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Tackling corona challenges by understanding the other

How to address loneliness during quarantine, keep healthcare workers healthy, and deal with social distancing in a person’s final hours? Before we can tackle such challenges, it is crucial to understand the perspective of those who suffer from them, say the teachers of a new Master Honours Class: “It will help you later in life.”

On a sunny Friday in April, course instructors Titus van der Spek, Betty Huerta and Lex van Delden take the time to answer questions about their brand-new Master Honours Class, Innovating Health & Well-being: Covid-19 Edition. It is only yesterday that they had the first virtual meet-up with their students. Lex: “You could tell they were excited for the course to start.”

The same can be said about the teachers themselves, who have not yet seen each other in real life. “We met online two-and-a-half weeks ago and had to come up with a course in a very short timespan,” explains Titus. “It has been an interesting journey, with many exhaustive weekends and long calls. Now we start to see the fruits of our labour.”

This Master Honours Class is a cooperation between PLNT, the Leyden Academy and Leiden University.

Lex van Delden served as a soldier before working in a hospital as a physiotherapist, where he treated patients with neurological problems. Now he works for the research institute Leyden Academy.

Betty Huerta studied industrial engineering in Mexico and worked in the local social entrepreneurship sector. After a master’s at TU Eindhoven, she went to work for PLNT in Leiden.

Titus van der Spek holds a PhD in Entrepreneurship & Innovation, lectures Business Management at De Haagse Hogeschool and teaches Honours Classes at Leiden University.

'Design thinking is more of a mindset than a method'

The importance of being humble

In the following weeks, the labour should primarily come from the students, who follow the course on top of their regular study programme. By exception, both bachelor and master students are involved. Their goal: to find solutions for problems related to health and well-being, that occur during the coronavirus pandemic. “Organizations we know have given suggestions, such as the Leiden municipality and care organizations, but the groups are free to define their own challenge,” says Lex.

During their search, the students follow the triple diamond model of ‘design thinking’, a strategy for developing solutions (see image below). The model exists of three phases: understanding, developing, and delivering. “Design thinking is more of a mindset than a method,” states Betty. “It is about putting the person you are trying to help at the centre.”

She gives an example to illustrate the importance of this. “Let’s say I want to give Titus a gift. I like plants, so I buy him a plant. But suppose he does not like plants, or does not have space for them, or is moving out soon. Then my gift will be super unhelpful to him.” The message of her story: “Be humble about your assumptions and allow yourself to learn from the people you are trying to help.”

The triple diamond model of design thinking, a strategy that students use to come up with solutions.

Poisons to entrepreneurship

The teachers think design thinking should be used more often – especially in the healthcare sector. Betty: “For many years, industries have been innovating, while healthcare has remained the same.” Ex-physiotherapist Lex gives an explanation for this: “To change something, you have to go through a long process of rules and regulations.”

Another problem he mentions is – again – the mindset of people, which he calls “stubborn” for only focusing on their own areas of expertise. Hearing his colleagues, it is no wonder that innovation is falling behind, concludes Titus, lecturer in business management: “Traditions, rules, and bureaucracy are three essential poisons to entrepreneurship. There has to be some space to try things.”

Despite these obstacles, the three of them see a shift during the corona crisis. The pandemic has revealed the urge for change. “That is why I think this is – unfortunately – the perfect time to innovate,” says Betty.

'We rather see them talk to twenty beneficiaries, than read an academic paper'

The gift we want to give

Healthcare is not the only sector affected by ‘corona’: trends in education are being pushed forward as well. “For a course like this, you need specialists on the topic, but also coaches, facilitators, and communicators,” enumerates Titus. The role of the specialists changes too, adds Betty: “We are no longer the people in the room that know the most, but experts in the process.” Therefore, they weekly coach their students to help them get on the right track. 

In the end, though, the students need to stand on their own two feet – and that takes getting used to. “Many of them have never been pushed to deal with the real world,” noticed Titus. “While in this course, we rather see them talk to twenty beneficiaries in five minutes, than read an academic paper. That can be very scary at the start.”

But this practical approach proves to be rewarding in the long run, assures Betty, who taught similar courses with Titus before. “It boosts confidence to see that you can realize things that matter, and that people are actually interested in what you are doing.” Titus: “That is the gift we want to give them, without pressuring them too much. We embrace failure as much as success.”

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The introduction video that the teachers made for those who were interested in their Master  Honours Class.

Inspiring students

Whether the honours students indeed succeed in finding solutions for the corona challenges remains to be seen: they will present their plans by the start of June. Either way, Lex hopes they will profit from the class. “It can be a difficult process to understand someone else’s life – but once you are through that, it will help you with situations later in life.”

Titus is optimistic: “In every course I have been a part of, students became inspired.” Given their enthusiasm in the first meeting, it looks like these participants won’t be any different.

Text: Michiel Knoester
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