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September 18, 2015

It could be the opening line of a hipster joke: “So this zombie walks into a classroom.” But it’s not far from describing the online course that UC Irvine Extension offered in 2013 in partnership with the AMC Channel.

And it definitely was no joke: “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead,’” a massive online open course, or MOOC, helped lay the groundwork for a new way of teaching that has allowed UCI Extension to reach about 1.7 million people in just three years.

The free eight-week MOOC drew UC Irvine faculty in public health, physics, social sciences and mathematics to examine how “The Walking Dead” – the most-watched TV series in basic cable history – touches on those areas. It was a huge success, attracting 65,000 participants.

Innovative? Absolutely. Fun? You bet. “But there was definitely a sense that we kept our focus,” said Sarah Eichhorn, associate dean of distance learning at UC Irvine and the math instructor for the course. “Our chancellor sat down at a meeting and said, ‘If we’re going to do something combining academics with zombies, we have to do it right.’”

UCI Extension has done plenty right with MOOCs. Ever since the online platform rose to prominence in 2012, UC Irvine has worked hard to explore its potential. As Eichhorn recalled, “People were very scared at first because they wondered how it was going to disrupt education and how it fit into the larger educational context.”

Yet as Eichhorn and UC Irvine have worked within the MOOC universe, they’ve learned a lot about what works. “We got involved from the very beginning, and we see it as a way to experiment and innovate that you can’t do in campus-based courses,” she said.

In a traditional class model, getting participation in the six digits would be physically impossible unless the school rented out a football stadium.Yet UCI Extension’s Project Management Specialization, which isn’t just online but on demand as well, drew some 150,000 students since its launch in May. “We had some people who were really excited and powered through it in two weeks,” Eichhorn said.

About 1.7 million people have enrolled in UCI Extension’s MOOCs, which are offered through a partnership with Coursera, an online education platform. The free courses are non-credit, but in some cases you can earn a course certification for a small fee, usually around $50. Though some have questioned whether MOOCs would be an effective format for career training, UCI Extension has just begun to tap an array of possibilities.

For example, the school has launched a Career Success Specialization: a nine-course series that targets the essential skills workers need to succeed in the workplace. The series covers the fine points of business communication, project and time management, finance, negotiation and problem solving.

Eichhorn envisions a not-too-distant future where, “if a large company wanted to tailor the Career Success MOOC to their needs, they could take the base content, layer on some of their material, and offer it to their private community.”

For now, UCI Extension’s MOOCs have united students, professionals and life learners in a way hardly imaginable just a generation ago.

“I taught a pre-calculus MOOC and one of the things I found fascinating was that we had an 8-year-old girl–who was so far ahead in math that her mother enrolled her–and a 90-year-old man who said he loved math and never had a chance to complete his education,” Eichhorn said. “That’s something you don’t find in a classroom.”

And there is no plan to stop. As of this fall, UCI will offer a total of eight Specializations on diverse topics such as Academic English, iOS Programming, Conflict Management, Internet of Things, Virtual Teacher, and Optobotics ℠

–Lou Carlozo, Tribune Content Solutions