Determining the right technology package for a learning solution can be challenging under any circumstances. Identifying – and assembling – the right set of freeware tools to provide the infrastructure that will spawn an active social learning network among a class of mid-performing 9th graders was like being back in grad school.

Anne Derryberry series onSocial Learning Technology for Ninth-Graders.

Informal projects can lead to a lack of rigor in approach; I found myself making unverifiable assumptions about my users, and I was plunging ahead without a clear understanding of where I was headed. There is a reason we call think tanks and labs sandboxes and not beaches: design requires constraint, just like games require rules.

The Technology Plan takes shape

I used my list of functional requirements, my “7 Cs” (Collect – Create – Communicate – Connect – Comment – Currency – Collaborate), to focus my efforts. They would be my guide in determining the software capabilities our network would need.

The criteria for the technology infrastructure of a social learning network of a high school class are not fundamentally different from those of any other network, as I realized from my “down-and-dirty” analysis (see last month’s column). I knew I could take advantage of the school’s Microsoft Office site license. Everything else would have to be freeware, browser-based, with free hosting and storage. It would have to be secure, a secret garden. And it would have to be really easy to use and maintain.

A suite solution

Ultimately, after diving into a handful of candidate technologies, I selected the Google suite of tools. I used Google Sites to build a class Website. In addition to the home page, I created a personal page for each student, with some data fields to fill in as a place to get started. The home page includes a blog so that their teacher, Ms. L., can post assignments. A calendar module counts down to the last day of school and to the students’ high school graduation day in 2013. Each of the themes for this academic year (e.g., Volunteering in Our Community, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens) has its own page to hold input for various student projects. A Resources page provides links to helpful reference material, to various forms and documents students frequently use, and to their Office accounts.

Separate from the class Website but connected to each participant’s (students, teacher, and tutors) Google account is the participant’s Gmail page. In addition to mail functionality, these pages also enable Chat and SMS messaging amongst the group, and group calendaring/scheduling.

I reviewed my requirements list, and felt satisfied that all the necessary ingredients for a successful social learning network were in place. Participants would be able to connect and communicate with each other at any time and in a variety of modes.

The same components that enable communication when combined with the Office productivity tools would also facilitate collaboration at school and after school. Students could stay current on their assignments and notices through e-mail and the Website. Peer review, teacher feedback and tutor input – really, just other forms of communication – would be facilitated through the communications features.

Best of all, the students’ personal pages would be living documents to present, maintain, and store their work. Further, because of the (limited!) customization options Google offers, students would be able to reflect their individuality by setting up and decorating their pages as they see fit. Check, check, and check!

Launch day

My launch plan was very straightforward. On The Big Day, I took a few minutes to talk to the class about what a social learning network is, how it would benefit them, and why they would all think this was the coolest thing since Lady Gaga. I emphasized the importance of technology skills, and what colleges assume students can already do with technology when they start college.

I showed them my Gmail page and how it was set up. I showed them the home page of the Website, complete with a group photo of the class and an initial blog entry from Ms. L. I showed them my personal page, and how I had entered content and customized it to give it a fun look. Then, I spent a little time telling them about some of the ways that “Our Website” could be used for their class assignments and group projects, to give them some ideas about how to get started.

And then I let go. It was theirs now.