Learning and Relearning to Learn from Others

Editors Features June / Uncategorized / June 15, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

Global Collaboration: You are Not Alone, Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Why do we seek collaboration? Yes, it makes our work easier: more hands lighten the load.  Moreover, it provides instant feedback with each collaborator often serving as a reviewer and coach.  However, the most powerful benefit of collaboration is that it allows us all to build on the work already done by our peers, and it helps us avoid the mistakes that they’ve already made. Despite this power and benefit, many of us – myself included – must learn to collaborate. And, must relearn it, and relearn it some more.


When I was a second-year graduate student, studying for my doctorate in molecular genetics, my experiments took a turn where I needed a very particular piece of DNA. I took it upon myself to design the construction of this DNA ‘plasmid’ myself. I used a keen attention to detail, double and triple checked my plans, and then proudly went into my adviser’s office with plans in hand and described my ideas. My adviser took one look at my papers, then looked at me as though I had two heads and a monkey’s tail, and simply asked, “Has this plasmid been made before?” I told him it had been, years ago, and was described in a published research paper.  He then asked, a bit incredulously, “Then, why are you making it again…?”


That was my first introduction to global collaboration.  If my memory serves me, the authors of that previous paper were in Spain. Still, though, a short and polite email was all it took for them to send me the DNA that I needed.  It saved me months of work. This experience made a significant impression on me, and it will never be forgotten. Why reinvent the wheel? Why start from scratch? Instead, build on the work done before you and leverage the accomplishments of others, while others leverage your accomplishments as well.  This is not unique to the sciences; as scholars and academics and college professors should have all learned to do this long ago. Global collaboration, facilitated by the constant interconnectedness afforded by the internet, greases the wheels of scholarly advancement, and – as college professors – we’ve all been trained to do it.  


Fast forward about eight years after my first lesson in global collaboration.  At this point, I had finished my degree, completed two postdoctoral fellowships, and I was a newly minted assistant professor at a state university.  I’d just received my first teaching assignments and had no idea what to do. College professors typically receive no training in teaching or instruction at all, and such was the case for me.  I languished for a bit, and then stumbled on the idea of drafting a syllabus. “If I have a syllabus, then I’ll know what lectures to prepare,” I realized. I was very proud of this epiphany.  I worked very hard on that first syllabus. I used a keen attention to detail, double and triple checked my work, and then proudly went into my department chair’s office with plans in hand and described my ideas. My chair took one look at my syllabus, then looked at me as though I had two heads and a monkey’s tail, and simply asked, “Why doesn’t this conform to the university template?” “University template?” I asked sheepishly.  


My story here is not unique; instead, it is the higher education norm.  Why did I make the same mistake as a new college professor that I had already made eight years prior as a new graduate student?  Certainly, I’m capable of learning from mistakes; achieving my doctorate alone is proof of that. The answer is surprisingly simple: college professors typically do not apply their scholarly training to their teaching.  For reasons that escape me, college professors wear different hats depending on their focus on scholarly efforts or their pedagogy.  They approach these two professional pursuits very differently, seeking constant collaboration in their research while teaching in near absolute isolation. At the first sign of difficulty in the lab, my first instinct is to reach out to a collaborator by email or phone and ask for help.  But, when stymied by the first steps of course preparation, never did the thought even cross my mind to walk down the hall and ask my university-assigned faculty mentor for help. Incredible. My K-12 colleagues here at FLR have shared that this is not unique to higher ed. As Terra Graves puts it, elementary, middle and secondary education teachers also “leave that professional development binder on the shelf, never to be seen again.”  While we’ll never know for sure whether it’s ego or culture that causes this lack of inherent collaboration between educators, we do know that by not collaborating we’re leaving a potential treasure-trove of benefits untapped.


This notion of applying collaboration skills to college teaching is not generic or abstract; it is directly relevant to Flipped Learning (FL). Flipped Learning 3.0 is characterized by five pillars:


  1. FL is NOT STATIC;
  2. It is constantly EVOLVING;
  3. FL is a META-STRATEGY to facilitate active learning pedagogies in the classroom;
  4. It provides NEW OPPORTUNITIES for practitioners; and,

* see this infographic created by Terra Graves for the April issue of FLR, which explains The Evolution of Flipped Learning.


As I see it, the global nature of FL3.0 comes in two forms: FL is rapidly being adopted and applied on a global scale.  However, the continued success of FL3.0 (and it’s further evolution to FL4.0) depends upon collaboration on a global scale. Only by building on the successes of our peers (and by avoiding the mistakes that they’ve already made), can the growth of FL be maintained.  We – academics, scholars, professors – already know this. We’ve been formally trained and indoctrinated in this culture of collaboration. We should be leading the way for all FL educators in this regard, and showing our K12 and corporate trainer counterparts how effective global collaboration is managed.  Yet, we’re not doing any of that. We are largely teaching in silos, reinventing the wheel, and spending hours drafting new syllabi that do not conform to the university template.


In the April issue of the Flipped Learning Review, I wrote about the power of collaboration and how collaboration in the life sciences is largely responsible for the exponential growth of knowledge we’ve witnessed in this field during the last 60 years.1 Imagine the impact if we applied the same approach to FL.  Imagine a near-future where FL educators, from all disciplines and grade levels, immediately thought to call upon each other with a problem or to share an innovation.  Imagine a scholarly community where recent publications on FL were shared and analyzed. Imagine how quickly FL would grow and improve in such a space. It was the internet and email that facilitated global collaboration in the sciences.  FL has something even better: the online social platform at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative (www.FLGlobal.org).  FLGI exists, in part, to connect FL educators for just this kind of global collaboration. Ideas are discussed, and tools and tricks are shared, all in real time. The makings for a new future in Flipped Learning are already here.  It is now on us, the global collaborators, to leverage these tools for the improved education of all our students.


So, consider this a modern-day call to arms for higher education instructors who are using Flipped Learning, and for K12 educators who are already collaborating globally: let’s lead the way.  Let’s set the precedent. Let’s engage in a global dialog about Flipped Learning and chart the next stage of its evolution. You are not alone in your teaching.  Don’t waste your time reinventing a wheel that already works so well. Instead, improve the wheel, make it better, and share those innovations with the rest of us. We’re all in this together.


1 Mennella, T. 2018, April 4. Flipping Outside of the Box. Flipped Learning Review.



Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on June 27, 2018

Thomas I enjoyed reading your piece and could see a lot of myself in you. I too, tried too often to go it alone or was hesitant to ask for help. At 47 and in my 21st in education, I am getting better. I think some of it has to do ego. We feel that since we are professionals that we should be able to go it alone and asking for help is a sign of weakness. I have quickly learned, as an assistant principal in an elementary school, that not asking for help is a sign of stupidity. Wonderful piece.

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