In yesterday’s TechCrunch article, “Ning’s Bubble Bursts: No More Free Networks, Cuts 40% Of Staff” Jason Kincaid shared an email from Jason Rosenthal, Ning’s new CEO. Rosenthal purportedly wrote:

So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product [commercialized, paid Ning accounts] to capture this big opportunity. We will phase out our free service. Existing free networks will have the opportunity to either convert to paying for premium services, or transition off of Ning. We will judge ourselves by our ability to enable and power Premium Ning Networks at huge scale. And all of our product development capability will be devoted to making paying Network Creators extremely happy.

This is VERY bad news for educators and the cause of educational networking / constructive social networking in schools. Most educator-created Ning networks are NOT going to fit into this “at huge scale” model. We use a paid Ning account for our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices learning community, but were hoping to use free accounts for Celebrate Kansas Voices and potentially other statewide digital storytelling projects which follow our Storychasers model. Depending on what Ning decides to do, we may have to reconsider our platform for developing these online communities.

I have several thoughts related to this I’d like to share, and on which I’d value your input.

First of all, as a web 2.0 and tech-saavy company, I think the potential for educators to influence Ning’s decisionmaking process as they decide how to “phase out our free service” is significant. Just as we’ve seen the founders of VoiceThread be extremely responsive to the requests and input of educators (through a similar phase when VoiceThread had to figure out ways to monetize its service – everything couldn’t be free forever, even for teachers and students) I hope we’ll see the same dynamic with Ning. Steve Hargadon is hosting:

…. a live Elluminate session on Tuesday, April 20th, at 5pm Pacific Daylight Time (US) / 8pm Eastern Daylight Time (US) / 12am Wednesday GMT (international conversions here)

…to discuss theses changes to Ning and how educators can (and perhaps should) respond. This synchronous conference will be held via the FutureofEducation.com Elluminate room: Log in at http://tr.im/futureofed. Steve recommends visiting the Elluminate support site in advance to test your local system configuration.

In his post today, “The Day the Nings Died,” Henry Thiele wrote:

What if Ning comes back and announces that subscriptions for educators are $10 per year? I am sure plenty of people would pay up. If Ning created a version that I could purchase for my teachers and manage the accounts, and have a long term contract, I would consider becoming a paid subscriber at the district level. However, they would have to demonstrate that the product would have an escape plan. The biggest problem I see in leaving Ning, and any platform, is the cost and time involved in leaving. There is a real cost associated in leaving any product and we should always consider that when investing in a solution.

Hopefully many more suggestions along these lines will be put forward by the educator community now using Ning, and the Ning administrators will listen.

Ning has been a transformative platform for MANY learning interactions in the past few years. Jen Wagner articulated this well today in her post, “Thoughts On Ning,” writing:

Ning made this [facilitating peer-to-peer support and networking for project-based learning] very easy. With each project, I directed people to join the PBJ NING and join the group of that project so that they could pair up and extend the project. It became a wonderful venue of teachers sharing ideas and growing projects beyond what I had ever dreamed. With each presentation on certain opportunities, I directed people to the OP4T Ning and join the group that wanted to share the same “tools”. It became a better help desk and idea gathering than I could have done by myself. Nings were making my life easier and truly help teachers start taking the steps they needed to start working with others instead of me doing it for them. I think in a way, we both were empowered by this. (smiles)

As both Henry and Jen noted in their posts, times of change can provide opportunities to reinvent and improve. Am I disappointed Ning may do away with free accounts entirely? Yes. Do I view this as a devastating situation? Given the amazing creativity and networks of connected educators to which we can all be tied today, definitely NOT. The sky is not falling, and together (whatever changes Ning decides to make or not make with respect to educator accounts) I am confident we’ll find alternative platforms which can similarly support networked sharing. We’re all on an exciting journey of change and discovery with technology today, and announcements like this one drive that fact home. Change is a constant, and we often learn the most when we are in the midst of change.

Dreamer Falling
Creative Commons License photo credit: alex.william.

What alternatives to Ning exist today which are viable for educational networking? I’m aware of the following four options. Each of these (at present) must be run on your own server or paid hosted account, however, potentially making the complexity and support requirements for these options more difficult that what people currently experience with Ning.

