40,000 students worldwide are studying Lord of the Rings Online and you can too

40,000 students worldwide are studying Lord of the Rings Online and you can too

Professor Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt University is chatting with me over Skype, but he admits that his attention is slightly divided. He's got Lord of the Rings Online running on a second monitor, and countless players are sending him messages to say hello.

Clayton has to be the most popular player in Lord of the Rings Online right now. Apart from his two level-capped end-game characters he also runs low-level characters on 18 different servers that he uses just to communicate with his compatriots around the world.

Clayton is so popular because he's running an online course right now called “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” that's being taken by over 40,000 students around the world and focuses largely on Lord of the Rings Online.

Big elf on campus

Clayton is a literature professor first and foremost, and he bears some of the telltale hallmarks of the profession. He's very clear and concise when you're wrong about something. He also didn't mind pointing out when he'd said something important in our interview. As if to say, “take careful notes, this will be on the exam.”

But at the same time, he's quick to laugh and also a seasoned online MMO player. His love of narrative and sci-fi originally brought him to Star Wars Galaxies, before ultimately fleeing alongside the rest of the player base during the disastrous New Game Enhancement update. He's moved between other games like Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft before finding a home in Lord of the Rings Online during the game's beta.

“I'm a literature professor so I've always been teaching English classes in relation to digital culture,” said Clayton. “I believe I began with Myst as the first game I put into an English class.”

This course isn't being offered through Clayton's university, Vanderbilt, though. He's created this class for the free online education giant, Coursera. Coursera works with well-known universities and their professors to provide university-level online courses that are free for anybody, anywhere.

Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative is a course about what happens to storytelling as it transfers between the main three narrative devices of our time: film, novel, and video game.

Lord of the Rings Online was chosen in part because it's a great game, in part because it's free, which lowers the barrier to entry, but mainly because it's part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of trilogies which span three mediums.

Sao Paolo, Middle-Earth

“One of the main lessons in this first week is to introduce a concept called 'remediation,'” he told the Report. “Which is a really interesting concept because it stops you thinking about whether a film or game is faithful to the source material. It stops you from thinking about the content, but rather focuses you on the transformations that occur because of the medium itself. So what we do is focus on the limits that are set by each of those three media.”

“The other learning objective is to show how Romance narrative, dating all the way back to The Oddyssey, are deeply intertwined with Tolkien literature and fantasy gaming,” he said.

It's a six week course that began this week, and is still open to be joined. All lectures in a Coursera course are able to be viewed at any time so you can still join in and follow along. You just may be behind on the assignments. Which isn't really a problem considering grading in these courses is almost entirely for your own benefit to see how you're progressing. Coursera classes don't count for college credit, but you get a certificate of completion.

Judging from the massive number of students, this particular course has struck a chord with video gamers. It's resonating worldwide too. Clayton says that only about 30 percent of his students are from the United States, where both he and Coursera are located. He said that about 40 percent of students are accessing it through internet cafes in places around the world including the city with the largest concentration of students: Sao Paolo, Brazil.

But for those students who either can't get online to play Lord of the Rings Online or aren't interested in playing an MMO, the course has a seperate track which allows you to skip all of that, and the lectures are designed so that prior knowledge of the game isn't necessary.

Think and reflect

“I've been living and breathing nothing else for months,” said Clayton about the process of putting this massive course together and playing nothing but Lord of the Rings Online. “This has been an enormous undertaking. We started filming full-time in May, and I worked essentially full-time on it.”

“It's staggeringly more work than I realized,” he said. But despite all of the work, Clayton is pretty laid back when it comes to what students will get out of his hard work.

“I'm not so concerned about people mastering a skill or coming away with a specific comprehensive set of knowledge,” he said. “I'm eager to have anybody learn whatever they want. It's a class about enhancement. People take the class voluntarily to think more and reflect more.”

So if you'd like to think more and reflect more, you can still sign up for the course. Clayton didn't want to spoil any part of the work that takes place in the upcoming weeks, so there's plenty more waiting to be discussed in the land of Middle-Earth.