I remember being told years ago that programmers at Microsoft were admonished to “eat their own dog food.” I think that was geek speak for “practice what you preach,” or something roughly equivalent. Whatever the terminology, the sentiment is important. And it applies to me.

Anne Derryberry series onSocial Learning Technology for Ninth-Graders.

Regular readers may remember that I threw down the gauntlet last August, challenging everyone to join me in volunteering for a local school. After all, I opined, “Those of us with experience or background in education have a special responsibility to come forward.”

This past September, I “joined” the Teacher Support Network in my community. I was assigned to support the ninth-grade AVID (“Advancement Via Individual Determination”) teacher and students, which means that during two long class sessions per week, I help students succeed in their classes so that they can stay on (or get on) a college-bound track.  These 190 minutes each week give me an opportunity to experience firsthand what life inside a high school classroom is about.

Things are bad in education in California, as they are in many places in the country. Although the state is constitutionally precluded from declaring bankruptcy, public education is not shielded from such a fate. Indeed, several public school districts in our region have declared financial bankruptcy; if test scores and school ratings are a reliable indicator, we have an educational bankruptcy occurring at an even higher rate.

So what can I, this one person, do about such an intractable, systemic problem? As a volunteer, I have the freedom to think outside the strictures that constrain regular teachers. With my learning technologist’s eye, I frequently spot situations where technology would offer supportive solutions for both teacher and students. Of course, there is no budget available, so that’s a non-starter.

AVID is an elective program for middle and high school that was designed about 30 years ago. Its purpose is to help mid-tier performers get on and stay on a college track. The program calls for the participation of community members, who act as tutors for the subjects that students find challenging. Rather than being subject matter experts, tutors employ a loose version of the Socratic method with a small group of students; by asking the right questions in the right way, students (should, theoretically) learn 1) to identify and articulate what their learning challenges are; and 2) to learn how to coach and support each other.

But wait, aren’t those the goals of any Web-based social learning network?

Why not use this class as a sort of learning lab environment? Can I only take advantage of free Web-based tools to build the right infrastructure for a social learning environment? Can we (the teacher, students, and I) design and install the appropriate learning scaffolding to support the students’ class requirements? Can we provide a platform and structure for students to use Web 2.0 and media production tools to express their ideas, to collaborate, and to present their learnings?

Over the next four months, I will share my experiences, learnings, and observations as I attempt to bring about a social learning community, one that addresses the current curriculum and provides educational and collaborative support for this set of students. All with free tools. Did I mention the ninth-graders?

Please join me on this adventure. If you have embarked on a similar voyage, I’d love to hear your tales and recommendations. Also, if you see me heading down a metaphorical rabbit hole with 30 teenagers in tow, please save us from ourselves with your words of advice.

NEXT TIME: Requirements definition and tool selection