Experience Institute: School is Changing

Could we make a fluid learning system and supportive framework that would accommodate different learning styles—a system that wouldn’t turn out recent graduates who’d accumulated crippling debt yet lacked applicable work experience and useful portfolios?

Last June, I told the story of my self-made Master’s program and corresponding community project, The Leap Year Project. Instead of pursuing the well-beaten path of a traditional MBA, I took a chance and designed my own format for learning. It turns out, I’m not the only one asking questions about the meaning of higher education. The landscape of education and school is changing.

Can Individuals Create Their Own Education?

I immersed myself in 12 apprenticeships and experiences over a period of 12 months, engaging with mentors, fellows, and experts in the fields of business, design, and social innovation. During that time, I asked myself and many others the questions, “Can individuals create their own education? And if so, how should they do it?”

I wanted to know whether we could make a fluid learning system and supportive framework that would accommodate different learning styles—a system that wouldn’t turn out recent graduates who’d accumulated crippling debt yet lacked applicable work experience and useful portfolios. How could we go about changing the way the world—our employers, peers, family and friends—viewed higher education? Could we create a space where bright, self-starting students could learn by doing? As my own journey drew to a close, those thoughts resonated deeply with me. I had created my own path, but I wondered whether my footsteps could prove useful for others.

In response, I began working with a few remarkable friends and mentors to transform my personal project into a prototype for a new kind of school based in real-world experience. Experience Institute is a year-long experiential learning program that offers students the opportunity to learn within their industry of preference through immersive and unique portfolio-enriching experiences. Working alongside an incredible team of educators and designers from Stanford’s d.school, Northwestern, Leo Burnett, and others, we established a common goal and a core curriculum, then we set about changing the very idea of school.

Learning as a Lifestyle

At Experience Institute, we believe that education doesn’t happen in just two or four years. Rather, learning is a lifestyle. It’s a habit. Lifelong learners grow and adapt to evolving industries. They exercise remarkable ingenuity within their fields, providing the world with innovations that change the way we live and think. Success in your career or in your life doesn’t depend on a college degree. It depends on a number of core values and skills. With Experience Institute, I wanted to provide young people with a viable alternative to traditional higher education that would give them the creative confidence, agency, and portfolio to transform their world with an inventive spirit.

Back in September, a small pilot class of students embarked on a year-long journey with Experience Institute. They came from different disciplines, different places. They’re writers, designers, engineers, business strategists and social entrepreneurs hailing from San Francisco, Austin, Fargo and Chicago. They came with different objectives, different questions, and different hopes, but they all shared something in common: a desire to grow professionally and learn how to apply their skills to meaningful work.

Previously, we wrote about the practical skills they’ve developed in their fields of interest, the meaningful relationships they’ve established with each other and industry professionals, and the creative confidence they’ve gained over their first two terms with Experience Institute. Their experiences have taken them all over the world, from an architecture firm in Seattle to a village in the Philippines, and armed them with the credibility to launch themselves into the next phase of their careers.

Although their experiences have been disparate, they’re united by a strong community and common cause. Each two-week long intensive meet up and each weekly check-in, every newsletter, blog post, podcast and greeting card, every triumph and setback, has woven our students and Ei team together into an implacable unit.

It hasn’t been easy, though. It’s hard when you feel lost or unsure navigating new environments, systems, and an entirely new model for education. How do we establish a methodology to evaluate, assess and guide the learning process within such an organic structure? People fear meaningless failure, getting off-track, and feeling left-behind. They want to be building towards something rather than missing out, so how do we validate their experiences to make them more valuable?

Creating New Cues

Moreover, if we’re really going to change the way education works, we’ll need to change how employers see potential employees. They need cues or signals to know whether or not someone is a potential fit. When perusing 70 applications, it’s nice to see a high GPA and a brand name university. How do we create new cues that are widely adopted?

These are significant issues to tackle, but the long days and late nights are worth it. If we can continue to create the curriculum and build the network to support our students’ goals and help them connect with passions, make new discoveries, and identify the things they care deeply about, then we’ll know we’re making a difference. That’s huge.

Personally, I’m looking forward to what’s next. As our pilot class dives into its final round of apprenticeships, Experience Institute is accepting applications for its second class of creative entrepreneurial students. I can imagine a future where students past and present share grand stories, common lessons, and overall support for being a part of the school. As I mentioned earlier: learning is a habit. It’s my hope that our alumni will want to continue learning with current students to build a progressive, collaborative community focused on creating a better world.

So, can we create a new type of education? Well, I think we’re on the right track. If you join us next year, you too can be a part of something new and truly exciting.