Using zombies to lure MOOC newbies

That the most well-known massive open online course (MOOC) platforms are leveraging popular culture — including zombies — to stir up interest in their experimental classes is hardly a secret.

Still, the question has lingered: Will it work?

One in 10 MOOC students had already enrolled in 1-3 massive courses.

Instructure’s much-ballyhooed MOOC on the cable show, “The Walking Dead,” seemed to do the trick. More than 7,000 of the 12,000 students (83.6 percent) who responded to a course survey said they had never taken a MOOC before enrolling in the zombie-themed offering from Instructure.

One in 10 “Walking Dead” MOOC students had taken 1-3 MOOCs, and 5 percent of students had enrolled in more than three MOOCs, according to the survey results.

“The Walking Dead,” based on a comic book series, tracks a group of survivors in their treacherous path during the months and years after the zombie apocalypse wipes out most of humanity.

Perhaps most surprising in the wake of a wave of research that has shown consistently low participation rates in massive courses were student responses indicating that four in five spent more than an hour per week on the course.

“Participants actually spent more time in the course than they did watching the show,” according to Instructure’s announcement.

Melissa Loble, associate dean of distance learning at the UC Irvine, which hosted the comic-and-TV-show-based MOOC, said using topics pervasive in pop culture could be a reliable way to build an audience for the massive courses, which are still relatively unknown.

“Students can either connect to ‘The Walking Dead’ or use it a way to contextualize something they’re familiar with,” Loble said. “It can draw people to a course who may not normally be interested in a MOOC, or draw people to this type of academic culture who wouldn’t normally have been attracted to it.”

Student feedback gathered and published by Instructure showed that some MOOC participants used the “Walking Dead” course as a sort of test run for how they might handle a larger workload of web-based college classes.

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