October 21, 2021

Seriously Fun Learning: What’s That, Now?

Dr. Katy McDevitt
Seriously Fun Learning: What’s That, Now?

🧠 Written by HEX’s Chief Learning Officer, Dr Katy McDevitt.

When the covid crisis hit in 2020, HEX rapidly shifted from delivering highly immersive, global learning experiences –  taking young people into startup hubs around the world like San Francisco and Singapore – to 100% virtual ones, virtually overnight.

The pandemic added a whole raft of new challenges onto the ones we already knew about. Student disengagement and closing the gap between uni education and work-readiness were already an issue. Now, learners also had to overcome tech issues, deal with a sense of distance from instructors and peers, and navigate the fogginess of making major decisions about life, education and careers when everything around them seemed impossible.

HEX’s Chief Learning Officer, Dr Katy McDevitt.

Against all that, the HEX team challenged ourselves to deliver valuable and highly engaging learning opportunities to every single one of our students - and we’ve done that in spades. I’m proud of our team for achieving the kind of student engagement that’s rarely seen in more formal learning settings (around 97%, thanks for asking!).

I’ve worked in and around the HEX community for more than 2 years now, first as an advisory board member and more recently as Chief Learning Officer (more on that in a second). Throughout, what’s striking about the HEX team is that they really love to develop experiences that are super energised and fun for learners, while packing in the learning goodies at the same time.

Early on, I asked my new colleagues, “What’s the secret sauce?” In typical HEX style, the answer came back: “It can feel like a party in the front, but it’s all business at the back. Everything’s based on serious design work behind the scenes”. This results in an experience that pushes the “social” in social learning to its logical, most fun edge – think music, running jokes, cheesy memes, and above all, nobody standing on a mountaintop pretending that they hold the answer to complex real-world challenges. That’s seriously fun innovation.

What does ‘fun’ look like in learning?

So, digging into the question of “what makes a ‘HEX’ learning experience?” takes us into a highly creative educational space, where designing for experience is as important as covering off core learning objectives and (dreaded words!) “the content”.

Our approach to learning encourages humour, personal expression, engagement with pop and internet culture, and a level of meaningful connections with both peers and industry experts from the likes of Atlassian, Google, Dropbox and Facebook. These experts instil confidence in students’ abilities while they are rapidly ideating and building a business of their own, while the lightness and energy of the HEX team keeps them laughing, makes them feel seen, and inspires their curiosity for what’s next.

Cultivating fun, of course, doesn’t mean trivialising the learning that gets done – it actually helps learners to go deeper. Why? Because we’ve removed any sense of formality and people feel confident to let their guard down and bring their whole selves to the enterprise.

HEX programs are famously tough, as learners take on a global challenge like one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals. Challenges that seem too big and too difficult to tackle – and yet are the most worth solving. Gutsy challenge comes from the sheer ambition of the goals learners take on, the pace and intensity of the work they do, and the environment they’re pitched into. We love seeing our learners present to real business leaders, investors and stakeholders in a high-pressure performance setting where they’ll get candid feedback to spur them on well past the program.

All this leads to a great sense of achievement - our students often finish their first HEX experience with a great sense of accomplishment, and we often get responses like “I can’t believe we just built a business” and “I’m knackered, but I totally want to do it again after a couple of sleeps!”

What education approaches do HEX experiences draw on?

One aspect of my CLO role that I really enjoy is guiding our team through different perspectives from education design and learning sciences. To do this I draw on my own career-wide experience in education and commercial learning settings, but more importantly I plug us into bodies of knowledge on how learning works in the digital age, across education and the world of work.

HEX’s expertise in creative education technologies is a competitive advantage for us, and we work pretty hard to keep in front of the fast-changing ed tech landscape, so we’re constantly considering how we can learn from what’s happening in-market, to spark innovation and improvement in what we do.

Because the experiences we offer are so strongly applied and hands-on, I like to align them with a philosophy of learning called Constructivism – which describes exactly what the name suggests, learning by making and building. If, like me, you’ve been watching hands-on learning environments pop up over the past few years – from makerspaces to labs to incubators – it’s the spread of constructivist approaches that you’re observing.

