Economic Development, Nonprofits, and Small Business & Startups

The Factory’s coLearning courses adding nonprofit factor

Students learn by doing, so organizations will receive much-needed free help.

January 1, 2016
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The Factory, a co-working space in downtown Grand Rapids, hosts coLearning courses. Courtesy The Factory

The hands-on-learning philosophy of The Factory’s coLearning classes now will have a dose of philanthropic impact.

The Factory, a startup hub in downtown Grand Rapids at 38 W. Fulton St., will be adding a nonprofit aspect to its coLearning courses, said Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up and The Factory.

CoLearning is The Factory’s educational component that focuses on professional development around the subjects of design, technology and business. Classes, which are $800, are 14 weeks long and have a maximum of 20 students.

Courses are taught by an area practitioner. Teachers are paid “equal to or more than an adjunct professor in a local college,” Schaap said.

Since The Factory is a licensed school by the state of Michigan, coLearning classes can now offer certification for completing the courses.

“We do about two classes per quarter. … All the courses are project-based learning, so it’s less lecture-based and more actually doing it,” Schaap said. “By the end, you’ve actually done the thing, which is radically different from most places around here.”

As the popularity of the classes has grown, so has the need to find relevant projects for the students, he said. This is where nonprofits come into the equation and can get work done for free.

“We haven’t announced it yet, but one of the things we’ll be doing with each of the courses is we’re going to be partnering with a local nonprofit.

“So, the idea is that people need real projects to work on. Again, this goes back to (the idea that) you’re actually doing the things you’re learning. If you want to understand content strategy, you should actually have to do content strategy for somebody to help them out,” Schaap said.

“We actually started doing it with some classes, not formally, but it just started to pop up. When we were looking for projects to do, we said, ‘Well, let’s just go out and look for real problems that exist.’ And it’s also really come through our instructors (who have said), ‘There’s nonprofits we’re passionate about.’”

The Factory is also taking its coLearning model and teaching the format to others. It has been rather informal, but it’s now being taught to businesses that want to learn about how to implement its educational model, Schaap said.

“Recently we’ve started getting a lot of attention from companies, so (there’s) something we haven’t formally pushed out but we’ve started to call ‘company co-learning,’” he said.

“OST (Open Systems Technologies) has actually used us twice to have the coLearning model taught within their organization. So, we did a front-end course where we taught their front-end people.”

The non-theory-based focus of coLearning’s educational style attracts people because it doesn’t focus only on hard skills but also on soft skills, Schaap said. “How can you be a better collaborator, communicator? … How can you be a better you?” he explained.

“Before you become a better designer or businessman, you just have to be a better you.”

In February, coLearning will offer two courses: Content Strategy, taught by Kris McNeil of Springthrough, and Design Thinking, taught by Gaby Scarritt of Steelcase.

Content Strategy is one of the more popular courses, Schaap said. The nonprofits that will be involved with the courses haven’t yet been announced.

The website,, describes the two courses:

“(The Content Strategy) class introduces those new to content strategy to the discipline, while providing cross-training to those with complementary experience in areas of communication, marketing professionals, designers and technologists.

“(The Design Thinking) course offers the chance to learn Design Thinking — a human-centered, prototype-driven process for solving problems and discovering new opportunities. We will be biased toward action and learn by doing. Participants will work in small, multi-disciplinary teams and dive into a hands-on innovation challenge from start to finish.”

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