Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Joi Ito's Views on Learning

Joi Ito is the new director of the MIT Media Lab. He is a highly accomplished, very well known technologist. He has been the founder of many Internet companies, and chairs the board of directors of the Creative Commons. According the Wikipedia entry about him, he first went to Tufts University for an undergrad in Computer Science, and dropped out. He then went to the University of Chicago for physics, and dropped out of there too. He spent countless hours playing world of warcraft online and credits it with teaching him valuable lessons about management and leadership. So he certainly has had a non-conventional educational path for someone who now heads one of the most visible, most prestigious academic centers.

Today at a conference that I am attending (Emtech 2011), he was being interviewed. I got the chance to ask him the following question after his interview:

What are your views on the University as we have it today and how that's going to change as a lot of changes are happening in technology and society?

Here is his response:
I just was talking to the Ph.D. students yesterday and I said, first of all, if I were at the Media Lab, I probably would have graduated. But, the Media Lab is great, because it is very much an interest-driven learning model, they are focused so much more on learning than some institutions. I think MIT is obviously better than most, but a lot of institutions I feel that you're in the university to try to get out. Because what you're looking for is the degree, and then once you get out... the focus is on the degree and not learning. And I said this as a joke, but I kind of almost mean it, I said to the Ph.D. students, look, if at the end when you are graduating, and I go "psych!" and take away your degree, I want it to be that you still are completely able to get a job as though you had the degree and the degree doesn't matter. I want you to have learned so much and it become so interesting that the degree is something [only to show] that we're happy you are a graduate... the degree isn't the reason why you're here. 
...thinking about the degree as a byproduct of doing great learning and great work is the way I'd like the Media Lab to become... But I really hate classes and education getting in the way of learning. I mean, that to me was why I left, because it was getting in the way of me learning. I think that focusing on learning, and focusing on creativity is a key element of the Media Lab. 
I think there are certain types of characters. Like my sister is a double-Ph.D., Magna cum Laude, Harvard, Stanford... The difference is that when she was 5 years old, 6 years old, she could plan her life. She said this is what I want to be when I'm 25 years old, 30 years old. I couldn't think past the next day and so if it wasn't interesting and useful for me to do today, I was on to the next thing. I think there are more kids like me than there are like my sister, so you have certain kids like my sister who make it through the formal education process, no problem, and they learn tons. But there's a bunch of people, misfits like me who can't fit in... it's not like I want to change all of higher education, but there is a role for this kind of learning through doing, learning through tinkering, interest-driven learning, because I've had, not necessarily the best example, but I'm exhibit A of somebody who was able to stitch together their own learning, without very much formal help, thanks to the Internet in large part. And so, and it's funny because my sister studies education, and after she had become quite well known in the field of education, she looked over at me and said "wait a second, how did you? how did that work?"... and now she is focused on this informal learning stuff, so I sit around and try to explain to her what I'm thinking, and she sort-of rigorously tries to explain it in education-anthropological terms... 
For me, the Media Lab, I'd like it to be a prototype for a new kind of higher education and that we don't become just one side-show, but that the DNA of the Media Lab starts to infect all kinds of other universities and institutions and companies about new ways to think about innovation, think about learning.
I find myself in near-total agreement with his emphasis on interest-driven learning, and the primacy of learning over formal coursework and degrees. This has been the primary theme of many of my posts here...

(The full video of the interview and the Q&A afterwards is available online.)

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