When the Smithsonian Institution wanted to build exciting and innovative online courses, they called ExtensionEngine. We built two courses for the Smithsonian, Objects that Define America and Rise of the Superheroes. Superheroes proved to be one of the most popular courses ever on the edX platform and is currently in its second run.

The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture


Following the success of Objects that Define America (see below), the Smithsonian Institution re-engaged with ExtensionEngine to develop The Rise of SuperHeroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture. The six-week course covered the birth of the first superheroes, the cultural forces that shaped their creation and evolution, and their role in global pop culture and society at large, including their immeasurable influence on radio, television, film, fashion, and even our moral and ethical codes.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”– Pablo Picasso


Course Promotional Card

The Challenge

Given the nature of the popularity of this content, we knew that the course would attract students; and given its experts, Stan Lee and Michael Uslan, we knew the video content would engage them. But both we EE and the Smithsonian wanted to do more. The Superheroes course was an opportunity to push the boundaries of what had been done in massive online courses, especially in terms of students’ creation of original work and collaboration with each other. We wanted, in essence, to unlock a global community of comic book creators, to help them see that they too could imagine and create beautiful worktheir own superheroes. We wanted to see if we could solve “Picasso’s problem”.

Our Solution

One of the essential themes of the course is that comic superheroes are the mythical gods and goddesses of today, and many of the first creations bore direct links to Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian mythologies. Our concept was to deconstruct how superheroes were originally conceived, beginning with choosing a mythical figure as inspiration. Students then chose a contemporary social issue, and from that chose superpowers and weaknesses. They then designed their superhero, designed a supervillain antagonist, constructed a brief scene, and last, sketched a few sample panels of their original comic concept. Their work was performed and collected in their “Superhero Sketchpads”, with these activities threaded through weeks 1-5 of the course.

To encourage more social collaboration, we decided to augment the edX discussion boards and “meet the learners where they are” by creating communities of practice in Facebook and Reddit. The groups in Facebook were cohorted around student interests: artists, writers, history buffs, teachers, etc., so learners could interact with peers with similar interests and find collaborators with complementary interests (writers looking for artists, for example). We also started live Meetups in various US cities, where learners met to discuss their progress in the course and get live peer feedback on their original comic concepts.

Last, we also designed and created original page layouts that would give the text content more of a comic feel. These “superhero biographies” were created using edX’s raw html editor and can be seen in the Superman and Joker examples shown below.


Pages from the Superhero Sketchpad

  • Joker1
  • Joker2
  • Joker3
  • manOfSteel
  • actionComics
  • supermanFlying

The Results

SUCCESS: The Rise of the Superheroes course generated 6-8 times typical user engagement and 2200+ verified certificates of completion to date – that’s 5% of all course takers. Typical courses realize <1% certificate learners (ie, people who choose to pay for the course). Over 2000 original Superhero Sketchpads were submitted for the course. It is currently in its second run with a third planned for Fall 2015.

Objects that Define America


The first of an ambitious program of educational offerings from SmithsonianX, this five-week course was launched on edX in May 2015. ExtensionEngine worked with the Smithsonian Institution and two partner organizations, The Teaching Company and Cerego, to develop Objects that Define America, a five-week course led by Dr. Richard Kurin, a leading authority on American history and author of History of America in 101 Objects.

Our task was to reduce the overall learning time roughly in half while also adding more interactivity and social collaboration.

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Course listing on the edX platform

The Challenge

The course that ultimately launched on edX was actually the second iteration of an online version of Dr. Kurin’s content. The Teaching Company had developed Experiencing America, a series of 24 video lectures surveying many of the objects covered in Dr. Kurin’s book. Our task was to reduce the overall learning time roughly in half while also adding more interactivity and social collaboration. The course would emphasize four themes in American history: American Icons, Rights and Liberties, America the Beautiful, and the Spirit of Innovation. The videos (seen to the left) collectively should support each theme, and students would leave the course with a new understanding of who we are and what we create elucidates various aspects of the American experience.

Our Solution

ExtensionEngine provided instructional design expertise to enhance engagement and critical thinking. In the course, students play the role of hypothetical Smithsonian curators. As they encounter each object in a video lecture from Dr. Kurin, they construct their own personal interpretation of its significance in American history by crafting a few sentences on a series of slides in the “Historian’s Workbook.” At the end of each week, students apply what they’ve learned about the themes that unite these objects, such as “Rights and Liberties” or “Spirit of Innovation,” and propose an object from today’s world that they feel best represents the qualities of that theme. At the end of the course, they have built an original “exhibit” of four modern objects, which they submitted to the Smithsonian for review and course credit.

ExtensionEngine defined the entire course’s content architecture, designed and built the Historian’s Workbook (seen below), authored a significant amount of new content in edX and supported the launch and facilitation of the course.

The Results

Students submitted hundreds of original exhibits, demonstrating truly innovative ideas about how major themes in American history are observed in today’s world.

“A valuable course incorporating high quality materials. The assessment and grading policies are conceived to be online learner friendly.”
– Roger Smith, course participant, 4.5 star review


Pages from the Historian’s Workbook

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