This is What Well-Designed Experiential Learning Looks Like

1,000 ways to draw an apple: part of our “Foundation Weeks” at Hyper Island

I’ve just started a Master’s Degree in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island. I chose this program partially because the teaching methodology is unorthodox (I like unorthodox). The methodology is called “experiential learning” and I’d like to share my first encounter with this technique.

[A note to keep you from getting confused: “experiential learning” is different from “experience design.” This article is about experiential learning (our method) not experience design (our topic). If you are still confused — have a look at my article explaining Experience Design.]

Our syllabus was rolled out on the floor, where we instantly shared “things I know,” “things I’m excited about” and “things I’m anxious about” using color-coded post-its.

Experiential Learning is so different from traditional school that many people don’t have the vocabulary to explain it. I talked to several former Hyper Island students about the program, and even they couldn’t find the words to describe their experience.

“I can’t explain it, you just have to do it.”

This was the sentence I heard over and over when talking to previous Hyper Island students. As a curious outsider, I found this response quite unsatisfying.

We don’t have “teachers,” per se. We don’t even really have “faculty.” Instead, we have a tight-knit team of six “facilitators,” who guide us through a meticulously planned agenda of talks and exercises each day.

Studying the cutting edge of digital with not one phone or laptop in sight. Being present and never distracted is part of our crew culture.

Every morning when I come in, I see our facilitation team through the front window, standing in a circle. I assume they are doing one of the very same think-on-your-feet type exercises that they are teaching us. These exercises, simple and quick, are about being present, energizing the group, and sharing candid feedback — Hyper Island’s daily maintenance trinity for teams.

The fact that our facilitators practice what they preach creates a feeling of symmetry between the student group and the facilitator group, a sense of equality and even kinship. That’s something I’ve never felt in previous learning situations where a hierarchy between teachers and students is immediately presumed and mutually enforced. At Hyper Island, we are constantly reminded by our facilitators that they are not the ones in charge— we are.

Student teams working on projects right away in the first week.

The facilitation team plans our days carefully but also chooses activities on the fly in response to our demonstrated needs. Are the students struggling with dominant personalities? Let’s try The Power Of Silence. Case of the 4pm droops? Let’s do an Energizer. Hyper Island has an artillery of simple activities for energizing, evaluating, and coordinating teams, and this is the toolbox our facilitation team is drawing from.

Your author, sitting on the floor, surrounded by 60 other students from 24 countries.

What’s the biggest difference between traditional learning and experiential learning? I think the lean back/lean forward distinction used by media theorists works well:

In traditional learning, students “lean back.” In experiential learning, students have no choice but to “lean forward.”

Students are constantly active. The max amount of time spent passively sitting and listening is probably 30 minutes. Lecture-style lessons are bookended with topical activities that illustrate the content of the lecture. (These lecture moments now feel so old-school and tedious, even after just two weeks. BTW, In my undergraduate education, I sat through hours of lectures like a champ and genuinely enjoyed them).

The few moments we spent sitting and listening to a lecture were to explain psychological theories and specific tools for feedback and reflection in teams.

Theory segues into activities, activities segue into peer feedback, and peer feedback speeds us into personal growth. Personal growth then catapults us into group growth. The days go very fast. The pace is only barely possible.

We begin most days with reflection sessions. In a reflection session, you sit in a circle and speak candidly about how the previous day’s events affected you, how you felt, what you can learn from it, and what you’ll do to advance the team going forward.

Reflection sounds really simple, almost juvenile. However, I have observed over the course of these two weeks that it’s like instant fertilizer for teams— unpleasant at first but undeniably effective. When you reflect every morning with your team, nothing has the chance to fester. Insecurities and budding conflicts are dissolved through catharsis and candor.

For example, I entered Thursday morning’s reflection session feeling as heavy as a brick (it was after an activity that was a terrible experience for me) and I left the reflection room feeling happy enough to actually skip down the hallway to our next activity. I just had to get it all off my chest. I am a believer in this technique.

