The Walking Dead is getting academic. AMC, the University of California at Irvine, and educational technology company Instructure, announced today that they were collaborating on an interdisciplinary massive open online course (MOOC) based on the beloved zombie show.
The course does not really deal with minutiae of the show's plot lines, instructor Sarah Eichhorn told The Atlantic Wire in a phone conversation. Instead, the enrollment website touts that those who complete the course will be able to "describe how infectious diseases—like a zombie epidemic—spread and are managed" and "analyze existing social roles and stereotypes as they exist today and in an emerging world"
In other words, a course about zombies that isn't just about zombies.
For Eichhorn, a mathematics lecturer, figuring out how to apply one of her normal lessons to the show wasn't difficult, though she was surprised to have been asked to do so in the first place. "As a mathematician it's not every day you get asked to teach a course involving zombies," she said.
In her differential equations class—an adventure through post-calculus, she explained—Eichhorn uses mathematical modeling to study how diseases spread. Those diseases are usually "generic," she said, but the "specific dynamics" of the disease the show's walking dead carry can be easily applied to a mathematical equation. "The only difference is the population doesn’t stay dead," she said. It certainly does not.
Of course, The Walking Dead is by no means the first television show to receive academic attention—Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire have generated particular scholarly interest. But what Eichhorn and her colleagues that we spoke to are doing, is using the show as a way to explore different disciplines as opposed to dissecting its themes.
Eichhorn wasn't already a fan of the show, though she noted she's liked post-apocalyptic programming like Jeremiah. Like social sciences lecturer Joanne Christopherson, Eichhorn had to binge watch the show in about a week's time in order to prepare for the course. Christopherson explained she's going to be discussion issues of needs, social hierarchy and social roles. "I’m kind of fascinated that some of the scariest people in the show are not the zombies," she explained.
Michael Dennin, the professor who is taking on the physics portion of the course, is simply watching key episodes, so that he can talk about "energy and momentum and collision and things hitting each other." One example he's looking at is the first time Rick takes a baseball bat to a zombie. "On first watching actually the zombie is mushier than the person," he said. "You get to talk about the physics of materials. what does it mean to be hard versus soft."
For AMC, the course gives the network an opportunity to appear at the forefront of an emerging field, while applauding its own highly rated show. "AMC is excited to be the first entertainment group to make the foray into the online education arena through this unique partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and Instructure," Theresa Beyer of AMC said in a statement. "There is clearly a growing appetite for engagement with The Walking Dead, and we hope this online course will drive a deep, sustained connection with the show during its upcoming fourth season and offer a legitimate educational experience that can be applied even more broadly."
The excitement for the instructors lays in the ability to work within a developing educational format. This is Christopherson's first time teaching a MOOC course, which is one of the reasons she jumped at the chance to be involved, she said." Dennin, who has taught one MOOC before, is interesting how the format fits into the already available opportunities to provide science education to non-scientists.
"At the lowest level, I think of it as a supersized book club," he said.