‘Only connect’ (E. M. Forster)
Serendipity has long been associated with scientific discovery and creativity in general. Its importance is now in the spotlight in relation to networked learning (Kop, 2012). Computer scientists are also beginning to recognise the importance of environment and the role of purposeful ‘hunting’ for connections and associations between seemingly disparate ideas (Paul et al, 2009).
What comes out of recent research is that what on the surface looks like chance, is most likely to be based on someone else’s previous work, whether that be scientific propositions, artistic self-expressions, altruistic ideas, whatever. In the remix and reinterpretation, creativity and innovation can emerge when unlikely ideas butt up against one another. And given the way new technologies often facilitate this process, we are likely to see more and more new ideas, new re-combinations rapidly building ‘by chance’ on what has gone before.
Can I have some help with my maths please?
One beautiful example of serendipity in terms of creativity and teaching, is the case of the Khan Academy. This not-for-profit organisation came about (serendipitously) because Sal Khan, an MIT graduate and hedge fund analyst, wanted to help his younger cousin improve her maths. After giving her some one-to-one maths coaching, he found that he could better help her and other family members who also wanted tutoring, by uploading narrated videos to the Web, explaining single maths concepts in simple terms.
Khan’s library of recordings on YouTube allows the learner to go over and over explanations at their own pace. This approach is not unknown to those acquainted with online learning, but the escalation of the idea into a global learning resource is remarkable. The free, open source, on-demand library of videos is available for anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s now being used as a resource by some primary (elementary) schools and high schools to ‘flip’ the classroom: the videos are set as homework, which allows more time for teachers to work with students on maths problems in the classroom the next day.
Khan says ‘Its not my idea’, the way the resources are now being used in schools, but serendipitously Khan’s creative approach to teaching his cousin has led to creativity in other areas of learning and teaching. His idea has been picked up by others and remixed.
If you’re really interested in Sal Khan’s ideas, then I recommend watching this talk given to MIT students. It’s long (90 mins), but you can get the main ideas in the first 10 minutes. Otherwise, if you’re short of time, and really only have 2 minutes, then listen to Khan’s interview with Wired Magazine instead.
Paul, A., Schraefel, M. C., Teevan, J., & Dumais, S. (2009). Discovery is never by chance: Designing for (un)serendipity. Paper presented at Proceedings of the seventh ACM conference on Creativity and Cognition, Berkeley, California, USA.
Kop, R. (2012). The unexpected connection: Serendipity and human mediation in networked learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(2), 2-11.