May 09, 2014


What do running a World of Warcraft guild and managing an intensive lab at a world-class research university  have in common?

Quite a bit, says Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab. “There’s a metaphorical learning that a five year old kid gets when running a team of forty adults against a monster that that kid can use in management.”

Ito, who never completed his college degree, went through many failed business ventures before hitting it big. He sees flops and missteps as vital to the learning process.

“Failures are actually the best way to learn facts,” Ito explains. "If somebody tells you the plate is hot, and you don't touch it – well you don't know for a fact that it's hot. And that's what most of our education is like. But if you touch the plate, you know for a fact that it's hot — even though in a sense that's a failure."

There is a danger, Ito is quick to point out, in writing off four-year degrees completely, though. While there are a few success stories of dropouts who go on to run big companies, "for every one of those there’s a hundred people who are getting paid less because they didn’t complete their degrees," Ito argues.

But, he believes, there is a need to change the standard approach to learning.

Ito uses snowboarding as an analogy. You can read all the manuals you want, but only through the practical experience of flying – and falling – down a mountain, will you really learn to snowboard.

Just as snowboarders learn by getting on their boards, students should be allowed to experiment – and fail – in a supportive environment. The practice of failing early, when the stakes are lower, sets students up to succeed later on.

To find out where Ito thinks the Internet is headed next and hear more about the MIT Media Lab, listen to the full interview, above.

higher ed, Education, Business, Culture, MIT media lab, Joi Ito

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