Thanks to No Child Left Behind, public schools in this country can receive a ranking of persistently under-achieving – that’s an actual government designation. Remarkably, while about 80% of the schools that feed into my local high school fall into that category, the high school itself has managed to keep its positive ratings. No thanks to those who dole out the dough, though – our district just lost another million dollars last week.

Anne Derryberry series onSocial Learning Technology for Ninth-Graders.

Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) is an academic support program designed to help underachieving middle- and high-school students prepare for and succeed in colleges and universities. AVID teaches students academic “survival skills:” how to study, read for content, take notes, and manage time. The program emphasizes teamwork and collaboration by organizing students into ad hoc study groups to give each other support in understanding troublesome content and learning new skills. These study groups are facilitated by peer and/or community-based “tutors.”

In addition to the funding problems, it seems we don’t trust our students much; policy dictates that students must leave computers at home and keep cell phones stowed while in class under threat of confiscation. On the positive side, the school does have several computer labs that students can sign up for, and a few teachers have a few computers in their classrooms. Fortunately, Ms. L., the 9th-grade AVID teacher, is among them. And, by a count of hands, most of her students have a computer available to them at home.

A call for commitment

I underscore these points to provide context to my challenge. As you may recall, I am a community volunteer at the local high school assigned to help Ms. L. and her AVID class, where I am a Tutor for the study groups that are a part of each AVID class session.

As the second semester began, Ms. L. and I took stock of her AVID class and the students’ progress. I expressed my concern that AVID (at least for this class) does not embed technology skills into the program. After all, basic technology skills are assumed of all students entering college or university. One thing led to another, and suddenly we were wondering together whether a social learning network might be an interesting vehicle for integrating technology literacy competencies into the core goals of the program.

“Why don’t we build one?” said I, brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. “We can do it with free tools, so nobody will have to pay anything. It’ll be no problem, I can handle everything!” And the meeting was over.

Capabilities and benefits: the wish list

So what had I really committed to? What did I think a social learning network would do? Generally? Specifically for AVID? These students? This teacher? I wrote down all my general observations about AVID, these students, this teacher, her concerns, and the environment in which they were all interacting and working. When I organized my notes and categorized what was left, I was left with my wish list of capabilities and benefits for an AVID social learning network:

Collect – students are frequently asked to find and present content authored by others as a way to demonstrate understanding of a concept. Students need a way to find and a place to save and track such content on the Web.

Create – the creation of original content involves the use of a variety of digital content creation tools for text, photos, slide decks, and videos. Students need access to these tools within the network, as well as a place to save and show their creations.

Communicate – successful teams need to communicate. E-mail and chat are critical elements of this social learning network.

Connect – members of our class have different strengths and abilities. Students turn to particular classmates for help in one area, and different classmates in other areas. Knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses and whom to ask for help are important to team cohesion and the AVID value of interdependence.

Comment – feedback and commentary on the work and behavior of fellow students. Students need to learn to provide meaningful feedback, and to incorporate peer reviews into their own work and behavior. Ultimately, they need to learn to review and modify their own work and behavior.

Currency – staying current on class work, activities, and assignments is difficult for some. An “after-school” place to double-check this information is essential.

Collaborate – the most important lessons AVID seeks to impart are: 1) to have faith in yourself and your own abilities; 2) when you need help, look to your team for support; 3) be a responsible and supportive team player; 4) respect yourself and each other. Every aspect of the AVID social learning network must demonstrate and facilitate these points.

With my scaled-down requirements document in hand, I sat down to bang out an AVID class Website and student pages using Google Sites, with linked gmail accounts. Ms. L. just needed to add some content. Done. Piece of cake!

And then I turned my thoughts to showing off my Cool New Tool to Ms. L.’s students. That’s when things got interesting.

NEXT TIME: “This isn’t heaven – it’s Iowa.”