Miracle on the Hudson: Don't Fall in Love With the Plan

On Thursday January 15 at 3:29 p.m. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III pulled off what Governor David Paterson of NY called "The Miracle on the Hudson." He turned a flight plan into one of the great daredevil acts of all time: a perfect splashdown in the Hudson. Beyond the miracle and the great joy of 155 saved lives, there's a lesson for us educators: Don't fall in love with the plan.

Plan B was Teeterboro Airport in NJ, which the pilots could see from the flight deck. But, they did not follow the normal plan B--head for the nearest airport where rescue teams are right at hand--presumably because they had no power and falling short of a runway in a city would be disastrous. They were so low, they had to glide around the George Washington Bridge and then they aligned with the longer and closer runway, the Hudson. The pilots were making things up as they went.

In Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, author Laurence Gonzales says "Purpose is a big part of survival... The survivor plans by setting small, manageable goals and then systematically achieving them. Hence the Air Force [pre-flight] checklist and the notion, which my father drilled into me: Plan the flight and fly the plan. But don't fall in love with the plan. Be open to a changing world and let go of the plan when necessary so that you can make a new plan. Then, as the world and the plan both go through their book of changes, you will always be ready to do the next right thing."

No one will ever fault Captain Sullenberger for not following normal procedure for plan B because his plan C worked. Fortunately, because lives are always at stake in a flight, airline pilots are allowed to override rules and directives and ultimately use their own judgment.

This real-life episode demonstrates how careful planning and good judgment work beautifully together, and is a story to keep in mind for higher education as we ourselves become more and more highly technologized and tied into automated systems. A well-planned system for flying or for learning is only ultimately valuable if it frees those using it--pilots or teachers and learners--to invent as they go along.

And this brings us to student learning outcomes and the rubric systems designed to guide learning toward those outcomes. The outcomes and rubrics (the assignments and criteria at each learning level to guide teachers and students) provide a pre-flight and in-flight checklist as plan A.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (http://www.aacu.org/), in its VALUE project (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) is gathering a picture of how higher education institutions in the US are developing their assessment plans in order to know how students are actually reaching their stated learning outcomes. They are going to the ground to find what's happening within programs at various colleges and universities.

This is important work because developing a campus-wide or even a program-wide set of learning outcomes and rubrics by which to meet those learning outcomes is one of the most complex and mind-stretching activities that faculty members have ever engaged in on behalf of pedagogy. They need all the guidelines and examples they can get. A serious attempt to create this new institutional assessment system may well and perhaps should result in a re-structured curriculum or even a re-structured semester concept.

Without portfolio technology, a learning-outcomes based assessment system is hard to coordinate. ePortfolios (electronic portfolios) make these systems doable. The benefit of these systems is not just in pleasing the accrediting agencies or professional associations that want to see learning outcomes data, but in better organizing a path of learning for students that coheres; the cohesion elements are the rubrics. It's really refreshing to think that in a general education program, for example, that what had appeared to be cafeteria courses are in fact a well-planned set of varied experiences toward the single goal of an educated mind.

However, while program or institutional learning outcomes can remain the same over time since they are usually generalized goals that are the hallmarks of an educated person in any era, the rubric-bound curriculum itself cannot remain the same. Knowledge changes, individual teachers vary in how they teach, and both exist in a culture that is highly dynamic. Teachable moments emerge constantly and should not be lost because they were not planned or their connection to the learning outcomes was not foreseen.

The basic paradox of information technology is that it is both an organizing tool and a liberating tool. IT has two faces, Janus faces, looking in opposite directions. We need both tendencies. We need the aggregating and reporting ability of the portfolio to create a rational pathway to integrated learning but we also need the creative opportunities presented by student portfolios so students can explore, discover, reflect, organize, and present in a space they own.

If a teacher works within an organized system such as I've been describing, he or she has a leg up, a scaffold and can see how the course fits into an overall scheme and what assignments or activities would fit with the scheme. But this is only a leg up, not a straitjacket. In fact, both the teacher and students can use the assessment system as a springboard for creativity.

In designing a technology system for higher education, balance between organizing and liberating tendencies is necessary for good learning. Both faces of technology must be recognized. We have recognized the value of standardizing and now have the tools to extend the standardized system, but the eternal value of human inventiveness cannot be hostage to this system.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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