Well, this is a bummer. The Ning Terms of Service agreement explicitly prohibits anyone from creating any Ning social networking sites “targeted at children under the age of 13.” I was aware of COPPA and knew I’d have to get parent permission for students to participate in an online community I was creating for a class I’m teaching this fall, but didn’t realize I was legally prohibited from creating a Ning site for 10-11 year olds I’ll be teaching this year. Here’s the background on how I learned about this. If you’re an elementary or middle school educator in the United States using or contemplating the use of a Ning website for students under age 13, this is important information to know and share.
I am co-teaching 5th grade Sunday school this year at our church again, and for the second year we are using Group Publishing’s Grapple curriculum for preteens. Last year was the first year for Grapple, and overall our experiences with Grapple were very positive. I loved the fact that all the lesson plans and materials were available electronically in PDF and image formats from the Grapple website, and the idea of involving students in a moderated learning community was good. I did not like many of the limitations of the online learning community provided by Group, however. The website did not permit “online social networking” in the way I expected: It had text-based discussion forums that looked like something that was cutting edge in 1994, and did not permit users to have “profile pages” of any kind with comment walls, custom icons, etc. Halfway through the year Group added a feature where teachers could manage individual logins for students, rather than having everyone use different userids but the same password, and that was a step forward. I recognize that Group was just getting started with digital curriculum like this, but I wasn’t pleased with the limited functionality of the accompanying online learning community.
We are using Grapple curriculum again, but I had hoped to create a private Ning social network for students, parents, teachers and church youth leaders to use this year. A Ning would give us a LOT more flexibility and permit our kids to actually practice social networking in a safe and moderated environment. With a private, customized learning community we could share lesson plans, have discussion forums, and engage in more extensive and “real” social networking than we could with the provided MyGrapple website.
This afternoon I’ve been working on getting things organized for our teaching team as well as parents, and continued working on a Ning social network for our class. Bear in mind that as 5th graders, students in our class are 10-11 year olds. When I asked my son (who is in the class this year) to sign up, he was not able to because he was “not eligible.” Oops! What could this mean? My first thought was COPPA, and I was right. According to the Ning Terms of Service agreement applicable to ALL Ning sites, users:
…agree not to knowingly collect any information from, or develop any Networks that are targeted at, children under the age of 13.
Well, it’s a good thing I haven’t devoted TOO many hours so far to creating a private Ning site for our class…..
I see two different options at this point. The first and easiest option would be to simply ditch the idea of creating and maintaining a customized learning community for our class and just go with what has been provided by Group Publishing with Grapple. I really don’t want to do that, but because of time factors that option looks somewhat appealing.
My second option would be to register an add-on domain for one of the websites I already have with Siteground for $40 (for the entire year) and create a custom learning community for our class using Drupal. While Ning IS very easy to setup and use, I was going to end up paying $20 per month throughout the year to remove advertisements from the site. So, from a cost standpoint, creating a new website with a custom domain as a Siteground add-on would be a cheaper option. It wouldn’t be as easy as Ning, but because of the StoryChasers project I’m already getting a little familiar with Drupal and managing a learning community with it.
I’m not sure what I am going to do. What I’m sure I will NOT do is create a Ning website targeted at 10-11 year olds. 🙁
Another related point of worthwhile learning from my work this afternoon on this curriculum involves free, moderated email accounts for students. If we were going to use Ning (which now we are NOT) students would have had to sign up with their own email account. My top two recommendations for parents were going to be either:
- Using a free, no-setup-required Gmail alias as an email account as described by Sue Waters in this post for EduBlogs
- Setup and use a free, moderated email account with ePals
I have had an ePals account for years but had never setup a monitored/moderated email account for a student before. Today I did for our three kids, although I’m sure it will be awhile before our almost five year old wants to use hers. (She’s writing sentences now, so it might not be long!) To create one or more moderated email accounts, simply click CREATE MONITORED ACCOUNTS in your ePals mail window:
By default, created accounts have “level 1” monitoring:
According to the ePals website, “profanity filters” have four different levels:
Profanity filters are organized from Level 1 to Level 4, with Level 1 providing the most stringent filtering. In all cases, you can choose whether or not to preview messages containing attachments.
Level 1 All messages must be approved by the monitor, whether they contain profanity or not.
Level 2 Messages containing profanity must be approved by the monitor, but unflagged messages will reach their recipients automatically. The monitor will also receive a copy of every unflagged message.
Level 3 Messages containing profanity must be approved by the monitor, but unflagged messages will reach their recipients automatically. The monitor will not see unflagged messages.
Level 4 All profanity filters are off.
I set the monitoring levels for my 8 and 10 year old kids to level 3, but kept the “attachment” setting still set to “preview.” ePals email looks like a GREAT option for them to use for personal email. At one time ePals did not permit parents to register for student email accounts, and charged fees for their SchoolMail service. Now (as it has been for some time) ePals SchoolMail is 100% free and available for anyone worldwide to use. Parent permission is required of course, under COPPA for U.S. students to use ePals email. ePals is providing an extremely valuable and important service to teachers and parents alike by providing this FREE monitored email service. I look forward to learning more about ePals SchoolMail in the weeks ahead as my own kids use it.
Sadly, my oldest won’t be using his in conjunction with a Ning social network for Sunday school. 🙁
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