In this activity we had to fold paper airplanes in pairs. One person holds the instructions, and the other person folds. The plane-folder can’t see the instructions. The instruction-giver can’t see the plane. It’s much harder than you’d expect.
Physical tasks help our brains remember and understand. So, we flew our planes to seal the neurological deal.

Good reflection is very personal and often emotional. Some have jokingly referred to it as “group therapy.” The reward for this is rapid and intense personal growth for seemingly all the students. Every student is required to speak in front of the group. Nobody can sit at the back of the room with their arms folded. It’s an all-hands-on-deck experience.

Another aspect of the whole experience is how quickly the training wheels are removed. We aren’t given time to build any lazy habits or dependencies. For example, on the first day, our facilitators moderated and participated in our reflection sessions. By day three, they simply moderated. By day four, students were running our own reflection sessions.

On our third day of school, we had an assignment to put on a dinner party for all students and admins at Hyper Island UK in under 2 hours. Required deliverables were food, drink, entertainment, party documentation, décor, and bookkeeping for a £250 budget. The exercise was especially poignant given that we had spent the whole day discussing theories of teamwork and group dynamics.

Here is how Hyper Island explains Experiential Learning in our student handbook:

Hyper Island’s methodology is centred on the idea of experiential learning. This kind of education has a rich history in the well­ established educational theories of constructivism and constructionism, and draws on the kind of progressive education that Sweden and Scandinavia is world famous for. Moving away from the traditional model of education where students are viewed as ‘empty­vessels’ waiting to be filled with knowledge by teachers, experiential learning is about learning by doing.
Giving feedback to your teammates is a structured practice. Here, feedback is given directly, succinctly, publicly, and immediately on the heels of a group project.

Another really creative thing that Hyper Island has done: they’ve activated the whole of our physical space as an arena for learning and group development. Our use of the space is entirely our prerogative. We were told on day 1 that the “the space is ours” to use however we like (there has already been group yoga and late-night discos). With this freedom comes the responsibility of cleaning up and collectively managing the tedium of dirty cups, piled plates and disorganized marker bins.

My first thought upon hearing this “DIY cleaning crew” strategy was that of a spoiled American student accustomed to the opulent amenities that a $45,000 yearly tuition affords (“we’re supposed to be focused on our studies, not cleaning cups”). After only one day of seeing the effect that DIY cleanup had on our group spirit, I understood how translatable these skills are to the workplace and to life outside of school.

A super simple format for the feedback exercise.

In workplaces, the use of common space, dealing with dirty cups, negotiating pet policies, booking the conference room, and planning office parties is something that requires real attention and work.

Our “crew culture” is ours to design.

Our future office cultures will also be ours to design — whether that’s been explicitly stated by management or not. As employees, the power to shape office culture is always in our hands. We play a role. If we don’t like something about our office, we can work to evolve it. Putting students in charge of our own school space is a huge lesson in this.

It’s more effective than reading an article or attending a talk on workplace cultures— we’re actually doing it, making it, shaping it, right here and now.

Following a short lecture on group development and dynamics, we had this challenge: create a perfect square from a length of rope. All participants must be blindfolded and holding the rope at all times. This made the morning’s lecture quite tangible.

Why are students of digital design and media management spending so much time on team-building and groupwork? Hyper Island considers digital a sort of trojan horse. Very often, digital agencies and consultants are hired to design innovative digital products for companies. It often becomes clear in these scenarios that meaningful innovation can’t take root in a client organization without parallel changes in culture and behavior. Thus, we need to be experts in culture and group development just as much as we need to be experts in the details of digital.

I’m so happy I’m here. This whole thing—the quirkiness, the emphasis on culture, the open-endedness, the creativity— it couldn’t be more up my alley. Before coming here, I was torn over the decision of where to study design. I was looking at lots of programs all around the world, most of them about eight times more expensive than Hyper Island.

This school is more special and different than the traditional MFA and MBA options I was considering. Hopefully this article helps you understand what makes it stand out, even after just two weeks.