  1. Elgg: Elgg is billed as “the leading open source social networking platform.” It can be run from your own server or hosted account, or (similar WordPress running on WordPress.com) starting in May 2010 Elgg.com will provide hosted Elgg sites for a monthly charge. WordPress.com provides free blogs, but users can pay for additional features. Jim Klein continues to use a customized Elgg at Saugus Union School District in California. Their SWATTEC (Student Writing Achievement Through Technology Enhanced Collaboration) initiative is a great success story, and digitally has been powered by Elgg. (Don’t miss Jim’s “Linux on Netbooks” documentation, which is also part of the site. There’s a LOT we can all learn from Jim and his team!)
  2. Drupal: A robust content management system, Drupal websites can be designed to support educational networking / social networking in ways that closely resemble Ning. Developer Bill Fitzgerald (FunnyMonkey) is very active in the Drupal in Education group, and has developed DrupalEd to meet the specific needs of educators. While DrupalEd is not as simple to setup initially as Ning, it is a viable alternative platform for educational networking. Youth Voices is a great example of a Drupal-powered educational networking site. It started out as an Elgg site, but migrated to Drupal. See Paul Allison‘s July 2008 post, “What is Youth Voices? Working Document” for a bit more background.
  3. BuddyPress: BuddyPress is a free and open source plug-in for WordPress which is designed as a tool for building a social network within the WordPress environment. While WordPress is a “blog” platform, it is used more generically to power a diverse array of websites worldwide. WordPress is highly extensible, and BuddyPress dramatizes that fact. I have not yet experimented with BuddyPress, and at this point am not aware of any BuddyPress-powered educational networking websites. If you know of one or more, please share the link(s).
  4. Moodle: While Moodle is most often used by schools as a password-protected, walled garden learning management system, it IS possible to utilize Moodle in a more open format to provide educational networking functionality. The Palm Beach Public School’s TrainU website, which they utilized several weeks ago for their FANTASTIC annual technology conference, was built with Moodle. I was very impressed by the social networking features they added to the site. I’m going to share a demo of the site running on a mobile phone here soon.

This question about alternatives to Ning begs basic questions about the similarities and differences between blogs, wikis, and social networking websites. These are good conversations to have, not just among IT and instructional technology staff members in schools, but also among teachers. Instead of getting lost in the jargon and acronyms, we all need to remember to ask a basic question when considering alternatives like those mentioned in this post:

What do we want to DO online together, and what do we want to CREATE?

The answers to that question should drive the tools we choose to use, develop, and build together to support networked learning.

I hope Ning will find a way to provide social networking sites for teachers, students, and schools at affordable prices. Whatever they decide to do, however, I’m confident our use of social networking technologies to support professional development as well as student learning will continue to grow in the months and years ahead.

What other alternatives to Ning did I leave out of this post? Of these options, which ones do you think are the best for teachers? Why? Please help fill in the blanks. :-) See Alec Couros‘ post, “Ning Alternatives, Collaboration, & Self Hosting” and his shared Google Doc, “Alternatives to Ning” to get and share more ideas.

Oliver shares with Maeve
Creative Commons License photo credit: redjar

H/T to Steve Hargadon for initially letting me know about this Ning announcement. H/T to Dean Shareski for alerting me the link to Alec’s post and Google Doc.

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  • Jane

    I found this online for Ning users looking to find a free alternative..

    http://webs.com/pages/free-ning-alternative

  • vic mackey

    And what about gnoss.com as an alternative to ning? free semantic communities

  • Joshua Williams

    In the context of alternatives to Ning, I was glad to see you suggest Drupal. As you noted, it requires a bit more setup initially, but it has tremendous ability to scale into a very rich online community. It’s also worth mentioning Joomla here . Joomla is very similar in capability and purpose to Drupal, and many consider it to be slightly easier to work with. As learning communities move further into the cloud these decisions become more important. Let’s remember to ask ourselves how we can integrate our web platform as we (hopefully) grow from a few individual, early adopters to whole online communities of learning and collaborating. I’ve been encouraging learning technology leaders to imagine what a connected, integrated online community should look like, and to ask themselves what problems they will be trying to solve in the coming months and years. What will it take to grow from teachers creating and sharing on the web to students creating and sharing on the web?

  • http://www.johnlacey.com John Lacey

    This is going to be such a big deal for a lot of people. Thanks for including a list of great resources.

  • http://www.creatinglifelonglearners.com Mathew

    Here’s a sample educational use of buddypress: http://commons.gc.cuny.edu/

  • http://beeznest.wordpress.com/author/ywarnier Yannick Warnier

    Thanks for the effort analyzing the solutions at hand.
    The Ning announcement has also indicated that users would be able to take their data away. Maybe a practical tool will be provided to allow users to export their data easily and import them into Elgg (Drupal doesn’t seem like an easier option than Moodle to me).
    Chamilo is another great open source e-learning tool that has its own social network tools integrated from scratch. Use it on http://campus.chamilo.org

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  • http://theedublogger.edublogs.org/ Sue Waters

    Here’s an interview by Kyle Jones which is a great overview of BuddyPress in an educational context.

