If our educational institutions and workplaces could be reimagined for the digital age, what would they look like? Perhaps just like your favourite coffee shop.

All signs suggest that our current institutions are no longer viable in their current, top-heavy state. The cracks in our banking systems, corporate structures and universities are visible and run deep, but the strategy of throwing money at the problem will simply not do.

Yet, the debate, in most cases, continues to be concentrated on dollar signs, with few voices offering plausible alternatives for reforming or alleviating the burdens of this system in other ways. For example, how else could the costs of education be reduced? What can be done to improve a work model that has lost its creative drive?

How about turning our institutions into ‘coffee shops’?

How Coffeeshopification could reshape the way we learn

That is, what about turning universities into meeting places where the learning process is a more elastic and social practice?

Blogger Stephen Gordon suggests that adopting more online education courses—like MIT and Stanford already have—and relying more on e-books and tablets for the sharing of information could change the future of education. This shift would enable campus infrastructures to become more streamlined and require less operating costs. As a result, college campuses would evolve into meeting places where students could gather to debate, socialize and meet with tutors.

Just like in a coffee shop.

It’s not a perfect solution, of course. The issues stretch from fraud to the value of credentials, from the problem of assessment to the challenge of teaching certain programs, but it does offer a fresh counter-perspective to politicians haggling over decimal points. The coffeeshopification of colleges is still in its infant stages, but these promising ideas are certainly moving forward thanks to the many who do believe that our educational systems need radical change.

Richard A. DeMillo, Director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, offers an insight into how the learning process could evolve. His center created Techburst, a competition in which students were asked to create short videos that explain a single topic. DeMillo noted, in a recently published dialogue:

"We had a discussion yesterday about mistakes. This is student-generated stuff, so is it right? Not all the time. … If these were instructional videos that we were marketing, that would be a very big deal. But they’re not. **They’re the start of a thread of conversation among students. **There’s one on gerrymandering. So it’s a political-science video, it’s cutely produced, but in some sense it’s not exactly right. And so what you would expect is now other students will come along and annotate that video, and say, well, that’s not exactly what gerrymandering is. And you’ll start to see this students-teaching-students peer-tutoring process taking place in real time."

This is the purest and most successful example of coffeeshopification. The oftentimes stodgy model of the professor talking at a roomful of 700 students is transformed into a conversation, in which students help their peers refine ideas and master new concepts.

This process is already taking place in coffee shops around the college and it’s proven to be a successful one. The number of new coffee shops opening every day is testament to that. So why not embed it within the learning environment, add a professor to oversee the activities and let conversation become a new tool for learning?

How Coffeeshopification is reshaping the way we work

Stephen Gordon touches on how our workplaces have been ‘coffeeshopificated’. Writers and artists have been conducting their business in coffee shops for many years, but he rightly notes, with the rise of the digital office, they are now joined by programmers, accountants and lawyers. Many of the functions previously served by fax machines, copiers and other equipment have now been efficiently appropriated by a well-outfitted laptop and smartphone. “So the remaining function of the office,” he notes “is to be that place that clients know to find you… and that kids and other distractions of home can’t.”1

However, this work dynamic has been taken one step farther through its integration with marketing and outreach strategies. Rather than simply focussing on streamlining current operations, some companies are using coffeeshopification to boost community engagement, generate sales and build more customer loyalty.

For example, the Winnipeg Free Press, a newspaper in Winnipeg, Canada, opened a café in the city’s centre. In addition to sampling locally-sourced, organic dishes, patrons can also interact with a rotating roster of writers and editors, who use the coffee shop as their official workplace. The café hosts the usual readings and musical performances, as well as news-related events, like when it streamed live results for the last provincial election and held a Q&A session afterwards. One reporter described the project as “turning the organization outwards”. Although patrons are welcome to just hang out and are not expected to interact, the Winnipeg Free Press rightfully understood that a coffee shop atmosphere would induce people to get more involved with the activities.

The underlying premise of coffeeshopification is that when people feel more at ease, magic starts to happen—whether that be engaging in new interactions or learning something new. It understands that the formality and heavily-regulated model used by colleges and other institutions is counterproductive in that it stifles creativity and the learning process. But it also seems to imply that learning is about more than absorbing pre-masticated facts. It’s mostly about taking an active part and applying what has been imparted.

Another example is State Farm, the insurance company, which launched Next Door. Essentially a community space in Chicago, Next Door invites people to come in, hang out and get some answers about finances and insurance. This coffee shop offers a full range of classes and there are financial coaches on hand to consult with patrons. The only thing that isn’t free is the coffee. On the website it even says, “Yes, because we’re experimenting. We really wanna learn what people really want. Then, we’ll shoot those wants back to the Farm. We help you. You help us innovate. We’re all smarter for it. We think it’s a win-win.”

This space alleviates the tension that most people feel when walking into a meeting with their financial consultant. The coffee shop ambience loosens them up and ultimately turns a nerve-wracking discussion into a relaxing, reassuring dialog.

Although there’s no telling how coffeeshopification will evolve over time, it’s already beginning to reap very interesting results for students, the media and regular everyday people. And that has to be attributable to something other than the good coffee.

Along the same line of thinking, Dominique Browning wrote in the New York Times about the nostalgia we might soon feel for ‘face time’, “I’m hoping someone is working on an app that replicates the sensation of snuffling a freshly bathed child. I remember how lovely it used to be, not so very long ago, before they grew out of face time, before I tired of face time, how delicious it was when both boys were little, to wrap my arms around them, listen to the day’s woes, rub noses and kiss goodnight. We clicked. And we didn’t even need “just a click.” - AR

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