Different things to different people
University of Phoenix debuts a versatile, technology-fueled hangout
“It’s a lot,” says Shavonnah Collins, managing director of RedFlint, when asked about what exactly the new, high-tech community center is. The University of Phoenix has labeled its 10,000-square-foot facility on the corner of 4th Street and Clark Avenue an “innovation experience center,” which sounds fancy, but what does it mean?
If you read the news release from the University of Phoenix, you may get the impression that RedFlint is our very own downtown Epcot. There is talk of “visitors” and “hands-on learning” with “new technologies,” but RedFlint is no Disney-like take on tomorrow. Put simply, it is a community center focusing on technology education.
Completed in October, the downtown location is the first RedFlint center that the University of Phoenix has created. Like a community center, it is open to the public, not just university students, and offers free workshops focusing on technology and entrepreneurship. You can co-work on the free Wi-Fi or work with technology you may not have experience with, such as virtual reality, while sipping your complimentary coffee courtesy of the Keurig in the back.
According to Collins, the educational offerings will ramp up in January, with each month focusing on technology applications in a different industry, such as health care. In addition to providing technology and business education, the center has partnered with Iron Yard Ventures, a seed-stage investment firm, to provide capital for startup ideas that may take shape at RedFlint.
“It’s almost like an Apple Store for education,” says Dennis Bonilla, executive dean of the College of Information Systems and Technology for the University of Phoenix.
Aesthetically, the comparison clicks. The center has every bit of the minimalist chic of an Apple Store—cement floors, modern furnishings and plenty of wide open space. White boards on wheels scoot alongside long, clean conference tables. There are classrooms for workshops, and conference rooms named after computer-science icons (Babbage, Masuoka and Geer). If you end up in Babbage, you will have to share the space with a couple of iPads on wheels. They are Double Robots that augment telepresence. (You may have seen one on The Big Bang Theory. Your face appears on the screen, and the wheels roll you around to interact with people.) With or without the robots, you can use the conference rooms free of charge for one hour.
“When we pitched the idea to University of Phoenix we did not start with it being a for-profit,” says Bonilla. Bonilla and his partners at the university wanted a space for testing a new approach to education, an approach that would be hands-on and adaptable to changes in technology. In other words, quick, relevant and experiential.
On a recent visit, I sauntered up to a 93-inch touch screen to play the role of an IT professional called upon to solve a cyber security breach. Like a high-tech Encyclopedia Brown I touched my way through steps to uncovering the source of a fictional security breach. (Hint: The character Ms. Sherwood, an employee at the firm under attack, should not be trusted with her laptop away from home.) I came pretty close to completing the free training that would have earned me a certificate complete with a frame. Of course, the for-profit university does hope that some students who visit RedFlint will be inspired to take fee-based courses; but regardless of the profitability, there are plans to take what is learned about how to teach new skills at RedFlint and apply it in University of Phoenix classrooms across the nation. Bonilla describes it as “RedFlint in a box.”
The center’s goal is also to support economic growth by equipping people with technology skills, working with local businesses to solve technology-related obstacles and by providing resources for entrepreneurial-minded locals. Recently, a hospitality company was having trouble recruiting individuals with cloud-computing experience. RedFlint worked with the company to solve the problem in part by developing cloud-computing workshops. To gauge the success of the entrepreneurial initiatives, such as business-planning workshops and funding provided by Iron Yard, RedFlint plans on tracking startup activity helped by their efforts.
“We want to be seen as high value to the community and to figure out ways to make it sustainable without profit being the primary driver,” says Bonilla.
If you’re still not quite sure what to make of RedFlint, it is probably because it is, to a certain extent, something new, and it is, to repeat the words of Collins, a lot.
As Bonilla says, “It can be very many different things to different people.”
RedFlint (300 S. Fourth St.- Suite #180) is open Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information or to sign up for a workshop, visit www.phoenix.edu/redflint.html or call 702-408-3200.