For the young and the young at heart, this MOOC is for you. With a promotional boost from Stan Lee, creator of such iconic comic book characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X Men collection, Ball State University hopes to unveil a free online course, called “Gender Through Comic Books,” suitable for thousands of students.
Indiana-based Ball State, which offers online programs at the graduate and undergraduate level, hopes to make the course available in March and present it during the South by Southwest Education (SXSWedu) conference in Austin, TX, a widely-attended program held the week before South by Southwest’s famous film and music festivals.
“He was totally receptive,” said Christina Blanch, an anthropology instructor who created and teaches the on-campus class which the MOOC is being modeled after, in a press release. “He is a big believer in education.”
Specifically, Lee narrated a promotional video in support of a first step in Ball State’s effort to launch the free online class next year.
In order to present at the SXSWedu, Ball State must secure a place on the conference agenda for a panel discussion about the class, its subject matter, and how faculty members developed it for use online. Panels must gain the support of the conference’s staff and advisory board, and mount a public campaign to win enough online votes to show that a panel discussion has widespread interest. This led to the creation of the video.
“It’s a little like competing on a reality TV show,” said Richard L. Edwards, director of Ball State’s Integrated Learning Institute (better known as iLearn), which helps faculty members develop online classes.
“Thirty percent of whether or not a panel gets selected is audience voting, so we needed to figure out a way to get our voice heard.”
Blanch, who has taught previous classes using comic books, has met and befriended a number of the industry’s leading writers and artists at conferences and conventions. Last year, she met Lee at a convention in Baltimore, spent some time with him and felt comfortable asking whether he would be willing to narrate the video for the South by Southwest panel competition.
“I just emailed him. I said, ‘Hey, we’re putting together this video. This will take, literally, a minute of your time, if you wouldn’t mind recording this.’ Then, within four hours, he came back: ‘Of course, Christina,’” Blanch said.
Lee, she said, likes the idea of using comics to explore serious subjects, which her class certainly does. Blanch uses comics ranging from early Superman titles to popular recent books, such as “Y: The Last Man,” to examine how men, women and their roles in society are treated.
“When people say, ‘Why comics?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ Anybody who has read anything by Grant Morrison or anything by Alan Moore knows their works are masterpieces. They’re comic books, but they’re literature, too. They’re modern day myths — and they’re put out every month, so what’s happening in the world is reflected in them,” Blanch said. “We can look and see in the 1950s, this is what’s happening. In the ’60s, you can see the whole women’s movement play out in the comics. A couple of months ago we had the first gay marriage in comics: Northstar and Kyle got married in ‘Astonishing X-Men.’ We see what’s going on in the culture, and we see that reflected in the comics.”
Comic books also are particularly useful teaching tools, Blanch said, because students read them without complaint.
“They start out thinking they’ll be easy, but once they get into them they see there’s a lot going on. One of my students said, ‘Hey, you tricked us into learning!’ I had to pat myself on the back for that one,” she said.
Edwards hopes that thousands of students across the country can share that experience with Blanch — but knows Ball State will need help to make it happen. The 22,000-student public university, after all, will be competing in the massive online class arena with such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford universities.
“We’re trying to launch a national course from Muncie, so we need our friends and neighbors to put some backbone into it — we need their help,” he said. “There’s no one better than Stan Lee to help put a little wind in our sails, but we also need the support of our students and faculty and neighbors in Muncie — and everyone who watches that video — to cast a vote.
“If everyone takes a minute to do that, we can make this happen.”
Voting continues through Oct. 5.
–Follow Alanna Stage on Twitter at @AlannaTweets