In the build-up to the next season of hit TV show The Walking Dead, cable network AMC has forged an unusual partnership with education tech firm Instructure and the University of California at Irvine.
The three parties have created an online-only course that uses the popular series as a catalyst to introduce students to a variety of topics that relate to its storylines, from issues around public health and pandemics to the science of hope. Our favourite module is entitled: “Nutrition in a post-apocalyptic world: are squirrels really good for you?”
The idea is an unexpected addition to the range of MOOCs (massive open online courses) launched in recent years by the likes of Udacity and Coursera. While most of these have placed an emphasis on a rigorous approach to teaching methods and academic standards, Instructure is treating this as an experiment to test the effect of a strong pop-culture connection on student engagement.
The course runs for a relatively short eight week period, and will use the show as a core reference, deploying video clips from episodes, taking cues from the plotline and possibly even working with some of the actors to develop lessons that connect with key storylines. Students are expected to spend from two to four hours per week interacting with the materials – although we’re not sure whether that includes watching full episodes too.
Although at first glance this has the potential to seem deeply frivolous, we’re actually rather excited by the potential this could have to create a genuinely compelling learning experience for students.
The course is being led by well-qualified tutors in mathematics, public health, astronomy & physics and social sciences, none of whom will be likely to risk their credibility, one hopes, on half-baked tutorials. The audience for the show stands at around 10 million viewers, suggesting that there is a substantial pool of interested viewers to draw upon – we’re fascinated, in fact, to see how many of that number decides to get involved with the online course.
This feels like a bigger win for Instructure and the University of California at Irvine than for AMC, although both parties must be intrigued at the potential this model has. Our own observation is that it feels even better suited for high-school age students than it does for college level participants. As kids focus more and more on screens to deliver information and instruction, finding ways to develop teaching materials that can make the most of that fact feels like an obvious avenue to explore. That’s not to say traditional methods are less important or redundant, but simply that education has always moved with the times. If this type of partnership can deepen engagement and create genuine synergy between education and entertainment, count us in.
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