Educational Innovation at the Heart of the O’Leary Learning Center

by Tom Hanlon  /   Sep 23, 2019

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New 4,400 square-foot space, outfitted with the latest technology and tools, takes College’s strengths in online teaching and learning, as well as collaborative research, to new heights.

A $1.5 million donation from Richard and Ann O’Leary will help to usher in a new era for the College of Education, particularly in its online instruction capabilities.

The O’Leary Learning Center officially opens on Friday, September 27, and will feature a state-of-the-art live teaching studio, says Jeremy Jones, director of infrastructure and support for the College.

Jeremy Jones“It’s the first live teaching studio in the College,” Jones says. “The lighting, the audio quality, everything we’re doing in that space is creating a professional-looking video session that we transmit to our students.”

But it’s not just about the looks, he adds. It’s about what it does for the quality of online instruction.

Previously, Jones says, online instructors would just sit, turn on their webcam, and become a talking head. They could neither see nor interact with students. With the live teaching studio, they can either sit or stand—and more importantly, they can connect with their students.

“Teaching online has been so impersonal,” Jones says. “Through the live studio, instructors can regain that personal connection with students by being able to see them, listen to them, and see their body language, all of which is important. Instructors can see cues and change content based on those cues.”

Other Components of the Center

The live studio might be the showpiece of the O’Leary Learning Center, but it is only one of several components of the space. The northeast corner of the College’s lower level (the “garden level”), where the Center is located, also is home to a collaboration room, a main conference room and several smaller conference rooms, and two classrooms for STEM instruction.

“The whole idea of the center is about enhancing, innovating, and learning,” he says.

The collaboration space will be used by interdisciplinary teams engaged in educational research projects—anything from student-led innovations and early phase prototyping efforts through grant-funded collaborative projects. The space will allow for face-to-face, virtual, and hybrid meetings.

“It’s designed to help stimulate that creativity and collaboration across multiple units,” Jones says.

The main conference room is connected to the collaboration area and includes an offshoot of four smaller rooms for discussions and project work. One of the STEM classrooms has five 55-inch touchscreen monitors for students and an 86-inch touchscreen for instructors; the other has five giant glass writing surfaces, the contents of which can be projected onto a large monitor that all in the room can see.

“We have multiple cameras that can zoom into the writing boards so that the writing or equation can show up on the projection screen,” Jones says.

The classrooms have video and audio capabilities, enabling streaming of instruction, and the rooms are designed to be powered by personal devices, Jones adds. “Our wireless technology works with Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, anything. It will help with the ease of use and the ability to participate,” he says.

A "New, Modern Space"

The renovation extends beyond the rooms of the O’Leary Learning Center. “It doesn’t stop at the doorway, as with past renovations,” Jones explains. “The new finishes, the paint, the lighting, the floor, the ceiling, everything carries out into the commons area. The hallway and commons area draws you into this new, modern space.”

That modern space, Jones adds, has changed the atmosphere of the entire floor where the O’Leary Learning Center is located.

“As soon as you walk down the stairs to the garden level, it doesn’t look anything like it did before,” he says. “It’s modern, it’s fresh, it has that natural light all the way through the corridor, it completely changes the feel of the level. The natural light penetrates all the way into the stairwell. I’ve been in the College for 17 years and still every day it blows me away when I walk down there into the new Center.”

Opening Up New Collaborative Opportunities

The College of Education is already deeply immersed in collaborative multidisciplinary efforts across campus, and Jones believes the O’Leary Learning Center will further entrench them in those efforts, helping to open up ever more opportunities for the College.

“This is the first space that we’ve designed and renovated with a donor’s name attached to it,” he says. “What we’ve turned out is truly amazing. I hope more people will come see the O’Leary Learning Center and choose to invest in the faculty, students, and programming that are creating the future of education here.”

The Grand Opening of the O’Leary Learning Center takes place from 3:00-5:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, at the College of Education on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. Dean James Anderson and Provost Andreas Cangellaris will speak at the Grand Opening, which will also feature a video presentation and a self-guided tour.