Online Learning Communities for High Potential Learners

Thanks to the massive upsurge in MOOCs and VLEs in general, there are now hugely diverse learning options to challenge and engage students at every level and across a growing variety of subjects. Students, teachers and lifelong learners alike have immediate access to a cornucopia of online learning, available with or without certification.  All students can benefit from access to these often highly immersive interactive learning environments but they are a particularly useful tool in the teacher’s arsenal when it comes to engaging students with a high potential for learning, allowing them to create self directed, individual learning pathways.


IGGY is a not for profit organisation established in 2008 by Warwick University to support exceptionally able students in the UK through delivery of seasonal enrichment programmes. Since then the organisation has been slowly transforming into a global social and educational network with an ambition to connect gifted students aged between 13 to 18 years worldwide. Its online presence has seen huge changes over the last couple of years and now with the support of a games developer partner, its website and accompanying app is eye catching, highly functional and has all the bells and whistles required to engage the most tech savvy teen.  But this isn’t a case of style over substance. For an annual subscription students can access a wide range of interactive learning content, connect with their intellectual peers worldwide and learn from top academics in their field. The emphasis is on the development of critical thinking, creativity and independent learning with a blended model of “enrichment and content based acceleration”.  Student membership of IGGY is by teacher nomination, or if home schooled, an educational psychological report or evidence of high quality work portfolios will be accepted for consideration.  What I like about IGGY is that they recognise that potential comes before performance; unlike other academic gifted programmes students do not have to be performing at the top 5% in academic ability to be accepted. Rather they should have demonstrated their potential to perform at this level if given the appropriate supports and opportunities; hence the focus on teacher nomination. In addition, if initially rejected students can reapply, consistent with the idea that giftedness is developmental, not static, a growing and much more workable approach to gifted identification. Some may be of the opinion that this waters down the academic standards in gifted programmes and of course that is a risk. However, we cannot ignore the fact that, unfairly, students from lower socio economic groups are significantly underrepresented in gifted programmes around the world, not due to any lack of intellectual ability on their part but rather due to the lack of appropriate learning opportunities.

Earlier this year IGGY won a well deserved BETTS award in the ICT Tools for Teaching and Learning category and when you see the multi-media mix of learning content covering STEM, Creative Writing and History and Politics you can see why.  But all of this unfortunately comes at a price. Individual membership is currently at the yearly fee of £200stg. Schools can also buy multiple subscriptions at a reduced rate.  It is expensive for cash strapped Irish schools to fund. However given the high quality learning content available and the opportunity for peer group collaborative learning, something which is often difficult to achieve for exceptionally able students in the classroom, it is worth considering, particularly for those high potential learners who are significantly underachieving.  According to the IGGY website there are a number of free sponsored places available for students who meet the following criteria, but whether this applies to non UK resident students is unclear:

Eligible students must:

  • Live or study in an area that has a low participation rate in higher education
  • Be in public care
  • Be eligible for free membership for another unspecified reason which must be declared as part of the registration process

It’s worth mentioning that Warwick University is also a partner along with The Open University in FutureLearn, a free beta stage MOOC bringing short course content to the web.

Another university based online gifted programme tasked with “connecting young thinkers around the world” is John Hopkins University’s  Focusing on STEM, the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has developed an award winning site including webcasts, forums and a detailed Maths and Science web resource list.  Compared to the gamified feel of IGGY this is a much more traditional learning portal. But the quality of content is still there and much of it is free to access, even to non members. To become a Cognito member is free and open to students aged between 13 to 18 years who have “a keen interest in math and science”. Members are also selected by invitation, i.e. CTY students and students from their partner organisations. Students from outside the US are, like IGGY, teacher nominated. Educators who would like to nominate a student for membership must email a letter on their schools letterhead including the student’s name, e-mail address, date of birth and their town/ city, county and country. They should also include a reason for their nomination, in 50 words or less.  Apart from accessing maths and science related learning content, student members are encouraged to contribute their own content to the site; either through blogging on STEM related topics of interest or contributing to online forum debates. Again, the focus is on connectivity with intellectual peers and the resulting creative powerhouse that this connectivity can bring about:

“Imagine a place where a teenage Stephen Hawking could have sparred with Einstein over physics, or where an eighth-grade science fair project could be an in-road to college. aims to be that place.”

Sounds ambitious, but consider the child who is struggling to find a social and educational fit in school. Sites like IGGY and Cognito could provide a much needed lifeline to potential friends, collaborators and mentors.

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