The creative business school with no teachers, homework, text or tests
by Tobias van Schneider
It’s no secret that traditional education, at least within the United States, is failing. Lack of funding, outdated curriculum, out-of-touch professors and exorbitant tuition costs are among the many reasons.
As these shortcomings become more evident with each passing year, new educational models have gained footing. None of those models are quite like Hyper Island.
Hyper Island, a creative business school based in Sweden, has been educating some of the brightest creative minds since 1996. It’s graduates are everywhere – founding companies, directing teams, building robots, designing for some of the largest brands in the world. You know they’re Hyper Island alumni because they proudly proclaim it. This isn’t just a school. It’s a thriving community.
Hyper Island came to life from a need. Let down by the linear, rigid way they were forced to learn as children, its founders decided to create something different. Their founding belief: That technology, business and creativity needed to come together as a minimum set of skills.
“I was frustrated with the idea that multimedia or digital or whatever we call the huge digital transformation was going to be left in the hands of specialists,” says Jonathan Briggs, Hyper Island co-founder. “Education tends to produce people who are too narrow and if we think about big problems, then teams of people with different (but informed) perspectives are necessary.”
With this mission in mind, they bought an abandoned prison on the Swedish island of Stumholmen and started their own school.
"With Hyper Island and an open mind, I was able to work on not only my skills but my ability to learn anything.”
At Hyper Island, you learn by doing: You don’t get tests, you get briefs. You’re not taught, because teachers are working right alongside you. You can’t fail, because failure is the goal – it’s how you learn.
“I have always been highly motivated by the constructionist view of learning that shows that learning takes place when we make things,” says Briggs. “Making things together brings both the making and the diverse perspectives together, and this was at the heart of Hyper Island from the start.”
This method, Briggs explains, casts teachers as co-learners and facilitators rather than sources of knowledge. Facilitation is at the heart of what Hyper Island does and that means guiding and nudging learners to explore a problem, rather than giving them the answers. There is no right or wrong, no homework, no set text, no teachers in the traditional sense. There’s only hands-on learning.
The school brings leading experts from around the globe to immerse students in science, technology, business and all manner of creative practices. It offers both full-time and part-time courses, anywhere from five days to five years in length, on weekends, nights, in person and online.
Madhav Agarwal is a recent graduate of Hyper Island’s Business Developer course. When he came to Hyper Island, he was a brand strategist looking to further his skills and expertise in the same area. The goal was to find a job in Europe and stick to his safe zone of skills.
“Being from India, I wanted to choose a school which gave me exposure to working in a new cultural setting and not only theoretical learning,” says Agarwal. “Very few schools came up that fit my needs – that is education, practical experience and an international outlook. Hyper Island with its brand roster and practical methodology stood out amongst any other design school.”
Agarwal took a year-long course consisting of seven different modules, each with a relevant industry leader who designed “learning journeys” made for real-world application. In each module, students were put into teams. Every team had a real client, for whom they solved a brief under the mentorship of their industry leader. Meaning, Agarwal had no homework because he had real-world work – delivered on a real-world deadline.
Agarwal now works as a project lead at Planethon, a planet research and innovation consultancy in Stockholm. He credits Hyper Island for changing how he navigates work and life.
“My experience at Hyper Island has been a complete transformational journey from a personal and a professional perspective,” says Agarwal. “With Hyper Island and an open mind, I was able to work on not only my skills but my ability to learn anything.”
His experience reflects a core Hyper Island belief: that learning is a lifetime pursuit. It’s never too late to pursue a new career path, advance your existing skills or expand them. It’s a philosophy that drives how the school itself runs; Hyper Island is committed to evolving with the times, the technology and the industry.
"We need to create environments where people feel safe to share ideas and innovate."
Dawn Hoenie, Hyper Island’s chief methodologist, leads the charge on that.
“We adapt to the many changes we are presented with,” Hoenie says. “And over the course of time, many things have changed at a record-breaking speed.”
Hyper Island has spent the last five years taking their approaches online, employing the same constructionist “makers” mindset to continually experiment, solve problems and improve systems. This process has been accelerated by COVID-19 (particularly in Singapore, where Hyper Island’s online learning experiences are thriving). While the platforms are evolving, the school’s methods remain the same.
“We need to support people to think differently,” says Hoenie. “We need to create environments where people feel safe to share ideas and innovate – where people are not humiliated or punished for expressing their ideas, asking questions, or expressing their concerns. When mistakes happen, they can be turned into learning opportunities and innovation.”
As traditional universities scramble to adjust to remote learning, and those who lost jobs search for new ones, and more competition arises among the remote workforce, and people struggle even more than before to pay off their student debt – it’s become more clear than ever that the education system is broken.
The silver lining: The events of this past year have affirmed what we’ve suspected for a while now. That we don’t need to get into decades of debt to pursue higher education. That we don’t need to devote four years of our lives to schooling if we decide to switch our career. That we don’t need to drop everything and enroll full-time in a university to secure our dream job.
The clouds are parting, and the spires of a shimmering new city are emerging. Hyper Island has been there long before other alternative learning methods, bootcamps and online courses popped up around it. It’s not a kingdom with laws, rulers or walls. Its doors are open and its land sprawls before you, welcoming you to come play, learn and grow.