Why I Want My Kid to Study at William & Mary and Why I’m Eager for the New COLL Curriculum


This image of W&M’s historic Wren Building is courtesy of Flickr user K.N.S.


Okay, so that’s a strange, non-tech title for an article on an academic technology website, but the College’s new COLL curriculum has been much on my mind lately as I and my colleagues in Academic Information Systems work to come up with creative solutions to help our faculty members implement many of their plans for the new curriculum. Our latest pilot project, the implementation of a Web tool called BuddyPress, a social networking website to connect faculty members across disciplines with common interests, is deeply entwined in this discussion, so let me provide a little background and then go back to discuss how BuddyPress fits into the discussion.

Full disclosure: I have pretty close ties to the College. I have a master’s degree from William & Mary, I taught here, my wife has been teaching here for the past 20 years, I’ve been an academic technology specialist here for the past 12 years, and my son is currently a senior here, so unfortunately the new curriculum changes won’t affect him. However, my daughter is a sophomore in high school, and all I can say is, if she has the good fortune of being accepted into William & Mary I really look forward to what her education might look like under the new COLL curriculum, and here’s why.

A Venture Capitalist’s View on Education

On February 27, 2014, Ted Dintersmith, ’74, gave a talk at the W&M School of Education on innovation and the future of education. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to hear what a venture capitalist had to say about fixing our educational system, but his talk was eye-opening, terrifying, and inspiring all at once. The basic premise of his talk was that we need to teach our students to be creative problem solvers in this dynamic, rapidly evolving economy, but our educational system has become increasingly geared toward teaching students a bunch of facts that are easy to test for SOL (standards of learning) accreditation and federal funding, but does little to prepare them to compete in the marketplace.

Teaching K-12 students facts separated from context and devoid of inquiry has produced bored students who are less equipped to think creatively about issues. By the time these students get to college, they really need a jumpstart to learn to think in imaginative, innovative ways and solve problems creatively.

W&M Addresses this Problem with Courses and New Curriculum

We already have some initiatives at the College that attempt to address this problem. One example is the creative problem solving class, team taught by Matt Allar in Theatre and Jim Olver in Business. Another is Cary Bagdassarian and Elizabeth Mead’s work on the linkages between science and art. The need for such courses at the college level that span disciplines and teach students to deal with complexity is clear. Even our best students coming out of high school need practical experience in finding solutions for the increasingly complex problems of our interconnected world.

But besides offering one or two courses on creative problem solving to a limited subset of the student body, what can we do at the College to foster the sort of learning our students will need in the modern economy? As a parent, I think the development of the COLL curriculum is a great start. Students who are asked to work across disciplines and apply concepts from one area of knowledge to another are going to see more connections, come up with more creative solutions, and, ultimately, be more prepared to deal with change than if they were only expected to master these individual disciplines in a vacuum, with no attempt to connect or apply the knowledge they learn in a biology course, for example, to a course they might take in sociology. Real innovation comes when you are able to look at problems differently: when a student of Japanese calligraphy, for example, brings the aesthetic he learns in that class and takes a good hard look at what they’re doing in Silicon Valley (this was actually Steve Jobs’ story), great things can happen.

Using BuddyPress to Bring Faculty Together

Okay, but this is supposed to be an article on the integration of technology into the academic mission at the College, so here’s the academic technology piece. Our faculty members are working hard to develop the new college curriculum, and they will need support and solutions that make it easier for them to find connections; people to team teach with or to call on as guest lecturers in their courses.

To that end, I’ve been working on a project with my colleague, Pablo Yáñez, to help faculty find colleagues across disciplines who may not know that they share common academic interests and who may be interested in exploring team teaching opportunities. We’re currently developing a social networking website using BuddyPress a plugin for my favorite Web creation tool, WordPress, which acts as a kind of campus-wide LinkedIn site to facilitate creating and searching faculty bios, creating and joining interest groups, and even to start fleshing out these new courses and new collaborations.

It’s a virtual meeting place one faculty member equated to a kind of online dating service for creative collaborations. And if our faculty members can start this cross-pollination process and begin developing these exciting new courses where students are asked to think in complex, interdisciplinary ways, that’s the sort of liberal arts education I want my daughter to have.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College