In the startup education space, we have plenty of accelerator programs that are hosted in incubators or lab style environments too. What HEX does is to take the idea of learning by making, and turbo-charge that by tying it to audacious challenges on deliberately tight timeframes, in a collaborative model. Combine all that, and you’ve got a pretty powerful recipe for hands-on learning that tests young people’s core capabilities as well as their people skills and their mindsets (perfect for building grit!).

Through programs like our Great Global Challenge - think 5 days full immersion, working with 300+ peers on one of those audacious big-picture problems I mentioned - a HEX student can:

  • build strong tech-powered capabilities through experimentation using a cutting-edge tech toolkit
  • develop human-centered capabilities (sometimes called ‘soft skills’ though we don’t use that!)
  • get more comfortable with the change capabilities that employers are see as critical graduate attributes – practicing collaborative open mindsets with an optimistic perspective.

We call this the “triple stack” for obvious reasons - it’s not about pulling out “soft skills” and developing those specifically, it’s about immersing people holistically in experiences that challenge and develop all the future-critical capabilities in different ways.

The future workforce needs a new kind of experience

The HEX team collaborating on Around.

Our learning model is super creative and speaks volumes about the energy and spirit of innovation at HEX. In addition to delivering great experience to our learners though, there’s a broader agenda at play. So what’s the impact we’re aiming towards, and why does it matter?

We’ve formed a view on this, based on broad and deep consultation with education experts, industry leaders and innovators over the past few years. We think the lag time between “young or emerging talent” and “graduate work-ready talent” is too long, and we believe young people are highly capable of creating significant business value if they’re empowered to do that earlier.

With our intensive learning programs now recognised for credit for over 35 university subjects, we’re reducing what’s traditionally been a 3+ year buffer between someone’s university learning and the rest of their career. The cost of not addressing this issue is clear: under-utilised young talent costs the Australian economy 15.9bn per year, and 50% of firms find it difficult to hire the talent they need, despite significant investment in graduate recruitment programs and talent acquisition*. What this tells us is that the talent is there, but perhaps it's not being unleashed. It is absolutely critical for us to nurture the next generation of leaders, problem solvers and change-makers as early as we can.

We’re in no doubt what kinds of impact we want and need to achieve, while we’re growing and diversifying to explore different ways to power young people’s development. Acknowledging the challenges involved, we’re laser focused on enabling HEX learners to achieve the learning outcomes our programs target, but beyond that, we’re also tracing the changes that happen after that powerful first learning experience with HEX.

Over more than 4 years, we’ve seen many alums, known as Hexies, taking their expanded capabilities into the world of work as founders and intrapreneurs with companies like Accenture, Deloitte, Zendesk and Google. We’ve established our HEX World community, where we see alums, industry partners and employers sharing opportunities like funding, jobs and career insights with incredible generosity - if you like, a pay-it-forward ethos.

And Hexies will routinely introduce themselves by proudly foregrounding their memorable first HEX experience - as in, “Hi, I’m Elsa and I’m a Hexie from 1.7!”, so HEX is genuinely front of mind for their personal career branding. When we talk about HEX experiences helping to create a generation of gutsy game-changers, this is really what we’re talking about, and it’s all built on the deep engagement and authentic relationships that seriously fun learning generates.

Written By Dr Katy McDevitt

If you’re interested in collaborating with HEX, you can connect with Katy on LinkedIn.

About HEX

HEX crafts and delivers high-impact learning experiences that help young people to develop the mindsets, skillsets and toolsets to become amazing startup founders, business leaders and all round good humans. We unlock the captive talent of young people early in their career with our programs that challenge the assumption that the traditional education system provides optimal opportunities for better learning and improved career prospects.

*Oster, A., & Kelly, T. (2018, April). NAB QUARTERLY BUSINESS SURVEY 2018 q1. NAB Australian Economics. Linked here.

Foundation for Young Australians. (2018). The New Work Reality: FYA’s New Work Order report series. Linked here.

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