In many ways, the protracted spring was good for our little agricultural community. The extra rain ended a three-year drought, and pushed back spring fever just long enough to enable students to maintain a modicum of focus during the last few weeks of the school year. But the quiet rhythms of summer supplanted the anticipatory air of spring, leaving me some time to reflect on my volunteer experience with a class of 9th-grade AVID students and their teacher, Ms. L.

Readers may remember that last fall, I issued an “all hands” call for volunteers in a community school. For my part, I took on an assignment at the high school in my community, working with Ms. L. and her class of mid-tier students who have college aspirations. As the year progressed, I recognized opportunities to weave computing literacy into the rest of the curriculum activities so that students could begin to gain the technical competencies necessary to success in college. In concert with Ms. L. and the students, I pieced together technology components that would support the students in establishing their own social learning network.

Through my ad hoc experiment – and my little undertaking can’t be classified any other way – I hoped to create a social learning network that would:

  1. Extend the benefits of working in/as a group beyond the four walls of the classroom

  2. Integrate computing literacy into the AVID curriculum

  3. Draw attention to the importance of online search skills

On the technology side, I was interested to know whether free, ubiquitously available technologies could be adapted for social learning networking purposes; and whether those technologies were sufficiently easy to use for today’s teachers.

Throughout the school year, I considered Ms. L. my client. Accordingly, I checked in with her for a review of the project. In her words, “I really enjoyed the experience with the AVID Website, and I think the kids enjoyed creating their page. I wish there were more access to computer labs on campus so we could all work at the same time." 

“From other people's perspective, the project was really good.  I know that the AVID coordinator liked it, and all three other AVID teachers enjoyed looking at it and were interested in making their own. I think we all talked about how, in college, students really need to know how to email a professor, attach a file, upload a document, etc.  With the population that we have in AVID (low income), I think that doing all of that at school is important; many don't have access at home."

“I think the Google search stories were a fun idea, and the students really enjoyed making them.  I'd like to continue to think up ways to have the Website be more helpful to them.  Maybe next year we can have ‘AVID chat’ for help with homework.”

Having observed Ms. L.’s grading habits for the past year, I’d say she gave me a B+.

My own assessment is far harsher, starting with an A+ for hubris. As Ellen Wagner famously said, “You can’t do learning to people.” The same applies to social networking, whether for learning or any other purpose. As a designer, I can create an environment and platform for social networking and social learning; only the participants can create the community and generate the networking and learning.

Of course, this doesn’t relieve the designer of a social learning network platform from the traditional responsibilities of learning design. The same analysis of participants, content and technology remain critical to the success of a social learning program. However, traditional analysis calls on designers to compile a composite view of the Learner and the Content. Communities for learning, whether real world or virtual, are comprised of many learners with different content needs, each of whom must find the support they seek. Reducing the definition of the target community to a composite view leaves the needs of many participants unanswered.

Neither can one rely on a “Field of Dreams” deployment strategy. The existence of a well-conceived and -implemented social learning platform does not in and of itself lead to a thriving social learning community. If participants do not quickly see the utility of their involvement, or if they can’t recognize a return on their engagement, they will quickly drop out. A clear articulation of purpose, easy access for all participants, a meaningful incentive system, and allowance for casual interaction among participants are key factors to a social learning network’s success.

When all is said and done, the value I’ve received from my experience and efforts has been enormous. I look forward to probing on each of the key points this project has spotlighted, and sharing those with you.

Many thanks to Ms. L. and her AVID students. Happy summer to all!