Not Invented Here

David W. Mogk
Author Profile
published Oct 10, 2009

There appears to be an expectation (or perception) that undergraduate faculty should be designing their own teaching activities to receive academic credit for their instructional efforts. This has resulted in the "not invented here" syndrome, which places little value on implementation of existing instructional activities in favor of development of new instructional activities. This is a rather strange value system in that a) few undergraduate faculty have formal training in curriculum design, aspects of human cognition related to learning, and assessment, b) undergraduate faculty are typically pressed for time as they attempt to meet their instructional, research and service obligations, and c) we all teach "out of field", and it is very difficult to assemble the relevant Science and accompanying instructional resources from diverse, credentialed sources. "Reinventing the wheel" for the sake of local branding of instructional products is both an inefficient and ineffective use of precious faculty time.

Anecdotal conversations with NSF program officers in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Division of Undergraduate Education have recognized that the "not invented here" syndrome is an impediment to broad dissemination of tested instructional resources and practices. Indeed, the evolution of the NSF/DUE Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program over the past decade has changed its focus from innovation a decade ago to include additional emphases on implementation and assessment in the more recent Requests for Proposals to this program. It was the case that "innovation" proposed by many projects was simply implementation of a tested method or activity in a new instructional setting. Unlike teachers in K-12 education that enjoy a culture of sharing and adopting quality instructional resources from trusted sources, undergraduate faculty have traditionally not adopted wholesale existing instructional resources, but rather, have either adapted existing resources to their own instructional priorities or created altogether new resources at a considerable cost of time and effort.

However, the culture of sharing resources appears to be infiltrating the ranks of undergraduate education. The seminal idea of electronic clearinghouses of instructional materials was articulated over a decade ago in the NSF report Shaping the Future, New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF 96-139; Mogk and Zia, 1997). This nascent idea evolved into educational digital libraries such as the National Science Digital Library, DLESE, and Teach the Earth. Surveys of faculty at that time called for easy access to high quality and peer-reviewed instructional materials, teaching tips, and access to data and data products for instruction (e.g. Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education: Innovation and Change Using an Earth System Approach, Ireton et al., 1997). The DLESE Community Plan (Manduca and Mogk, 2000) articulated the ethic of "users as contributors" to on-line collections of teaching resources. The mantra "give a little, take a lot" recognized that every instructor has one or two really good activities that they've developed, and if everyone contributed just one or two good activities that we would collectively build a really powerful library of resources. It was also recognized that most of us are teaching "out of field" most of the time, even within our chosen sub-discipline; there was an identified need to encourage experts in each area to share their expertise so that all could benefit from the confidence that the scientific content and approaches were valid.

Peer-review and testing of these instructional resources was a high priority. Kastens (2005, JGE v. 53 #1, p. 37-43) developed a community review system (based on scientific veracity, pedagogic effectiveness, and robustness of the resource--it was tested and worked reliably) and also developed annotation systems to document teaching effectiveness (Kastens and Holzman, 2006).

At Teach the Earth, by creating "ActivitySheets" (i.e. educational metadata) we have worked very hard to place instructional activities in their full context of use, including targeted audience, learning goals of the activity, prior knowledge required, materials required, recommended assessments, and links to related resources (see: Fox et al., 2005; Manduca et al, 2005 and Manduca et al., 2006). Tremendous value is added to individual teaching resources when they are authored by experts, placed in their full instructional context, supported by close links to related resources, and have undergone some sort of peer review or received annotations that document the effectiveness of the activity in different class settings.

In geoscience education, community contributions of instructional resources for universal use seems to have been a tremendous success. We collectively enjoy ready access to extensive, robust, and tested instructional resources. Volunteered contributions continue to be submitted, sometimes as individual ad hoc contributions, but often in response to requests submitted to focus group listservs or from dedicated events such as On the Cutting Edge workshops for geoscience faculty professional development.

