STEM MOOC model gets a next-gen “Strain” treatment

An innovative new course based on the scientific concepts presented in the FX series The Strain hopes to change the way people look at MOOCs.

Strain-MOOC-STEMA new MOOC will teach real-world science concepts based on a unique source – FX’s hit television series, The Strain – in a move that aims to leverage fan-supported pop culture to draw interest in online learning and STEM education in higher ed.

Instructure, the parent company of Canvas, is teaming up with video learning company Zaption to offer an easier outlet for teachers to create richer content for their students and post it to Canvas. Through the partnership, learners will experience Zaption’s interactive video lessons in ten Canvas Network courses, including the free “Fight Or Die: The Science Behind FX’s The Strain.

For those who don’t watch the program, The Strain depicts a city in chaos as a mysterious epidemic rapidly spreads alongside a devastating cyber-virus attack. As such, the course will explore three unique fields in real-world science: virus and parasite biology, cyber security, and epidemiological modeling.

“Beyond putting a unique twist on the vampire legend, The Strain creates an opportunity for serious academic discussions about some of today’s most important public topics,” said Kenya Hardaway, vice president of Integrated Promotions at FX Networks. “As society becomes more globally and technologically interconnected, the impact of biological parasites and computer hacks will only become more pronounced. This course will leverage the popularity of The Strain to help fans and the general public alike better understand these complex issues.”

The designers joined with three experts in their respective fields from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) to gather contest for these units. Because the course comes from an attempt to experiment with new content and attract new learners, Instructure expects many participants in this new MOOC will have never taken an online course before and will instead be participating due to their interest in the show.

“We expect many participants in ‘The Strain’ MOOC will have never taken an online course before,” said Melissa Loble, vice president of Partners and Programs at Instructure. “But because of this partnership with Zaption, they will be able to interact with highly engaging video-based content that will enrich the learning experience.”

(Next page: Digital badging and new interactive features)

“Zaption is thrilled to partner with Instructure to transform video lessons from a passive, ‘lean back’ experience to an active, ‘lean forward’ activity,” said Chris Walsh, CEO of Zaption. “The integration between Canvas and Zaption provides a richer and more meaningful experience for students and teachers, and a glimpse into the next generation of MOOCs.”

The MOOC’s three units of learning (parasitic invasions, disease dynamics and cyber attacks) will be called “strains.” Each strain will be updated weekly with new lecture videos, quizzes, discussion forums, optional readings, and bonus videos featuring UCI research efforts in related fields. As expected, many video clips from The Strain, and how the science topics are depicted in the show, will be a highlight of the course.


Delving into the “strains”

The first strain, Parasitic Invasion, will be taught by UCI Biology Professor Dr. Pavan Kadandale. Primarily, this unit will seek to answer how humans interact with parasitic pathogens, how parasites can change the behavior of their host, and what effect the human “mircoblome,” or the entire collection of bacteria that resides within us, has on our health.

Strain 2, Disease Dynamics, will be taught by UCI Physical Sciences lecturer and Dean of Distance Learning, Dr. Sarah Eichorn. This section will discuss how to predict and track a large-scale disease outbreak, how to prevent rapid disease spread, and even the ethical question of how to decide which patients to treat when resources are limited.

Finally, the third strain, Cyber Attacks, will be taught by UCI Informatics Professor Hadar Ziv. In this strain, students will learn what forms cyber attacks take, how hackers infiltrate and disrupt computer systems, and how to best protect their own personal and business computer systems from security breaches. Modern examples of hacks, including the major assault on Sony’s network, will be analyzed as well.

Digital badges

Students can focus exclusively on one strain, dabble in a few of them, or fully immerse with all three. For each strain that is completed, students will earn a digital badge. At the end of the course, students will also have the option of completing a final project and showcasing their learning to the community through multimedia projects. Though instructors will be logging in and monitoring discussions to answer questions, the opportunity for students to help one another is something the companies hope to see largely utilized.

New interactive features

In addition to all of the familiar features provided by Canvas, Zaption will also allow students to interact with video content in what the company says are new and engaging ways. Students can answer questions for immediate feedback while watching, and will be asked “thought-provoking questions” aimed at helping them understand and retain what they have learned. Uniquely, Zaption’s advanced analytics will provide immediate feedback on students’ engagement and their understanding of key concepts.

“The entertainment piece is the hook, but we hope people walk away with a much deeper understanding,” said Walsh. “Zaption turns this into a learning experience for people to go so much deeper than they would otherwise. We want to push the limits of how people look at MOOCs and give a glimpse into what the next evolution really looks like. As the language of learning now, video has to be at the center, and we want to continue to build and innovate with what we learn from the experience users have with this exciting content.”

Fight or Die: The Science Behind FX’s The Strain begins June 22, and will receive new content updates for 4 weeks. The third week will lead into the premier of the series’ second season on July 12th, and users will then be able to access the course material and discuss with other viewers throughout the entirety of the season’s airing.

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