Something for Which MOOCs Might Be Very Appropriate

About a week ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog included a short post by Casey Fabris titled “A MOOC Hopes to Sink Its Teeth Into a New Audience: TV Fans.”

The post focuses on a four-week MOOC based on the FX television series The Strain, which follows the spread of a disease with the “hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism.” The course will be titled “Fight or Die: The Science behind FX’s The Strain” and it will use the show’s elements as a starting place for discussing parasites, cyber attacks, and disease dynamics. It will be offered through the University of California at Irvine, with the cooperation of FX, and hosted on Instructure’s MOOC platform Canvas Network.

This will be the second MOOC offered through the University of California at Irvine to employ this approach. In 2013-2014, the university, Instructure, and the AMC network collaborated on a course based on the series The Walking Dead. The course linked topics in mathematics, physics, and public health. In a September 2013 post to the Wired Campus blog, Steve Kowatch explained that MOOC based on The Walking Dead would use “scenarios from the show to talk about how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use mathematical modeling to predict and contain the spread of infectious diseases through populations and how surviving human beings might continue to produce and harness power amid the infrastructure damage wrought by a zombie apocalypse.” That course reportedly had an enrollment of more than 65,000.

In explaining the purpose of these courses, Sarah E. Eichhorn, the associate dean of distance learning and a lecturer in the university’s school of physical sciences at the University of California at Irvine, expressed the hope that “the MOOC will get people interested in mathematics and science by leveraging the popularity of the television show.”

This comment suggests that these kinds of MOOCs might be used, more narrowly, as a recruiting tool to get more high school students interested in STEM programs.

I would like to suggest an alternative purpose for such courses—in some ways, an almost completely opposite possibility–that would take advantage of the fact that people who have already completed degrees seem to have a much higher likelihood of completing MOOCs than most new postsecondary students.

One of the standard audiences for technical communications is technical experts in other fields, whether from closely related or completely unrelated fields. These are not necessarily people who are in technology-related field but, instead, people who have considerable experience and expertise in a given area and are interested in looking at standard approaches and practices in their field in not just fresh but even radical ways. These professionals are interested in borrowing from other disciplines—in considering how elements from one discipline might be transferred to another discipline—and those elements might include anything and everything from conceptual frameworks to practical applications. Interdisciplinary studies have long been a major source of cutting-edge innovation, and in our increasingly technology-driven world, thinking across disciplines is not just a great advantage to almost every enterprise; it has become a real necessity.

So I think that these sorts of “short-course” and very topical MOOCs might find a large audience among all sorts of professionals who are responsible for meeting or anticipating the demand for new products and services, or for anticipating how their organizations will need to be restructured to meet such demands. Perhaps such courses could even be packaged into some sort of certificate program, or tailored to the needs of certain business or other economic sectors. This sort of use of MOOCs would seem much more appropriate than the continuing efforts to make them somehow work for general-education or core-education courses.

Casey Frabis’ article is available at:

Steve Kowatch’s article is available at:


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