Innovations Stalled by 'Not-Invented-Here'?

Try building a bigger here.

February 2, 2015

A “not invented here” bias on the part of faculty is often cited as a factor in inhibiting the spread and adaptation of innovations in teaching and learning practice. The “bias” part alludes to a prejudgment that what we create locally will be better-suited to our teaching needs and learning contexts than an adaptation of work done elsewhere would be. (On the other hand, we don’t hear as much about academics suffering from the reverse bias, when “proudly-found-elsewhere” can sometimes subtly convey the idea that if our local colleagues come up with an innovation it can’t be all that good…)

The idea of not-invented-here for learning resources and teaching practices is a pretty simple way to talk about a deep challenge. Sometimes that simplicity can be useful or even humorous, e.g., I get a laugh when I hear the toothbrush theory used:  “everyone wants a toothbrush, everyone needs one, everyone has one, but no one wants to use anyone else’s”.

However, the not-invented-here characterization is more of a concern when it is portrayed as an inevitable result of ‘faculty intransigence’ or ‘resistance’ ‒ that is, as ‘their problem’ or even ‘a problem with them’. I want to explore in this post an alternate way to frame the discussion, which I hope moves us toward a wider ownership of the challenges we all face in diffusing and adapting innovations teaching and learning. The alternate conception focuses instead on emotional ownership, i.e., “the degree to which individuals or groups perceive that knowledge or resources belong to them”.

I think it’s a lot more constructive to note that faculty members naturally have high emotional ownership of the learning resources and teaching practices that ‘we have created ourselves’, and low emotional ownership of similar resources and practices from beyond their defined ‘us’. And that concentrates our attention on ways to expand the circle that encompasses ‘us’ ‒ or as the title above suggests, ways to bypass ‘not invented here’ by building ‘a Bigger Here’.

Building a Bigger Here through Emotional Ownership

The concept of emotional ownership was developed as a way to analyze situations where a personal relation needs to be established in a creation process (e.g. a family establishing a business, an individual creating an artifact, a group developing an innovation). Take the case of passing on the ownership of family firms to the next generation: both the founding generation and the next generation need to be involved in developing a proactive exchange of ideas and fostering adaptability in the firm’s processes.

Some of my colleagues in Europe have begun to apply similar principles to the transfer of emotional ownership for teaching innovations from the original developer-users to a next generation of user-adapters, we need to find better ways to foster creative collaborations early in the design process, long-term emotional bindings with the results and a view of innovation as a dynamic process in networks of trusted colleagues. We will want to position innovations in teaching as the product of “us” as a professional community of teachers rather than coming from “them” as some external or foreign group.

Research on the take-up of innovative practices and exemplary resources supports this direction, e.g., the finding from studies in Britain on diffusion of open educational resources in that “impact on individual practice is most likely to be achieved within the dimension of social practice: networks of like-minded individuals who are receptive to ideas and suggestions from each other and ready to share”.

This Bigger Here of a supportive professional teaching community has also been shown to contribute at several stages in the process of scaling up innovations beyond their originators ‒ starting with creating knowledge about and motivation to try innovations in teaching practice, and continuing into support for faculty during implementation and ongoing use. Recent U.S. studies in STEM education indicate that those last two stages may represent the most critical points in getting past not-invented-here.

One of the challenges for scaling up innovations in teaching and learning is the strongly localized nature of the personal networks that faculty draw on for ideas about teaching and learning, with “little evidence of personal networks extending beyond immediate (face-to-face) contacts”. There are exceptions, of course, especially where discipline associations foster a thriving community of individual teacher-researchers (e.g., several links above point to work in the Physics Education Research community). But by and large the situation is much the same now as reported in a 2007 study of diffusion of the iCampus projects beyond the originators at MIT:

…faculty members who do the same research usually attend the same meetings and read the same authoritative journals; they are trained and rewarded to attend to advances in their fields. But for typical teaching improvements in the disciplines, many innovators and potential adopters don’t have a professional association where they could easily learn about innovations for the courses they teach. Or, if there is such an association, they don’t have the time, money or incentive to participate in the content-specific, teaching-related activities.

However, to engage a critical mass of our faculty we still have work to do at the level of culture and expectations. Other European research demonstrates that “individual teachers seem to have more significant conversations and larger networks where the local culture is perceived to be supportive of such conversations”. 

Let’s look now at some examples – many still at early ‘Beta’ stages – of institutions, networks and systems encouraging a cultural shift for faculty to develop stronger emotional ownership of teaching practices and learning resources developed in larger professional and scholarly networks. We welcome your additions to this initial list through your comments added below!

Integrating ‘2nd generation’ user-adapters into innovation pilots at other institutions

In a previous post, I noted the example of building in a 2nd generation of users/adapters for competency-based education in the University of Texas system where the UT Rio Grande Valley campus is taking the lead with the expectation that other campuses will be tracking UT GRV’s progress and will scale up the results into their own contexts. The UT System recently issued an RFP to support the development of competency-based degree programs at other campuses, using the same design process and technological and data infrastructure as at UT RGV.

To foster such connections, some higher education systems are creating central units to serve as catalysts for sharing innovations in teaching system-wide. The University of Texas case above was facilitated by the system’s Institute for Transformational Learning. The University System of Maryland established a Center for Academic Innovation to “bring together faculty and administrators from across the System to identify ways to improve the success of students, evaluate the feasibility of these approaches, and scale-up the most promising models”.