So, I wonder if this past decade of development of digital instructional resources has rendered the "not invented here" syndrome irrelevant and moot? I can't conceive of the time it would have taken me to put together these many instructional resources.In my own teaching of mineralogy and petrology. Given that I can trust the source and content of these resources, this has really given me the latitude and liberty to spend more time on one-on-one instruction with students, and to better observe barriers and gains to learning. Consequently, I am eternally grateful to:

  • John Winter for making the illustrations in his Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology textbook available via PowerPoints keyed to each chapter. (Why should everyone teaching petrology take the time to individually scan each figure and embed in their own Powerpoints?)
  • Dex Perkins for sharing freely of his problem sets on phase equilibria (that are tested and work, with solution sets!), and for working with John Brady to develop animated phase diagrams that clearly demonstrate how the phase rule and lever rule work.
  • Jane Selverstone, for reducing mineral optics to three easy lessons (with slices through fruit and vegetables to show how the shape and orientation of the indicatrix changes!), and for providing a simple Excel spreadsheet for students to easily calculate P and T of mineral assemblages using the garnet-biotite thermometer and GASP barometer.
  • The SERC staff for putting together the Visualization Collections that provide the raw materials for my next lecture (an hour from now!)(See: Teaching With Visualizations collections).
  • And the list goes on and on.....

So, for the larger geoscience education community, I wonder:

  • Do you feel pressure (either internal or institutional) to create your own instructional materials?
  • Do you get professional (promotion and tenure) credit for creating your own materials?
  • Are there sanctions (explicit or implicit) against using materials available through external sources?
  • Is "not invented here" now a moot point?

My sense is that in this new millennium the geoscience education community has evolved well past "not invented here" and the expectation of using shared resources in our course work is now deeply enculturated. Has this been your experience? Comments and examples from all sides of this question are welcome and encouraged.


American Geophysical Union, 1997, Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education, Innovation and Change Using an Earth System Approach, F. Ireton, C. Manduca, D. Mogk (eds).

Fox, S., Manduca, C. A., and Iverson, E., 2005. Building Educational Portals atop Digital Libraries, D-Lib, 11 (1)

Kastens, K., 2005, The DLESE Community Review System: Gathering, Aggregating, and Disseminating User Feedback about the Effectiveness of Web-based Educational Resources'] JGE v. 53 #1, p. 37-43)

Kastens and Holzman, 2006, The Digital Library for Earth System Education Provides Individualized Reports for Teachers on the Effectiveness of Educational Resources in Their Own Classrooms, D-Lib Magazine Vol 12 #1;

Manduca, C. A., and Mogk, D. M., 2000, Digital Library for Earth System Education: A Community Plan, University of Oklahoma, 44 pp.

Manduca, C.A., Iverson, E.R., Fox, S.P., McMartin, F. (2005). Influencing User Behavior through Digital Library Design: An Example from the Geosciences , D-Lib, vol 11(5). (Recipient of the Geoscience Information Society's Best Paper Award for 2006!)

Manduca, C.A., S. Fox, and E.R. Iverson (2006). Digital Library as Network and Community Center. D-Lib, 12(12).

Not Invented Here --Discussion  

Back in the early DLESE era (circa 2000), the late John Butler conducted an online survey that included questions for department chairs and other supervisors about how they viewed faculty efforts to develop and use innovative instructional materials.

He found that: "About half of the chairs agree that they encourage their non-tenured colleagues to develop e-resources for their courses and 88% agree that their colleagues are fairly evaluated with respect to their teaching efforts."

John's summary of his findings plus links to the survey questions and data are online at:


Share edittextuser=75 post_id=3564 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=1182

I think you have probably identified the primary driver for self-developed teaching activities. However, I would encourage you to consider some additional contributing factors. In many instances of in-house development in other fields I've seen evidence that there are biases toward in-house development because:

- there is a perception that it is easier to develop a new instance than it is to get up to speed on an existing one;

- there is a often a built-in bias that "I'm smart enough" to figure this out myself and/or "I'm smarter than those guys who made this existing thing"; and

- there is a reluctance to accept an existing solution that is "good enough", we want one that is "just right".


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I’m at a teaching institution and faculty efforts to develop new teaching approaches are valued here. Furthermore, these approaches can yield scholarly production.

I think that it is more than a perception that it is easier to develop a new instance than adapt an old one. I find in meandering through the activities on “Teach the Earth” that many are not in turnkey form. (I am not referring to my propensity for tinkering, but whether the information could just be handed out to students, even assuming my class is the same as that of the contributor.) When you calculate the time to make the activity usable plus the time to find it in the first place, then it may well be easier to make your own. For some things, it is useful to have local examples and of course, pre-existing activities are unlikely to be from my area.

