World Report

Hyper Island

A First-person Account of a Very Different School Experience

By Philip Clevberger

The Hyper Island school started in 1995 when Jonathan Briggs, David Ericson and Lars Lundh met during a project involving CD-ROM production. They soon realized that for the growing new media industry there was an increasing need for a different kind of higher education involving industry-based learning. Hyper Island’s first two-year program started in 1996 with 30 students.

Since its beginning, Hyper Island’s pedagogy has been a true success. Well-known magazines, such as Creative Review and New Media Age, have published articles on the school’s unique educational environment. The school has also been a case-study for the British Government in gathering advice on future educational systems in the U.K. In the year 2000, Hyper Island was declared the best digital media institution in Sweden.

Today, the school runs mainly two programs: Hyper Island Digital Media (90 weeks) and Hyper Island Management (80 weeks). In total, over 200 students study full-time at the school each year. Hyper Island works with leadership-, team- and individual-development, preparing students for work in industry and the public sector. The school has also been involved in several exciting external projects, such as setting up a management program in Prishtina, Kosovo, in collaboration with the Olof Palme Institute and the IPKO Institute.

Hyper Island is situated in the southeast corner of Sweden, in Karlskrona. The town itself is built on 33 islands extending five kilometers out in the archipelago. The school is located in an old military prison, built in 1910-11, that has been redesigned for its current purpose. It has recently inaugurated new premises in a unique building previously used as a heating plant. Today, this is Hyper Island’s main venue for lectures, workshops and other student activities. 

According to Swedish law, prospective university students must reach a certain minimum grade in all basic subjects to be allowed to enter university. At Hyper Island grades have to be provided when applying, but they are not scrutinized in the selection of students. The most important element of the application is a personal letter about yourself and why you want to study at this institution, and how well you complete the first assigned task. Each year Hyper Island proposes a different task which applying students have to solve and submit with their application. When I was applying, I had to choose either to tell a story about myself using at least two different media or I could hand in a portfolio of previous work.

This is the first step in becoming a Hyper Island student. Then the school selects up to 140 potential students who are invited to visit for two “test days” when applicants complete tests ranging from creativity-based tasks to group-based problem solving. You also get a chance to talk to the current students who happily answer questions and tell you about previous school projects.

New students are selected by a group of current students, Hyper Island employees, and external professionals. They are not selected because of their current skills or personality.

Since the institution’s aim is to reflect a real work situation, they want a wide range of personalities. The most important consideration is not what you already know but how much you will benefit from the program and your willingness to learn.

During the test days you also learn that the school does not employ any teachers and that the staff claims they will not teach you anything. As a part of the 90 weeks, students go on a seven-month internship. It was very confusing for me at the beginning. I could not get my head around the fact that in such a short time the students could have such professional portfolios without being taught anything and without teachers.

As soon as the program starts, students are gathered together to complete a personal presentation of themselves in front of all 70 fellow students and the employees of Hyper Island. This is just to get a first glimpse of everybody and to start recognizing faces.

You soon get to know that you will not be taught all the sophisticated software being used within the digital media industry because that kind of knowledge has a “best before” date and will be worthless in the near future as software evolves so quickly. Hyper Island will give you the possibility of finding out such things on your own so you can do it every time something new needs be learned. Hyper Island will not tell you what is right and wrong. There will be no tests based on books you must read. No studies will be done based on theory only.

Hyper Island envisions an environment where students learn in much the same way that children learn to ride a bike – by trying, failing, and trying again until everything suddenly falls in place. Some previous students call Hyper Island a “crash course.”

The first few weeks at Hyper Island can involve a lot of confusion when you are not given any specified learning outcome as in a traditional school. You are simply handed a project and it is up to you where and how far you want to take it. Hyper Island expects you to report how things proceed, and what you base your decisions on. You also have to attend the organized lectures. At first many students are dissapointed and some even angry with the system, but will soon realize that it is all up to you and where you want to go. It is a great opportunity as you can use Hyper Island as a platform for exploring your own ideas.

The two programs Digital Media (90 weeks) and Hyper Island Management (80 weeks) are work-oriented programs. Both are linked to industry and apply teaching and learning approaches that are directly relevant to working life.

All school work is project-based, most lasting for about 5 to 6 weeks. As you are getting deeper into the way of studying at Hyper Island, more projects will run in parallel.

Projects start out with different themes. Each is explored from several perspectives: design, project management, leadership, branding, marketing, programming, etc. This gives students a general picture of the industry and provides a deeper understanding of production processes and general development systems.

Almost all projects are done in groups to reflect actual working environments. Hyper Island will not give you a specified learning outcome. It is up to you as a student to find out what needs to be known to solve a certain task. And as you work in a group, each group will more or less require different roles. It is up to you to decide whether you focus your work exclusively on one role and become very smart at it or whether you try to widen your skills.

As there are 70 students in each class, you are confronted by 70 different backgrounds and levels of knowledge. You also have access to e-mail addresses of previous students and contact information for previous lecturers. Eventually you are bound to discover what techniques to use and someone who knows how to employ them.

All lecturers are done by professionals from the industry relevant to the current project students are working on. These lecturers vary from year to year and Hyper Island always tries to find the best people from all over the world at the current time. These people give you a unique opportunity to get to know how they and their company work.

Just as in real life, the projects rarely run smoothly. Arguments arise and must be dealt with; some projects do not end satisfactorily. To tackle these problems and to make the next project more successful, Hyper Island uses techniques of reflection. Each group discusses the problems and how they think they can be prevented in the future. The problems can range from how to solve disagreements among group members or clients behaving badly, to lack of knowledge about certain subjects. These reflections are done frequently throughout the projects and students are encouraged to set up their own reflection sessions.

Students have 24-hour access to buildings. They also have access to the rooms and equipment for lectures. You can easily run your own workshops, help other students with your knowledge, and organize your own lectures. When students find a certain company very interesting or a certain individual very talented, they sometimes get in touch with them to see if a lecture can be arranged.

Since the projects are as lifelike as possible, you often work with real clients or you are in touch with investment companies and banks to sell your ideas. If there are problems, you have to face the consequences. From a Hyper Island point of view, a failure in a project does not inevitably mean that you have failed. By reflecting on your mistakes, you certainly obtain some precious insight, and hopefully will not repeat the same mistakes. As the projects are group-based, you are also judged as a group, although there are no grades other than pass or fail. If you fail or if something is missing in your report, you get the chance to go back and correct your mistakes.

It may sound easy to slip through the whole Hyper Island program by staying in the background (and, yes, you can), but would you really want to? The school tries to prevent this from happening by rejecting students who do not appear to be interested in learning. Also, if you are not doing your part, you will most certainly have to take the consequences during the reflection sessions.

During the first year students have to locate a company where they want to do an internship. You are encouraged to find “somewhere,” where you think you would learn a lot. You also have to learn how to advertise yourself to companies. Many students tend to go abroad. This has created a worldwide network for Hyper Island today.

You have plenty of time to get integrated into a real working environment in a 7-month internship. If you are not satisfied with your company, it is up to you to find another one. It is not rare that internships turn into actual jobs. That is how I got my first job in the industry and why I ended up living in London. Even though time has passed since I left Hyper Island, I still feel a part of the school. I use its network of people and knowledge on a daily basis and I would certainly not be where I am today without my education at Hyper Island.