These system-wide centers can amplify the impacts of institutional innovators by identifying common interests as areas for potential collaboration and ensuring coordination and dissemination of learning (provided they do so with an appropriately “light touch” ).

In the California Community Colleges Success Network [3CSN], we have been experimenting with connecting innovation projects with math faculty across colleges, so that early developers who do the initial ‘heavy lifting’ have their work informed by the contexts and needs of other colleges through faculty colleagues who are potential future users of the innovation in teaching practice. In the 2007 study at MIT, a similar model for engaging potential users ‒ in the creation of specifications, design conferences and testing ‒ was shown to make the innovations both more valuable and also more visible to potential 2nd generation users.

For our work in 3CSN, this is the latest step in a progression of state-wide work to improve success for community college students in developmental mathematics: beginning with Faculty Inquiry Groups that brought together faculty within a department , followed by a Faculty Inquiry Network that connected such efforts across colleges, and more recently to Faculty Inquiry and Innovation Teams in which team roles can be intentionally designed as a mix of 1st generation developer-users leading the inquiry and 2nd generation user-adapters of resulting innovations.

Developing expectations of ‘a Bigger Here’ within institutional policies and processes

Much has been made of the ‘private’ nature of teaching, especially concerning the design of learning activities and the way knowledge is mobilized by individual faculty to improve student success. However, there are points in our official processes where teaching and learning comes more clearly into public view, and that could give us some leverage points to foster the Bigger Here of connections with innovative practices and exemplary resources from a wider sphere.

One potential leverage point comes in our induction processes for new faculty. For example, Valencia Community College has an extensive professional development program which for part-time and pre-tenured full-time faculty. One of the Essential Competencies for a Valencia Educator is the capability – and ongoing demonstration – for faculty to “keep abreast of current scholarship in the fields of teaching and learning”. The performance indicators for this competency include evidence that the faculty “build upon the work of others…make work public to college and broader audiences” and demonstrate how they have used scholarly research in teaching and learning to improve student success.

Another leverage point comes in the process of Program Review, where departments undertake a self-study to “assess the program’s health through evidence-based inquiry and analyses” (either as part of institutional accreditation or as an internal periodic assessment). Several of the primarily undergraduate universities in British Columbia (Canada) have begun pilot studies to support Program Review with connections to the knowledge base about teaching and learning in their subject areas to investigate how a stronger expectation in this direction could add value to the formal institutional process (and how it could be supported, as the next examples note).

Creating a knowledge connector role within departments

The evidence from studies about disseminating innovations in teaching practices suggests we need to think more about how innovative practices can be diffused within departments – the so-called “cascade effect” – beyond individual faculty members who are committed to staying in touch with the leading-edge of teaching in their subjects. One of the ways to do this is to empower some exemplary faculty teachers in a new role as knowledge connectors for their departmental colleagues.  

As one starting point for such a development, fulfilling the Program Review expectations described above would require the faculty members coordinating the departmental self-study process to take on such a role during the review, and thus position them to continue to make these connections in implementing follow-up recommendations.  We have also used this role of knowledge connector to support the Math Faculty Inquiry and Innovation Teams described above, and are now exploring how we could develop a follow-on program at the district or state level to support faculty team members in taking on a similar responsibility within their departments (“we” in this case includes my colleagues Deborah Harrington of 3CSN in California and Bill Moore of Washington state’s college system).

We think that for faculty to support their departmental colleagues as knowledge connectors, a number of cross-institutional programs need to link together for them:

  • working with an experienced knowledge connector to mobilize advances in teaching in their personal teaching practice, including evidence from research on teaching and learning as well as exemplary learning resources and teaching practices from their wider subject area community (as happened in our 3CSN Faculty Inquiry and Innovation Teams mentioned);
  • engaging with colleagues from other institutions in a discipline-centred professional development cohort, building on their individual teaching expertise but moving further into capability and commitment in advancing collective teaching practice at the departmental  level (and beyond);
  • developing appropriate policies to recognize and enable such contributions on an ongoing basis. A faculty role of this sort could be part of the service or shared governance component of faculty workload, structured in a similar fashion to coordinating an academic activity or to faculty service on departmental and institutional committees.

(The appropriate label for such a role is also still a work-in-progress. We started off calling this the ‘knowledge concierge’ role, but that doesn’t seem to have the right cachet to appear as a line on a C.V.  In the area of teaching with online learning, similar ideas have been developed around “digital learning champions” who keep their faculty colleagues abreast of innovations in their subject areas.)

Of course, a mix of complementary change strategies such as these is likely to have the most impact. And the ideas listed above won’t get very far without a shared vision and effective policies within the institution that values and supports new teaching practices!

Feel free to add comments below about other ways you have discovered to build emotional ownership of innovations in teaching developed by a ‘Bigger Here’ community of faculty. Many of the research studies mentioned above looked specifically at exemplary resources and practices which are embedded in open education resources for re-use and adaptation. I will review in a future post how the next generation of open educational resources – e.g., open course frameworks and course ecosystems – are being used to connect faculty who are involved with innovations in teaching.

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University, a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and a former Associate Vice-President of Learning Resources and Innovation at the University of Waterloo.


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