Monday, October 05, 2009

9. We are unique. Avoid 'not invented here.' (NOT)

Monday posts in this series describe things I no longer believe, things that relate to making major improvements in teaching and learning by taking advantage of technology. Here's a big one.

"Our program is unique. And, so far as we know, no one else is yet doing what we propose to do." So far as I know, I am the inventor of that phrase. I coined it in 1977, while writing a grant proposal. Our proposal emphasized our college's uniqueness in higher education, and the uniqueness of our proposed project.

I was especially proud of that phrase, 'so far as we know:' It was a truthful way of halfway admitting that my 'literature search' had not been very thorough. Today, I still remember that I was worried that, if I were to search more energetically, I might discover that someone else had already used the educational idea that we were proposing. And if someone else were already doing it, we'd have to abandon my grant proposal, right? What funder would be interested in supporting the second institution to try a not-absolutely-new idea?

That was part of a cluster of related beliefs that I held:
  1. My institution is unique (or at least highly unusual.)
  2. The newest idea is the most important idea. Even if it's not truly new, pretend it is. In higher education, we get energy from changing what we do from time to time, even if we change from A to B and, after memories have faded and new people have joined the staff, back to A again.
  3. To get a grant, it's important to be first (at least the first of any program like yours, of which there are almost none). Here's more on the goal of being first with a new technology, another belief that I now think is deceptive.
  4. Don't do anything that was not invented here; we're unique so it won't work here (or, by admitting it came from elsewhere, we lose the chance to say we invented this version ourselves).
  5. A technology correlate: when a new technology or teaching technique appears, investigate it by spending time and money to pilot test it locally. What you can learn from a single local pilot test is far more valuable and relevant than what you could learn by spending time and money to discover what 50 people learned by testing it at other institutions.
Do these propositions make sense to you? Why or why not? (Click “COMMENT” below to leave a post.) Later this week I'll discuss what I'd suggest now, instead, about 'not invented here' and its implications for a counter-intuitive approach to course improvement. This post will also build on last week's post recommending the Treblig Cycle.

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