Coworking spaces team with universities to bridge the gap between classroom and practice

With tuition costs mounting, the national student loan burden growing and employers complaining about a lack of certain job skills, no one is really in love with the current university education system. But with frustration comes creativity, as initiatives of all sorts attempt to dream up a better way. Should we go back to an apprentice system? Is online learning the answer? How about re-imagining universities as coffee shops?

Suggestions for how to improve college differ, but all seem to revolve around the same central axis – pulling the ivory tower down a little bit closer to the teeming activity on the ground and tying the things we learn in the classroom more firmly to the work we hope to do in the world after graduation. Some coworking spaces think they can help accomplish this, offering new learning options in partnership with universities.

CoCo in Minneapolis, for example, recently launched a series of classes and workshops in design thinking taught by Stanford professor Anna Love-Mickelson and following the curriculum of the California campus. They’ve dubbed the initiative [email protected] The thinking behind the offering is two-fold, according to Don Ball, the space’s founder. First, Ball believes that design thinking is like a vitamin that will supercharge the work of those at the space.

“Design thinking, like coworking, is a transformative phenomenon. It’s goal is to enable radical, rather than incremental change. We’re rebels at heart, so the idea of inciting disruptive change is really attractive,” he explained in an email. “We’ve always told ourselves that CoCo wasn’t just an alternative office space. How boring is that? It is a place for people to work on big ideas. With [email protected], we feel like we now have a language and way of thinking that could have large-scale impact beyond our own four walls.”

But [email protected] isn’t just about giving members the tools to accomplish larger projects. It’s also about spreading the word about coworking to bigger organizations, again helping bring theory into contact with new worlds of practice. “We’ve always believed that coworking is a really big tent. It’s not just for freelancers and entrepreneurs. So, we’ve looked for ways to make this environment accessible to people from other realms. [email protected] gives us a structured way to bring people from big organizations into our space and to get a taste of collaborative problem solving,” wrote Ball.

And CoCo isn’t the only space that thinks of itself not only as a place to plug in a laptop and share some water cooler chatter, but also a means to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world practice. In the same mold, Reno Collective has a partnership with the local University of Nevada Reynolds School of Journalism (RSJ). But rather than bringing the professor to the coworkers as at CoCo, in Reno they’re bringing eight grad students to the Collective by offering them free memberships for a semester. RSJ also offers workshops at the space.

Both the space owners and J-school faculty hope for synergy. “We have faculty and students who understand content but need help understanding the next step in content creation — how to make journalism more usable, accessible, scalable and findable. Reno Collective is full of enthusiastic people who fill a big gap for us in terms of understanding journalism as both process and product independent of a corporate news institution,” said Donica Mensing, a professor at RSJ. “We also see a coworking space as a safe place for our students to land after they’ve graduated. They can get support from other freelancers, consultants and small business owners who use the space,” she added.

And while the school’s presence at the coworking space adds real-world practicality to the theory of the classroom, the knowledge that flows from the university can assist wizened freelancing veterans working at the space, according to Colin Loretz, founder of Reno Collective. “We have a tremendous amount of latent talent in the area and we see an opportunity in being able to help people take theoretical knowledge and apply it to much more real-world situations,” Lorentz says. To this end, the members also teach each other. “Everyone who has a hand in running the coworking space or teaching a class, does something else for a living and is a master of their own craft so we are able to deliver classes on the bleeding edge of the industries and technologies we focus on,” he said.

The future of work may be hazy (what aspect of the future isn’t?) but certain broad themes seem clear. Fast-paced careers will demand lifelong learning. And as knowledge-based jobs increasingly come to the fore, innovation and the engagement and integration of all aspects of the self that drive it will be more valued, an artificial separation between personal passions and daily work more of a liability. Both trends suggest that these coworking spaces may be on to something by bringing education closer to work and making it an ongoing process.

How do you think the future of work is going to shape the future of education?

Image courtesy of Flickr user eliza|O.