Students pay thousands of dollars for university education, yet often prefer to spend their time at the coffee shops (reading a book, working on their laptop, participating in discussions). This may indicate that at least on some dimensions coffee shops provide a better environment for education than many of the universities. It seems that one of the main differentiating factors is the user experience – a core by focusing on which a university may be able to re-invent itself.
Replicating user experience of a coffee shop at the university might be very difficult. Instead, the role of coffee shops could be supplement as also a place for education (inviting lecturers if needed). In fact, feasibility of this idea has been succesfully demonstrated many centuries ago in variety of locations; in Mecca in 1500’s coffee shops were center for discussing political issues, in 1600’s in UK as a popular place for debates (both political and not), in France it was a major meeting place of the French Enlightenment, [http://goo.gl/x7Ry8].
While with this proposal it might be difficult to replace traditional universities; a beachead market could be “lifelong learning”. It is a market that is quickly expanding [Gartner, 2013]. If you go to a coffee shop, you may see that already a portion of customers is involved in informal lifelong learning activities. An indicator that the core competency of coffee shops’ user experience may be well aligned with requirements for productive lifelong learning as outlined bellow. Many of the coffee shops are not only easily accessible, but are also in a variety of prime locations (w/ regards to criteria such as convenience, view, atmosphere of neighborhoods, etc.). Stores themselves have variety excellently designed exteriors and interiors. Finally, early adopters could be the existing clientele of the coffee shops. All of these factors are conducive to creating a good user experience for lifelong learning.
Update: have recently stumbled into this article that has many nice ideas (and predates my post): http://sites.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/6330/2010/05/Reinhart_-_Constructing_the_Cafe_Univers.pdf
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