At the beginning of each new term, Tom Igoe, a professor of physical computing at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, asks his students what they hope to gain from his course. Some want to create the next big social-networking app. Others plan to use technology to improve health care, add new dimensions to their art projects, or develop a solar-powered bikini that will cool a beer while simultaneously charging an iPod.
“I had one guy who came in on the first day of class and absolutely dead seriously said, ‘I want to build a robot cyborg of myself so that I can be immortal,'” Igoe says. “It’s not a question of evaluating is this goal feasible now, and can you walk out of here and do a start-up? It’s about looking at where the goal comes from and where it fits.”
Building cyborgs might be beyond the reach of existing technology, but ITP encourages students to push the boundaries of what is currently thought to be possible. Part of the Tisch School of the Arts, ITP was launched in 1979 to explore the power of public access video and has since evolved into one of the world’s leading new-media and communications graduate programs. Dubbed “the MIT Media Lab’s artier cousin” by Wired, the program and its students are increasingly lauded as one of the more creative and forward-thinking forces in the tech industry.
But as ITP tuition reaches roughly $46,000 a year and students show increasing interest in turning their creations into viable businesses, the question arises: Would students be better off investing in a start-up, or is the guidance of professors and collaboration with 200 like-minded students truly invaluable?
“It’s a tough question,” says ITP alumnus Dennis Crowley, “but if I had taken that money and invested it into myself, I don’t think it would have turned into anything.”
At 36, Crowley is perhaps ITP’s most famous graduate. While studying at the program between 2002 and 2004, he and classmate Alex Rainert developed a location-based social-networking application called Dodgeball, which they later sold to Google for a rumored $40 million. Crowley is now the founder and CEO of Foursquare, the wildly popular mobile application that allows users to “check in” at more than 2 billion venues worldwide.
In the large Greenwich Village loft that hosts ITP’s facilities, one can still find the remnants of Crowley’s first project: a foosball table he wired to scan students’ NYU ID cards and save game statistics. Crowley, who was always interested in ways to apply technology to the physical world, says ITP helped him turn his ideas into reality.
“We picked up enough skills while we were there to be able to make our ideas into something that would be really interesting to a lot of people,” he says. “ITP taught me that you don’t have to go and work at any of the 10 firms in the city that do product development. You can go out and start your own company.”
Although Crowley describes every semester at ITP as a “little entrepreneurial project,” culminating in the biannual “ITP Show”—a sophisticated, techie version of a science fair—he doesn’t think there is pressure on students to monetize their work. ITP is, after all, an arts school.
“I think if you’re in the mind-set of trying to create the next Foursquare, you’re not going to create the next Foursquare,” says Anh Ly, 28, co-founder of the ITP entrepreneurship club, which helps students turn their projects into real business models. “There’s an element of entrepreneurship [at ITP] because a lot of our products could become marketable, but it’s important that the school sort of allows creativity to take full control.”
Ly’s path to ITP was typical of many of her classmates. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in journalism, she found herself laid off from her job and dissatisfied with her chosen career path. At ITP, Ly focused on user experience and human-to-computer interaction, developing such projects as Dinosaur Treasure, an interactive educational tool that allows children to dig in the sand for digital fossils. She also created a mobile app called Dude, Where’s My Carburetor?, which helps drivers identify car troubles by pointing their smartphones at their engines.
“I just wanted to try something that I never envisioned I would be doing,” she says. The reward seems to have been worth the risk: This fall, Ly will begin work as a user-experience designer for Bing, Microsoft’s Web search engine. “I think the reason that I got the job was because of my entrepreneurship spirit and some of the wacky ideas that I’d had,” she notes.
ITP applicants are rarely admitted straight out of college. The program accepts one in every three applicants and tries to pick as diverse a group as possible (one lawyer, one doctor, one painter, and so on). No background in computer sciences or the arts is necessary, and students are taught the basics of programming and coding during their first year. Most, like Ly, are looking to change directions, either by starting a new career entirely or applying fresh skills to a familiar focus. They just need a push to get there.
ITP chair Dan O’Sullivan believes the high tuition, though understandably problematic for some, can act as that catalyst. There are cheaper options for tech-savvy students: Hackerspaces, co-working spaces, TED Talks, stackoverflow.com, and General Assembly. But when students are spending a substantial amount of money on their education, he believes, they’re more likely to commit fully to their goals.
“ITP is a very intense two years—you are really completely focused,” O’Sullivan says. “When you belong to some of these other options, your focus comes and goes. You can go to this session, or you can go to your uncle’s barbecue.” At ITP, by contrast, “You’re paying all of this money, and it gets your undivided attention.”
Even the ITP faculty is not entirely in agreement, however, about whether other alternatives can be equally valuable. Kio Stark has been an adjunct professor at the program for five years and teaches a variety of courses under the umbrella of relational technologies. She recently self-published a book titled Don’t Go Back to School, which features more than 80 interviews with individuals who were able to learn skills through self-education.
“It’s not that I think graduate school is never a good thing for people. It’s that I really want them to understand there are paths to learning without it,” explains Stark, who herself twice dropped out of a Yale graduate program. She holds an MA pro forma for completing two years of coursework but left before earning her Ph.D. “If you have some kind of financial support to get there, whether it’s a fellowship or your parents, I’d say go for it.”
The majority of ITP students pay for school with some combination of savings and loans, but not everyone can go on to develop a lucrative start-up like Foursquare to justify the cost of tuition. And though top companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft frequently send recruiters to ITP in search of fresh talent, not everyone can land a job like Anh Ly’s. Some, believe it or not, don’t even want to.
Matt Richardson, 30, is the creator of the Descriptive Camera, one of the more celebrated projects of this year’s ITP Spring Show. The camera—which was featured in The New York Times, New York, and The Boston Globe—prints out a crowd-sourced text description of a scene rather than an actual picture. Although Richardson has been praised for the originality of his work, he says he has little hope of the Descriptive Camera achieving commercial success.
“While it’s amusing to go out, take a picture, and get a description, the novelty wears off after a while,” Richardson says. “It’s making rounds in galleries, and people see it as a creative work, so if that’s the way it best fits into the world, then I’m happy to have it seen in that context.”
For every ardent entrepreneur in the program, there is a struggling musician, artist, or storyteller simply looking to create in new and provocative ways. Where do the bikini innovators and cyborg hopefuls fit into the job market? For these students, how their time at ITP will pay off in the long run might be harder to define.
“If your goal is to generically start an organization and make a lot of money, I would say your money might be better spent investing in a start-up,” O’Sullivan says. “All the stuff you need to survive, you’re going to have to do once you leave. All the weird stuff that the world is never going to ask you to do, we’ll cover that.”