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Smith Innovation Fund Expands Opportunities for Students and Faculty

by College of Education at Illinois / Aug 28, 2015

Smith Innovation Fund

The College of Education has become a hub of innovation in learning technologies and the learning sciences during the last two years. Examples include:

  • A game-design course in which students create digital and physical games
  • Spearheading a campuswide initiative that will lead the way toward inventing and building tools and spaces to transform learning
  • State-of-the-art classrooms where cutting-edge interdisciplinary collaboration takes place
  • A research lab featuring the latest in learning technologies, from multi-touch tables that resemble 55-inch iPads to augmented realities for learning
  • A graduate program in digital environments that supports teaching, learning, and student agency.
  • Digital environments for learning, teaching, and agency in the new Bachelor of Science Learning and Education Studies major

These educational innovations may not sound like the happenings within a typical college of education, but they are part of the College’s commitment to embed cutting-edge technology within classrooms so students and faculty can begin learning, researching, and inventing the tools and methods for 21st-century learners.

“Imagine the possibilities of what we could accomplish by coming together on campus as educators, philosophers, and scientists,” said Dean Mary Kalantzis. “It’s what we strive for and what is happening in the College. Technology and true interdisciplinary collaboration—education elements way beyond just books, desks, and chalkboards—are leading the way toward affordances and access undreamt of. It’s a very exciting time.”

Professor Lane is fascinated by the nuanced understanding of learning and the links between formal education and at-home technological learning 

The teaching and research of H. Chad Lane, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, exemplifies the increasingly blurred lines of where education takes place in today’s world—positive developments, he believes.

Lane is fascinated by the nuanced understanding of learning and the links between formal education at school and at-home technological learning children can now encounter through games like Minecraft. He is also amazed at the innovative collaboration that takes place among professors of different disciplines.

“Here I am a computer scientist, hanging out with education researchers and psychology researchers,” Lane said.

Professor Emma Mercier, meanwhile, is researching how to best orchestrate students’ collaborative learning experiences by integrating multi-touch tables and other forms of technology, such as data analytics, into classrooms. Mercier is building toward teams of students working together on class projects around multi-touch surfaces as real-time data is automatically analyzed by the system and streamed to teachers, informing their pedagogical decisions at key junctures during the course of student learning.   

The Smiths with Beth Katsinas and Mary KalantzisAstutely recognizing these technological trends in education, Lawrence L. Smith and Barbara Weaver Smith endowed a fund in their names to support faculty and student projects that are cutting-edge and result in innovative solutions to critical educational challenges.

Supporting these innovative projects and activities—particularly as these pertain to digital and state-of-the-art technologies—will lead to the development of new educational tools, practices, and spaces that positively influence teaching and learning in both education and in business settings, such as health care and workforce training and development.

“When someone in the College of Education has an idea to improve education for students, we want funding to be available to explore it,” Lawrence said. “Some of the most creative faculty and students in the world are at Illinois. Through the Smith Innovation Fund, they can move from idea to implementation. We hope other alumni will join us in donating to this new fund.”

Associate Dean for Research Fouad Abd-El-Khalick said supporting the Smith Innovation Fund will help prepare a new generation of technologically savvy teachers who understand the increasingly important value and role of ubiquitous technologies, such as handheld devices and gaming, in the learning environments of 21st-century students.

And he is fond of the Smith’s fund for another reason.

“It’s not narrowly earmarked like some funds can be,” Abd-El-Khalick said. “The Smith Fund is quite forward-looking in that it has a broad-stroke definition of innovation. Everyone can support the fund and invest in it, and the notion of innovation within this fund is flexible and allows for change. Handheld devices and big data might not be what we’re talking about in 20 years.”

Professor Robb Lindgren, who teaches Educational Game Design, hopes alumni will support the Smith Innovation Fund because all aspects of the College and its research will be impacted by available technologies.

“We need to be on the forefront so we can be using the latest technologies, implementing them, designing them, and repurposing them for the good of education,” he said.


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