MOOCs help Purdue program expand reach to middle and high school students

Image of Kryptos sculpture at CIA Headquarters. Students in the "World of Spies" course tackle real life encryption problems, including trying to find the unsolved secret message encrypted into the Kryptos sculpture at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

High-ability middle and high school students from around the world travel to Purdue for weekend and summer courses held by the Gifted Education Resource Institute.

But now, in classrooms and on home computers across the globe, a new Purdue collaboration is helping those same students gain access to the institute’s resources, at the same time creating an outreach model that could help other programs on campus reach new audiences. 

World of Spies: Keeping Secrets is a Massive Open Online Course – commonly called a MOOC (pronounced moo-k) – available as part of a partnership between Purdue and online course provider FutureLearn. The free course is designed to teach 13- to 18-year-olds about encryption, code breaking and problem solving. It was developed in a collaboration by the Gifted Education Resource Institute and instructional designers from ITaP and Purdue Digital Education.

Going online

Since its inception in the 1970s, the Gifted Education Resource Institute (GERI) – which has a dual mission of providing resources to and conducting research about high-ability students – has strived to be innovative in connecting with students, creating the residential summer camp and weekend programs, as well as scholarship and outreach programs to reach under-served populations.  

“An online offering was the next logical step,” says Marcia Gentry, the institute’s director, “but we weren’t really sure how to get started.”

At the same time, ITaP instructional designer Sheree Buikema, who had previously taught courses with the GERI, was looking for a way to utilize the course materials she had created for the program.

“It seemed like a natural fit for what they were wanting to do, and the course materials were already created,” says Buikema.

Buikema, and graduate assistant Ophélie Desmet began formatting the course for FutureLearn in coordination with Purdue Digital Education’s Jacob Askeroth. Based in the United Kingdom, FutureLearn is one of the largest MOOC providers in the world. It features courses that are free for students, can be completed in two to eight weeks and typically enroll several hundred, if not thousands, of learners. Students earn no college credit for the courses, although most allow students who meet requirements to purchase a certificate of completion.

“Typically, MOOCs are associated with providing college-level content, but they were willing to work with us in developing a course aimed at 13-to-18-year-olds, which meant thinking through things like what we needed to do to ensure the students safety and privacy online,” says Desmet.

Offered initially last fall, the four-week course attracted more than 4,800 students, who took part in lessons about how to create their own codes and how data encryption is used today.

“It really took off,” says Desmet. “Initially we put it out there as a resource for teachers to supplement what they are doing in the classroom, but FutureLearn itself is available in more than 100 countries, so it’s been great to see the response.”

A new outreach model

With their first MOOC up and running – a new session of the course is currently available until the middle of March – Desmet and Gentry say they are already looking to partner with faculty who have course material suitable for another course.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for someone who’s interested in introducing the next generation of students to concepts and ideas that they might get to cover in a traditional classroom setting,” says Gentry.

Instructional designers with ITaP and Digital Education are available to work with faculty interested in creating MOOCs and meeting FutureLearn’s requirements.

“There are some costs associated with creating an online course, and there are some requirements for content formatting and expectations from Digital Education like asking that each course be offered at least three times in a calendar year, that faculty will need to think through,” says Askeroth.

But for faculty interested in reaching beyond campus – whether to future students or to adults interested in the kind of education that online open enrollment courses can provide – the possibilities are virtually unlimited.

“I think there are a lot of programs looking for ways to reach out beyond campus,” says Buikema. “Creating a course for FutureLearn gives you that platform to connect your course content with people who want to see it.”

Instructional designers in Teaching and Learning Technologies have already worked with instructors to create eight MOOCs, with topics ranging from “Communicating Complex Information” to “Creating Moments of Joy for People with Alzheimer’s.”Anyone interested in learning more about creating a course in FutureLearn? Or the Contact Purdue Digital Education’s Jacob Askeroth at askeroth@purdue.edu.

Interested in learning more about partnering with the Gifted Education Resource Institute? Contact Ophélie Desmet at odesmet@purdue.edu.

Writer: Dave Stephens, technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue, 765-496-7998, steph103@purdue.edu

Last updated: February 16, 2018