Will You Survive 'The Walking Dead' Online Course?

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Images courtesy of AMC

From zombies laying siege to a Pennsylvania farmhouse in "The Night of the Living Dead" to the rage-infected bringing out the worst in the survivors of a viral apocalypse in "28 Days Later," to the living dead coming back to life through the power of hope in "Warm Bodies," zombie fiction has long provided pointed, sometimes complicated critiques of society. What are communities in crisis like? How do we respond to the most ill and vulnerable? And what happens when it all falls apart?

The University of California Irvine is partnering with Instructure and AMC to take a look at the latest craze in zombie fiction, the hit series "The Walking Dead," which will form the basis of a series of free online courses beginning in October via Instructure's MOOC platform.

"The themes in 'The Walking Dead' tie really nicely into the courses that we offer here, which ties very nicely into current events happening around the world," Melissa Loble, Associate Dean of Distance Learning at UC Irvine tells me. She says that "The Walking Dead" delves into issues of health and welfare, disease, and politics in the wake of a catastrophic event. This kind of thematic richness allows UCI instructors a great deal of latitude to explore the pop cultural phenomenon from multiple academic angles: from statistics, to biology, to sociology, to psychology.

The eight-week “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’" is structured around the debut of the fourth season of the hit AMC series, which premiere Sunday, October 13 on AMC--hence, the first online class kicking off on October 14. UC Irvince's course will offer lecture videos, self-check quizzes, reading resources, and discussion prompts based on the show. But instead of being simple analyses or critiques of each episode, the course will offer students the chance to see some of the real-world applications of the crises and events in "The Walking Dead," whose upcoming season sees Rick and the remaining survivors attempting to establish a community within the walls of an abandoned prison. UC Irvine and Instructure is receiving exclusive materials from AMC surrounding the series including interviews with the cast and creators of the series as well as clips and stills. "[The course] will make many of these academic learning opportunities more tangible to people who may never be exposed to these topics or this discussion," Loble explains.

For instance, Sarah Eichhorn, a mathematics lecturer who also serves as Assistant Vice Chair of Undergraduate Studies at UC Irvine says that the series offers the chance to discuss math modeling in disease outbreaks with students--a practice employed by organizations like the CDC. You've seen it in zombie fiction before: where a scientist is looking at a computer model which shows how long it will take for a virus to spread throughout a population, usually accompanied by little blue dots on a screen turning red? The course would look at how those models are used and the benefits they provide scientists, policy makers, and the average citizen. "As a mathematician," Eichhorn says, "I was struck by the mathematical modeling that would go into what would happen if a disease was to run rampant through the population." She adds that the CDC works with mathematicians on these kinds of scenarios all the time.

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When I ask about the value of dropping a pop cultural phenomenon--especially one that's so new--into the middle of a learning environment, Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer says that it's all part of a process of experimental learning his group offers, beginning with previous courses looking at gender in comics. "We want to experiment with the idea of whether real-time, pertinent pop culture references--for instance, like 'The Walking Dead'--can change the learning experience by improving engagement." Whitmer says it's his hope that by touching on varied issues and real-world applications of things from the series will get students more engaged.

Loble says likewise, teachers at UC Irvine are excited about the relevance of their disciplines to the series, for instance on of the public health instructors would like to talk about the spread of diseases like diabetes as a social issue. Whitmer says the show offers students the opportunity to see what survival is like after a catastrophic event when the title of the show could be applied as easily to the survivors as their undead predators--he says studying this kind of disruption is useful to us as a society so that we can answer what would happen when it all goes wrong.

If you'd like to know more about the "Society, Science, and Survival" course, check it out here.