One of our StoryChaser educators (jpatten) posted a great question in the forum on the StoryChasers learning community, and because I want to share a rather long answer I am posting it here. The question was:

I will be implementing a Federal EETT grant this year with some of my 5th grade teachers (science). Part of that grant communication component is going to be the development of a online learning network. Originally, I had planned on using Ning. Now I hear Wesley mention that he feels Drupal has some advantages over Ning. I’m curious as to what people feel some of the advatages are of using Drupal over Ning?

This is a GREAT question, and relates closely to some questions Miguel Guhlin asked in response to a post I shared titled “How can our school set up a team blog for teachers?” In that post I was outlining options for using either WordPress or Blogger as a platform for a teacher team blog, which at some point might also include students. This question of “Drupal versus Ning” focuses on the type of learning community is similar to the “WordPress or Ning” question, because Ning is included in both questions and it is important to differentiate not only platform functionality, but also the goals and purposes which are served (or can be served) through each environment.

Before I answer Miguel’s question, I want to point out several things. First, my own experiences creating and managing learning communities up to this point have been limited to using Ning, Blogger, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress. The last three I mentioned are all open source projects, Ning and Blogger are not.

Blogger and WordPress are designed to have more narrow functionality: Blogging. Both Ning and Drupal have been designed for different purposes, but both are well-suited for people who want to create and facilitate online learning communities. Joomla is a great tool, but from what I’ve read, heard and experienced it is less oriented toward learning community building than Ning or Drupal.

In a comment to my post about platforms for teacher team blogs, Miguel asked:

1) How easy is it to backup a Ning you’ve created if you decide to walk away from Ning?
2) How easy is it for you to setup a Ning on your own server if you do decide to walk away?
3) Does Ning have an education only location that at least has the obligatory “.org” label so that it won’t be blocked, unlike the “ning.com” that is in some districts?
4) How many administrators can you setup on a Ning?

These questions get to the heart of some differences not only between Ning and WordPress, but also Ning and Drupal. As an open source project, the content within a Drupal site is much more portable and flexible. You can’t work with data in Ning directly on the backend site, like directly in mySQL, as you can with Drupal. Drupal is more complex to setup and configure, but is MUCH more flexible. Particularly because you have open access to your data, Drupal is the more flexible platform if at some point (as Miguel says) you want to pick up your and move it elsewhere.

I don’t think you can “set up a Ning on your own server,” to answer Miguel’s second question. You can register a custom domain and have your Ning site resolve to that domain, but the Ning itself and its data will reside on the Ning servers from what I understand.

Ning does NOT have an “education only” location that is treated more generously by school content filters. Many schools I work with here in the midwestern US block all Ning sites, and we’ve had difficulty getting school IT folks in some cases to just unblock our Ning subdomain (http://celebrateoklahoma.ning.com) for our statewide oral history project. In some cases content filtering systems apparently won’t let a subdomain be unblocked, in other cases IT people don’t know how to do this, and in others they simply don’t want to. In terms of the administrator question, I think you can setup as many administrators as you want on a Ning, but there are some features which are ONLY accessible by the person who created it initially.

I think the biggest differentiator, in addition to needing your own server or commercial host to run Drupal, is that you need to be willing to do some tweaking and configuring if you opt for Drupal that involves using ftp to upload modules, configuring them, and doing more technical back-end stuff than you need with Ning. Ning is setup so just about anyone can create and manage a website. Drupal requires developers to be directly involved. That developer can be YOU, but the question is whether or not you want to be or get that “geeky” to tweak configurations, modules, etc.

The Drupal Education Group is a good resource to consult when looking at Drupal for specific education settings. If you are wanting more of a learning management system to be used in student courses, you certainly want to consider Moodle instead of Drupal. My post from June “Moodle as ‘the killer app’” has a great conversation thread discussing Drupal versus Moodle, and John Jones’ presentation on Drupal from mid-June in Wichita (available as a podcast) is also a good resource on this discussion I can point you to.

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  • http://beyond-school.org Clay Burell

    Thanks for this, Wes. About as timely a post as could be for me. I’m weighing the Moodle v. Drupal question right now for my own plans. And thanks for the links for further learning :)

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    You are most welcome Clay! I’m enthused to be currently working on two projects that involve Drupal, and one is an RFP that will have a design company helping with some Drupal development. I’m looking forward to lots of Drupal learning in the coming months, and I will certainly share the journey! I’m considering setting up a Moodle course here on my own site about Drupal and seeing if I can get some more experienced Drupal gurus to share their expertise, both for my own benefit as well as others who are interested. We had several educators in our skypecast last night express interest in learning more about Drupal also.

  • http://fraser.typepad.com/socialtech Josie Fraser

    I think you hit on the main issue that will determine tool selection for a lot of educators – are they supported (ie are they given resources in terms of technical support, institutional authority, and additional time) to set up their own platforms, or do they need to use web-based services. Or in some cases, are the tools they’ve been officially provided with useful in supporting learners with specific tasks.

    Drupal & Moodle are both great :) Educators looking to support their own platforms might also want to take a look at my recent list of open source social software:

    http://fraser.typepad.com/socialtech/2008/07/open-source-soc.html

    Those wanting to evaluate web-based platforms might find the evaluation tool provided in my recent report on young people and social software useful. It provides a useful checklist of all those questions you’ll want to ask about particular services:

    http://www.digizen.org/socialnetworking/

    Best, J.

  • http://www.sylvan.k12.ca.us John Patten

    Thanks for the info Wesley! That was pretty much my understanding too. I probably will go with a Drupal set up for my 5th grade teachers. Ning is great, but it does have its limitations. BTW, we’ve been using Moodle with a previous EETT grant and our middle school teachers. I’m seriously thinking about to making every teachers name on their school site (btw they’re Mambo/Joomla configs)link back to their own personal Moodle site this year (http://eett.sylvan.k12.ca.us/moodle). Just have to love OpenSource! :-)

  • http://www.voicehero.net JM Drupal

    We are a using Drupal a lot, recently we are hearing more often that people think about Ning as an alternative to Drupal – I talked to one organization who want´s to use both – Drupal for what he called the website and Ning for the social network part . . well, I recommended to review the long term implications of using a black box proprietary solution as Ning. As stated in above article – you don´t have control over what they decide now or in the future – Ning runs on Ning servers and you can´t just develop features or connect it to desired web services and applications as you please.

    So the decision is between a ready to use solution with zero server maintenance using Ning hosting or a ready to use zero server maintenance solution using a dedicated Drupal hosting. The latter leaves you with initially higher costs when you want to redesign the theme of the site and don´t want to use a standard template, but it also gives you way more choice further down the line – you are simply in 100 percent control and have full access to the system . . . and you have a dedicated Drupal in Education Group who provides support, inspiration and a Drupal version taken the particular needs of the academic and educational field into account. Well – doesn´t sounds like a very hard decision to me what I would use.

  • http://mguhlin.net Miguel Guhlin

    Wes, thanks for the post. After a hiatus with Moodle, I’m jumping back into it and moving all our content into it. It’s been fun and surprisingly easy. The question I have to ask myself now is NOT, “What’s easiest for me to use and maintain?” but rather, “What’s easiest for those I’m hoping to empower and take ownership?”

    Given that question, Moodle wins hands-down…and the wealth of videos online about Moodle use is amazing. That’s not to say Drupal isn’t great but I have to find a balance between what I find personally engaging technology and what scaffolds learners as they engage the Borg, uh, I mean, disruptive technologies.

    ;->

    Take care,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the Corner-mGuhlin.net
    http://mguhlin.net

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