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ACES Online Learning Lab Moving Forward with U of I Funding
Illinois Ag Connection - 09/28/2022

A cutting-edge, online educational design space in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at University of Illinois is moving forward with $1.7 million in campus support. The funding, part of the university's Investment for Growth program, was announced as one of nine other campus projects.

The planned ACES Learning Innovation Lab (ALIL) will include studio space and interactive iFLEX classrooms, equipped with access to emerging technology to allow educators and industry leaders to design transformative online learning experiences. The goal is to meet high learner demand for skills-based credentials through online courses, certificates, and degrees at the undergraduate, graduate, or career level, as well as for learners from around the world.

The project includes renovation of the existing computer lab, classrooms, and meeting spaces, all located in the basement of ACES Library, Information and Alumni Center to house the innovative classrooms and studios. The renovated facilities will enhance ACES commitment to offering rigorous, relevant and far-reaching learning opportunities for traditional and nontraditional learners alike.

"ALIL is a collaborative design space for students, faculty, alumni, and academic partners to use in the educational design process," explains Debra Korte, assistant dean for learning innovation in ACES "The physical space of the lower-level of LIAC will continue to be a learning laboratory -- just as the original donors and designers intended. The re-outfitting of the learning laboratory will include iFLEX classrooms, idea spaces, and state-of-the-art studios where people can gather, learn, and create. Along with offering experiential learning spaces for on-campus students and faculty, ALIL and the grant program will make possible the design of online educational experiences for learners around the world, including mid-career professionals who desire to upskill and reskill, lifelong learners, and high school student audiences."

The funding will also create the Online Learning Innovation Grant Program, which will support faculty to design and deliver new online graduate courses that include "in-the-field" innovative educational content.

"Education should not be a 'one size fits all' experience. This funding will help ACES faculty share with online students the in-person perspective from the food science and child development laboratories, greenhouses, livestock farms, and crop production sites," Korte says. "The intent of the grant program is to provide faculty funding to design online courses that will be part of grad certificates that can stack toward online master's degree programs."

ACES currently offers four online master's degree programs with a new non-thesis Master of Engineering in Digital Agriculture degree set to begin in January. Applications are now open for that certificate and degree program.

Korte, who led the proposal and project, explains that a task force representing all of ACES' academic departments, will be created to design the space, as well as input from ACES e-learning advisory council. The college will also seek input from campus units such as the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, Siebel Center for Design, and Grainger Engineering's Campus Instructional Facility, which feature similar state-of-the-art classrooms and studios.

"[ALIL and the grant program] serve our land-grant mission of providing education for all. We're hoping to have more of a global educational impact, to be a world leader in agriculture, consumer, and environmental sciences. Our intention is to bring the field into focus wherever the learner may be," Korte says.

"The courses created as part of this funding will help people attain the knowledge and skills they need to advance in their career or start a new career," she adds. "Everyone deserves access to relevant, affordable, and inclusive education that is not limited to residency on campus."

The renovation of the classroom and studio space is expected to be completed in January 2025.

Funding from the Investment for Growth program will begin this year, continuing over three years. The College of ACES is also providing funding for the project. Additional and ongoing financial support will be important to the success of ALIL. To learn more about funding priorities and explore ways to partner with the college, individuals, companies, and foundations are encouraged to contact the ACES Office of Advancement at 217-333-9355.

"The future challenges we face in our agricultural, consumer, and environmental disciplines around educating an emerging workforce, reskilling an existing workforce, and educating a general public on issues such as feeding and watering ourselves, providing access to nutritious food, and maintaining a healthy, vibrant planet and resilient communities are both vast and exciting. ALIL is the beginning of equipping the innovative educators and researchers in all of our departments ACES to meet those challenges," says Anna Ball, associate dean of academic programs in ACES.

The Investment for Growth program, facilitated through the Office of Provost at U of I, is aimed at generating new sources of revenue while continuing to invest in the university's missions of education, research, and public engagement.

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