I think that the “Teach the Earth” website is a tremendous advance. In the past, I might have spent time trying to remember where I saw an activity (at a meeting, Journal of Geoscience Education or some other place) and then trying to get the materials. Still, finding relevant activities is a challenge even on “Teach the Earth.”

It is easy to feel that meandering through the website is not as productive a use of time as making progress on something of your own. I find interesting things this way, but generally not by searching. I don’t find using the search box at “Teach the Earth” that helpful unless I am looking for a specific exercise I already know exists. It makes you appreciate the work of indexers or bibliographic databases in making it possible to find subjects or papers that you didn’t know about.

For example, I just discovered that I have to some extent duplicated Patricia Cashman’s activity on earthquake recurrence and geologic time at Pallett Creek. I suppose that when I first learned about the Pallet Creek studies in Susan Hough’s book Earthshaking Science, I might have looked at the SERC website to see if anyone had already used it. However, I didn’t and I produced a variant approach from scratch.

So I would say that there are advantages to developing your own material, difficulties continue in obtaining existing activities (althouth less than in the past), but the field is headed in the right direction.


Share edittextuser=1324 post_id=3636 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=1182

Hi Dale and Martin, thanks for the insightful comments. In the early days of our work on digital libraries, we spent a lot of time concerned with "adoption" v. "adaptation". This may not be a universally fair representation, but at that time our surveys of our potential user base indicated that K-12 teachers were most interested in teaching activities that they could readily adopt into their classes...they just were so pressed for time that they really were looking for activities that they could "plug and play", and they really had little time for resource or curricular development. On the other hand, college faculty seemed to be predisposed to either create their own activities, or at least to put their own spin on activities as they altered or adapted existing resources. They seemed to be most interested in custom-fitting exercises that more specifically addressed the needs and interests of a) their students (and all the attendant demographic variations), b) learning styles, c) geographic setting, d) institutional resources, e) departmental curricular standards, etc. See the results of our national survey on college faculty teaching practices: Macdonald, R.H., C.A. Manduca, D.W. Mogk, and B.J. Tewksbury (2005). "Teaching Methods in Undergraduate Geoscience Courses: Results of the 2004 On the Cutting Edge Survey of US Faculty." Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(3): 237.

Still, I think there is an overall economy of effort in being able to readily access visualizations (see On the Cutting Edge Teaching with Visualization Collections (, or data processing and representation tools (e.g. any number of spread sheet exercises)--why should we all take the time to reinvent functions that are pretty much universally used in the same way (OK, some modification may still be needed)? The fact that I can find credentialed sources of data, tools, visualizations, etc. is very liberating for me--having access to these materials in the first place allows me to move ahead and do more creative work.

Perhaps the value of digital collections of resources lies in two other domains:
--Calibration; by reviewing existing resources in these digital collections it gives you some indication of the "norm" of what other colleagues are doing in similar courses in other settings; and
--Inspiration; seeing the nucleus of an idea presented in someone else's work (however imperfectly), and then seeking ways to present the same material but perhaps using novel approaches.

This is one reason why annotation services are so important: a given instructional resource gains so much more value when practical advice can be given about what works and what doesn't; what barriers were encountered with suggestions about how to overcome these problems; tips on how to modify an exercise to accommodate interests or needs of a special learning situation.

I wonder if part of the question about adoption v. adaptation is tied up with the fact that the geosciences don't have a curricular "canon"--a single unified sequence of topics that are universally taught in the same basic manner no matter who is teaching (e.g. classical physics which uses the same basic coverage of Newtonian mechanics, electricity and magnetism, etc. in any first year physics course). Sure, in an introductory physical geology course I'm sure most of us will teach about time, plate tectonics, rock and mineral identification, landforms in some way. But do you start with plate tectonics, infuse plate tectonics throughout the course, end with plate teconics as a unifying theme? And, unlike physics which uses the same basic time/distance/velocity/acceleration type exercises, we all tend to use examples that are meaningful to us personally, and also that span the globe: optimizing examples from our local geologic setting, from National Parks, from experiences we've had in our professional careers....The Earth just has a lot of great examples to choose from, and geoscientists don't seem to want to be penned in by some externally imposed set of criteria. (I'll explore issues of accreditation in a later posting). Thanks again for the comments. Keep them coming!


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