A free online class called “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead,” offered by the University of California Irvine, is indicative of a new breed of MOOCs fusing popular culture with academic topics.

MOOCs offer free courses from even the most elite institutions to anyone across the globe. Emerging on the scene in 2008, original MOOCs were courses in classes such as math or science. Now, online choices blend traditional courses with everything from poetry to Buddhist meditation, attracting a broader range of participants.

Mass appeal

“We have seen students as young as 13 and as old as 97,” says Melissa Loble, Associate Dean of Distance Learning at the University of California, Irvine.    

Typical MOOC users are those preparing for academic experience or people captivated by a particular topic who want to learn more. Studies estimate as high as 80 percent of MOOC students have bachelor’s degrees. Universities offer gratis courses in hopes of whetting appetites for matriculated study. Many believe they represent a big component of education of the future.

“We saw this as a chance for us to continue our commitment to open education, to experiment with a new approach to course design and to play with a very unique theme."

Social culture in curriculum

“MOOCs can help to change education with accessibility, a high quality of education and improved quality of life for students, who can work and study based on their own style and pace,” explains Zuzana Bic, an instructor in the public health portion of UC Irvine’s Walking Dead class.    

Hopes are MOOCs like “The Walking Dead” can eradicate somewhat low completion rates currently associated with free online programs.        

“We had been playing around with ideas internally to shake up what was going on in the MOOC world,” recalls Misty Frost, vice president of marketing for Canvas by Instructure, an education technology company that created the concept.

“While brainstorming, we asked ourselves what we’d like to take a class on and "The Walking Dead" kept coming up because it is rich in content.” AMC immediately embraced the idea of using storylines from the series.  Cast members even provide interviews about their characters. UC Irvine was tapped because of its history with experimentation.

“We saw this as a chance for us to continue our commitment to open education, to experiment with a new approach to course design and to play with a very unique theme,” says Loble, who adds UC Irving has seen “greater engagement” in this course than some of its others because of the interdisciplinary feature. 

Looking forward

The next step for MOOCs could be opportunities for students to earn credit. Social media giant, LinkedIn, even partnered with MOOC platforms to create Direct to Profile Certifications.    

With more and more people clicking for class, there’s fear that the traditional campus setting could fade away. “No,” insists Bic, who says MOOCs are tools that won’t replace instructor-led classrooms, but rather complement the learning process.

Frost at Canvas agrees, “In five years, we will continue to see more blended online and in-classrooms models emerge, which will ultimately improve teaching and learning.”