn added, subsequent research turned up evidence that the show was more realistic on that point than he had supposed.
Not all the professors watched the show before they became involved in the project, but in preparation for the course, Eichhorn said, "We've all been binge-watching it and have become big fans."
UC Irvine has tried a variety of experiments with MOOCs over the past nine months and sees this course as an opportunity to do it on a large scale, with a course built around pop culture, Loble explained. Courses riffing on pop culture themes have been popular on campus in the past, but the online course made it practical to bring a bigger team of instructors together. "It's more interdisciplinary than an on-campus class would be," she pointed out.
The Canvas Network, which is the MOOC hosting spin-off of Instructure's Canvas learning management system, has approached free online courses with the same spirit of experimentation, according to Brian Whitmer, a co-founder of the company. "The jury is still out on what the end result is going to be [of the MOOC phenomenon]," he said. "We thought with the existing players in the MOOC space there wasn't enough experimentation."
Pop culture has been a winner for Canvas Network -- a Ball State University course titled "Gender through Comic Books" was one of its most popular to date.
In the zombie course, Whitmer said, he will be interested to see the impact on student engagement from having the course built around a scenario which -- while not exactly real world -- is content that people can relate to and that they can understand. Having the course schedule overlap with the release of a new season of episodes should make it more exciting for both the instructors and the students. This dovetails with research showing that teacher emotion and excitement about a subject improves learning outcomes, Whitmer pointed out.
UC Irvine has produced a series of MOOCs distributed through Coursera, one of which achieved notoriety when the instructor quit in the midst of the course. However, UC Irvine is starting another series of Coursera courses in addition to its venture with Canvas Network. You can see a video replay of a panel discussion UC Irvine hosted in May on how to make MOOC, which also included participants from Google, Stanford University and the University of Michigan.