Inventing Serendipity

On this Leap Day, inspired by an image and post onThe Paris Review , I retell a tale of serendipity...

Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to Horace Mann, dated January 28, 1754.

In the letter, he explained the etymology of his new word. 

"I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip”: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, on the them discovered that a mule blinds of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity?"

It took nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene. Its first recorded usage was in 1943.


The Rise of Competency-Based Education (webinar)


Competency-based education (CBE) is taking off – and its impact extends throughout higher education. In CBE, students are evaluated and awarded credit and degrees not on seat time or completing traditional courses, but based on their ability to demonstrate specific skills and competencies.

For many students, this speeds up degree completion. And for adult students who have extensive work experience and knowledge gained outside the classroom, and are frequently unable to attend courses offered during traditional classroom hours, CBE can provide a way to earn degrees reflecting that experience and knowledge.

Inside Higher Ed editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman will host a discussion on CBE in a free webinar on Tuesday, February 23 at 2:00 p.m. ET.   

You can view the webinar here. To download the accompanying slide deck, click here.

Online Continues to Appeal to Students - Not So Much With Faculty


Reading on the website, we find the latest annual update from the Babson Research Group, which has tracked online education in the US since 2002. The quick takeaway is that online courses continue to increase in popularity even as higher education enrollment in the country in general is dropping.

Some key points:

A year-to-year 3.9% increase in the number of distance education students, up from the  3.7% rate recorded last year.

More than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course.

The total of 5.8 million fall 2014 distance education students is composed of 2.85 million taking all of their courses at a distance and 2.97 million taking some, but not all, distance  courses.

Public institutions command the largest portion of distance education students, with 72.7%  of all undergraduate and 38.7% of all graduate?level distance students.

The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long? term strategy fell from 70.8% last year to 63.3% this year.

The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the  same or superior to those in face?to?face instruction is now at 71.4%.

But that continued growth is not matched by the responses of faculty. If you accept "academic leaders" as speaking for their faculty, then the idea that only 29.1% of academic leaders report that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy  of online education” is not impressive. However, take note that it depends on what faculty you are asking. Among schools with the largest distance enrollments, 60.1% report  faculty acceptance. Only 11.6% of faculty show acceptance at those schools with no distance enrollments. 

Weaker e-learning enthusiasm with faculty is a data point that has not changed much since the survey began.

Growth in online education is not based on it being better or equal to traditional classrooms. Growth is based on access. Students want more freedom in when and where they get their education and online programs (particularly fully online programs and degrees) allow learners to complete a program they couldn’t otherwise.



Ebola and the Google Science Fair

Olivia Hallisey is the 2015 Grand Prize Winner for the Google Science Fair. She was determined to do something to help stop the spread of ebola. She wanted to find a faster way to diagnose the disease, and developed the Ebola Assay Card. This device changes color when the virus has been detected. It requires no refrigeration for transportation or storage, and can confirm in under 30 minutes if someone is infected, before they even show symptoms.

More info at


Technology pulls many "new" words from other fields. there are a surprising number of terms we get from nature. I was looking through a book by Sue Thomas called Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace that has me thinking about terms we use in new ways in technology.

One example is the digital version of an ecosystem. The digital version of an ecosystem is like a tree with branching directories. A digital ecosystem grows out of a (perhaps buried) root folder

Another reworked term from nature is the online use of spider. A digital spider is a program that visits Web sites and reads their pages and other information in order to create entries for a search engine index like Google or Yahoo. All the major search engines on the Web use these program. They are also appropriately known with the spidery names of web crawlers. (Also known as bots., but that's pure cyber.)

The book also reminded me that the digital world is full of watery metaphors. We follow the Twitter stream. We surf the web. We listen to torrents of music. , and meet at online watering holes. We sometimes swim in seas and oceans of data.

Do you have a favorite tech term pulled from nature, or another field?