Catherine McHenry, Programme Leader at Hyper Island, discusses empowering independent learning and changing the world of work

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Hyper Island is an education provider with a difference. The global business school has swerved away from traditional education, and provides hands-on creative courses applicable to real-world vocations.

Catherine McHenry is a Programme Leader at Hyper Island’s UK base, which is found in Manchester. She heads up two programmes, Digital Management and Digital Experience Design, Master’s courses offering real briefs and accredited by Teesside University.

Catherine is a Steering Panel member for Digital City Festival, which is coming to Manchester on March 9th. Along with many other influential figures, she’s helping bring the five-day event to reality - learn more about being involved here.

Hyper Island is doing things quite differently, and as McHenry explains, “Hyper Island is based on the idea of ‘there are no professors’.

“[Its] approach and methodology has always been the same: it’s about empowering people to learn for themselves. Not provide the answers, but encourage individuals and teams to experiment and learn by doing.”

I love Hyper Island because of the focus on the human - it's about people and empathy.

Sometimes called the ‘Digital Harvard’, Hyper Island was founded by a handful of entrepreneurs who not only were disillusioned with the way they had been taught earlier in life, but also were aware of how quickly the world of work was changing, and that skills needed to be general and transferable, not specific.

“It was born at the time of the boom of the internet... the founders realised it's not about learning technical skills any more. It's about learning how to work with people, how to communicate, how to understand differences in perspectives, and different skillsets.

“I love Hyper Island because there's such focus on the human element of it. It's about people, and it's about empathy.”

Learning from industry leaders

Catherine’s courses, Digital Management and Digital Experience Design, are quite different even from Hyper Island’s selection of educational courses. As a learning facilitator rather than a teacher, Catherine tells me “We bring in industry leaders who are experts in what they do - plus other experts to provide counter-arguments, and different ways of working. The students are working on live projects for every single project.”

It means that students work closely together in teams to tackle real briefs - “there’s no such thing as a hypothetical one!” - learning how to work together and learning more about themselves as they do.

People from a wide range of disciplines complete the course - and the team-based nature of the Master’s means collaboration works even more effectively. Among others, topics covered include design thinking, digital technologies, business transformation, and innovation projects.

“Something that I love about Hyper Island is it's such a multicultural place,” says Catherine. “We've got four continents represented in these teams.” Diversity is not only part of the curriculum, and in the work backgrounds of the students, but deeply embedded in the culture.

Building on Hyper Island’s concept of no more professors, students are invited not just to read literature, make notes, or accept the received wisdom. “They have to take a very critical, analytical look at what we're offering. It's not just about swallowing the Hyper Island pill.”

And while the course is intensive and wide-ranging, once people come out the other side at Hyper Island, they enter an entirely new world. They take with them the skills that’ll help them thrive in the world of digital - but what’s more, they become part of a huge network of Hyper graduates, or ‘Hypers’, who are renowned for helping one another around the world.

Students must take a critical, analytical look at what we're offering - not just swallow the Hyper Island pill.

The joke among those in the know is that graduates will never have to pay for a hotel on holiday ever again, because there will be spare rooms with other Hypers wherever they go. It’s “a really healthy, supportive network”, says Catherine.

Accountability and pace

Education has the power to change how work is done, and Hyper Island’s efforts are changing it even quicker. Another facet of Hyper Island is that, in its native Sweden, it’s accountable to the government, “validated by the government to ratify that there is a need an industry need for every single programme that they do.”

It means it’s not just another attempt to disrupt education - it needs to achieve results and prove its worth. The achievements it’s made in sending digitally skilled people back into the workplace speak volumes.

“It's kind of incredible to see what teams are capable of doing in such a short amount of time, utilising all their skillsets.”

At the end of the day, traditional educational pathways might not be the best way to ready people for management roles in today’s digital sector. “You're not going to learn digital by sitting in a room and being taught by somebody.

“Throw people into teams onto live projects, and get them to have a go at stuff - that's the best way!”

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