Announcing the Illinois Work-Based Learning Innovation Network (I-WIN)

Together with our partners at Northeastern University, Education Systems Center at NIU (EdSystems) is excited to announce the formation of the new Illinois WBL Innovation Network (I-WIN) for employers, educators, and students to leverage innovative models for scaling high-quality work-based learning opportunities in school districts and community colleges across the State.

“In our conversations and experiences with communities across Illinois, it is clear that there is a strong need for robust and authentic virtual models for professional learning experiences,” says Heather Penczak, Policy & Program Manager at EdSystems. “This work is especially important now as educators work to provide students with meaningful, consistent opportunities, whether they are in the classroom, implementing remote learning, or proceeding with a hybrid model this fall.”

Added Jonathan Furr, Executive Director, “As districts and colleges grapple with remote and hybrid learning this year, we need to elevate innovative models that allow employers to support students pursuing their career goals.  At the same time, we are dedicated to ensuring work-based learning opportunities are designed to be equitable, and virtual models are a promising strategy for connecting students with limited social capital to employers even as we move beyond the current public health crisis.”

With those needs in mind, EdSystems turned to Dr. Kemi Jona, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Digital Innovation and Enterprise Learning, and Nikki James, Industry Fellow, at Northeastern University. An international leader in cooperative education and experiential learning, Northeastern University received a research grant from the National Science Foundation to explore integrating employer-provided projects into curricula in ways that are accessible to students for whom traditional cooperative placements and internships are not feasible (read the latest research).1

“When COVID-19 restrictions impacted summer internships, work-study, and work-based learning programs, we saw the opportunity for our virtual internship model to serve an immediate need while also accelerating the insights we could gain from our research,” says Dr. Jona. “We are very excited to partner with the Education Systems Center to include Illinois community colleges and school districts in advancing our understanding of how virtual internships can provide broader and more equitable access to these important work-based learning opportunities.”

Communities throughout Illinois are invited to join I-WIN to receive professional development opportunities and participate in regular community of practice sessions to support and inspire their practices around virtual work-based learning. Additionally, select I-WIN communities are invited to be pilot sites for the implementation of Practera, an experiential learning technology. Selections will be prioritized to communities with an equity-centered focus seeking to expand access to work-based learning for minority populations and students with limited social capital. Access to the Practera platform for experiences aligned with dual credit coursework will be provided to participating sites at no cost during the 2020-2021 school year, thanks to funding by the National Science Foundation. After the initial launch year, EdSystems will partner with interested communities to seek continued funding support for the platform. (Using Practera is not a requirement for joining the network.)

Already, seven locations are committed as pilot sites:

  • Central District 301
  • East St. Louis Senior High School
  • Elgin Community College
  • Kankakee Community College
  • Moraine Valley Community College
  • North Chicago Community High School
  • Northern Kane County EFE Region 110

These sites are planning to use Practera to facilitate both team-based challenges and career development experiences for students in a variety of career pathways, including engineering, health sciences, business and financial services, agriculture, education, and law enforcement.

Practera is a customizable, technology-enabled platform that supports entirely virtual or hybrid work-based learning experiences such as Team-based Challenges and Career Development Experiences. Through this platform, educators can track and monitor student and industry partner progress in real-time to provide resources and supports as needed. Northeastern University has developed off-the-shelf, reusable project templates through Practera that can be customized to fit the unique context and design of the work-based learning experiences that pilot sites are implementing. Students will have access to a personalized Practera user page to monitor their progress and receive reminders to submit any assigned tasks and activities received by their teacher or industry mentor. Pilot sites are also able to customize safety features and manage the flow of communication as students receive feedback and input from industry partners.

For Associate Professor Ranae Ziwiski of Elgin Community College, participating as a pilot site will help faculty develop equitable opportunities for students. “By keeping this project virtual, each student will have access to the project. By adding in employer input, the student will be able to able to connect with an employer to begin building essential employability skills and social capital. These opportunities will allow the student to leverage both their education and their experience moving forward.”

To learn more about joining I-WIN and/or becoming a Practera pilot site, contact Heather Penczak.

  1. The National Science Foundation supports this work under award DUE-1725941. However, any opinions, findings, conclusions, and/or recommendations are those of the investigators and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.
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