Inside the COLL 300 classroom
COLL 300 theme, well-being, was ‘obvious fit’ for business school course
Associate Professor Michael Luchs stands in the William & Mary business school’s Innovation & Design Studio facing the eight groups of students that comprise his Customer Insights for Innovation class and poses the question: “Is there a group that knows what their project scope is and wants to let us get a jump start by having us use you as a case study right now?”
The four students in each group turn to one another. After a beat, a student in the front offers that her group is working on how housing affects well-being for millennials. Luchs presses a bit to find that the group is specifically interested in cohousing communities.
“So now we move on to thinking about who do you want to observe? Have you guys thought about that?” Luchs asks. “You probably want to sample and observe in multiple locations and situations – not just one – because you’re more open-ended. Which means you probably want to do this either individually or in half-hour sessions so you can do more. So who are some of the people you want to observe, or the locations?”
Over the course of the semester that group, along with the others in the class, will conduct qualitative research on an aspect of well-being, such as financial well-being, or on how a phenomenon relates to human well-being – and what business opportunities that presents. Examples might include exploring how tiny houses – houses under 400 square feet – relate to financial and emotional well-being or how veganism relates to the well-being dimension of physical health. By the end of the class, each group will have developed a rough prototype of a product or service that increases well-being and has the potential to be commercially viable.
That’s how Luchs integrated the faculty-chosen COLL 300 theme of “well-being” into his course in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business this fall, when the first full COLL 300 courses were offered to students.
“It is such a clear, obvious fit,” he said. “Business, over time, has become detached from society. When you see shifts in the economy and discourse around the economy and business over the last few decades, however, you’re seeing increased interest in viewing business as a tool for positive change. Basically business as more embedded within society is kind of the big idea. When you think about big questions like, what is the purpose of the economy? If it’s not to promote well-being, then what is it? If the purpose of business is not to create value for people, then what is it?”
The COLL Curriculum represents the first general education revision at W&M since 1993. General education requirements comprise about a quarter of the 120 credits needed for an undergraduate degree and are taken alongside electives and the classes required for majors.
First to be developed were COLL 100 courses, centering on “big ideas” or “great questions.” Introduced last fall, they so resonated with faculty that more than six dozen new courses are now offered.
COLL 200 asks faculty to root their courses in one of the knowledge domains and to look out to a second. This type of cross-disciplinary study has been a strength of William & Mary for a long time, and the new curriculum has faculty collaborating on courses even more frequently and with increased innovation.
COLL 300s engage the world beyond campus, connecting students with people, places and ideas that deepen the way they see themselves in the world. Undergraduate students can satisfy the requirement by various study-abroad and study-away experiences, as well as the on-campus offerings. COLL 400s, currently under development, are capstone courses in the student’s major.
“My [COLL 300] course is focused on learning the discipline of qualitative research in the service of business,” Luchs said. “So, learning tools to understand people, to gain better insight in order to develop innovative products and services to make people’s lives better. I’m also trying to push students into domains that are unfamiliar to them, to push their experience base and openness.
“The COLL 300 designation changed my thinking in the sense that I had to think, well, it’s not just a matter of well-being, it’s this idea that we need to be appreciative of other cultures.”
His semester-long project starts with a high-level examination of the concept of well-being, with students weighing the value of secondary sources and then using credible ones to report back.
From there, each student group zeroes in on an unfamiliar study area, while Luchs begins to teach them observation skills and interviewing techniques, like how to avoid personal biases in research.
At the same time, he’s teaching technical information like how to organize qualitative research or how to take field notes and report back. As the students conduct the actual first-person field research, start to identify challenges and brainstorm possible solutions, Luchs is rolling out new skills “just in time.”
In the end, the students will agree on and develop a simple prototype service or product that addresses the insights identified through their field research, Luchs said. There is a strong writing and reporting element to the class along the way, as students develop research summaries, in-depth notes, journals, blog posts and other deliverables.
Spirit of jazz improvisation
“The courses taught this semester by my colleagues are really exciting,” said Gene Tracy, Chancellor Professor of Physics and department chair, Alfred Ritter Term Professor and director of the Center for the Liberal Arts. The center’s fellows have encouraged and assisted faculty in the process of curricular revision. “Having our first full pilot of on-campus COLL 300 courses ranging across fields as diverse as business, psychology and philosophy is great. It means having those faculty and students address the same theme of ‘well-being’ from disparate angles. This cross-interrogation of a unifying theme is exactly what we were going for with the open design of the on-campus COLL 300.
“I like to think of it as if we’re asking COLL 300 faculty in any given semester to play jazz: to hear a theme, to improvise a bit on that theme, but to do that improvising while listening to what others are playing, too, so they and their students are part of a larger ensemble, a semester-long conversation around the theme and visitors.”
To support the COLL 300 curriculum, each semester William & Mary and the Center for the Liberal Arts welcomes a series of three faculty-proposed visitors who might include scholars, artists and public intellectuals. Each stays for a number of days, meeting with COLL 300 students and classes and delivering a lecture that is free and open to the public.
For Luchs’ class, the on-campus COLL 300 visitor series ensures that while students are wading eyeballs deep in the details of their projects, they aren’t losing sight of a larger understanding of well-being.
“We started out broadly thinking about well-being in a big, almost too-general way,” he said. “Now they’re going to zero in on their project. So I think there’s going to be great value in these seminars because it will continue to remind them of the larger context and other issues around well-being. It’s making it more interesting, too. I would never have thought to bring in Wilson Wewa, a tribal elder from the Pacific Northwest.”
At the end of the semester, Luchs’ class will present their prototypes and research in a conference-style symposium that brings students from every COLL 300 class together to view and explore each other’s work.
“There are a number of purposes for that,” Luchs said. “One is to have the experience of sharing your ideas, another is to see how other people approach well-being. The third is to build into that experience a feedback mechanism, which will reinforce this idea that on a quest to do anything of value, feedback and iteration is really essential.”