    You will also find the BuddyPress Manual gives you a good background on how BuddyPress works.

    As usual here is where I have to insert the disclosure that I work for both Edublogs and WPMU DEV (http://premium.wpmudev.org/); and part of my work is writing manuals on how to use WordPress MU and BuddyPress; plus supporting people in using both. Always happy to answer any questions you might have about BuddyPress.

  • http://www.idra.org Christie Goodman, APR

    Another option is Big Tent. I participate in one group as a listener to the Manic Mommies podcast. Bit Tent will be hosting a free webinar this week on its features (April 21 @ 9 am Pacific/noon Eastern).

    Also, thanks for your posts. I recommended your blog last week to a group of school district public affairs folk I was presenting to.

  • http://www.zerista.com/ Zack

    Crazy that all these folks are left with the option to pay or leave. I noticed there are some free options out there. Zerista is one that is a free and lets you take your group to your mobile phone.

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  • Laura Malita

    Dear Sue,
    would you tell me if the Buddypress has been integrated even a wiki widget? Or it is possible and not so complicated to integrate a wiki starting from the tags from Buddypress?
    Thanks in advance,
    Laura

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

    Laura:

    I’m very interested in utilizing BuddyPress and exploring its possibilities. In terms of integrating a wiki tool with it, I’d think that is a question of having a similar theme that would allow users to move relatively seamlessly between WordPress and the Wiki tool. I’d love to know if themes exist now which can do this. Which wiki are you thinking about using? I’d recommend either Google Sites or WikiSpaces.

  • http://theedublogger.com/ Sue Waters

    Hi Laura, do you mean integrating wiki functionality into BuddyPress of linking your wiki site to the BuddyPress site using a widget?

    If you mean just using widgets then the answer is yes on our installs because our sites allow almost any embed HTML code however normally that isn’t the case. Unless you install a plugin you can’t add embed code like Javascript, iframes etc.

    But in terms of Wiki facilties on our standard WordPress MU installs we have an internal wiki built inside the dashboards (this isn’t included in our BuddyPress install). However, if you are wanting full wiki facilities then you are better using a wiki. It quite common for our clients to use our sites for blogging and then other web 2.0 companies for other tools.

    But if any of you want to check out what it is like to use BuddyPress I do have a site set up that any one can join to check out how it works. It has been on my to-do list for several months and is ready to use I just haven’t promoted it much because of time constraints in finishing off making it pretty — last job is I want to add a video to the front page on how to use BuddyPress and a bit more info about it.

    You will find it here – http://edugroups.org/ Feel free to set up both user accounts and blogs.

  • Laura

    Dear Sue and Wesley,
    thank you for your responses. When I asked about wiki integration on Buddypress, I have in mind an example from the Buddypress site examples, namely, Cuny Academic Commons, http://commons.gc.cuny.edu/, which looks very nice and closed to my purposes.
    Even if I liked very much both Wikispaces and Google Sites, I think it wasn’t the solution used for this example, isn’t it?
    So, my question is related to this kind of Buddypress SNS (I couldn’t login on it), are they using a specific widget or a specific theme? If the unswer is no, is it difficult and easy (without the necesity to instalate on a server?) to integrate into a network?
    Thanks in advance for your answers,
    Laura

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  • http://www.zonkk.com Richard

    There is another alternative launched yesterday in beta at http://www.zonkk.com. Zonkk is an elgg based social network creator that offers free accounts and loads of applications. There are also paid upgrades that you can subscribe to if you wish.

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

    Richard: Zonkk looks interesting as a space to get a free, hosted Elgg account, but where are the details about this service? I can’t find any pricing listed on the website, or information about available module features. Who are you and who is behind Zonkk?

  • http://www.zonkk.com Richard

    @Wesley – pricing information is accessed from your logged in pages. We probably should add it to the main page too. There are most likely too many modules to list, but we have added the main ones on the ‘Features page’.

    We are working on a demo site that will allow you to setup a site and use it for a short while so you can evaluate zonkk before signing up, even though signing up is completely free anyway.

    I personally am behind the site, along with 4 programmers and one other investor. I am primarily involved in education having taught mathematics for 20 years and have been involved in website production and programming for 13 years.

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  • http://www.elgg.com elgg.com

    Elgg.com will launch its own hosted version of Elgg, the award-winning social network platform. See http://elgg.com/pressjune.php.

  • http://www.amazee.com Mathias Möller

    If you are looking for free alternatives for Ning, may I shamelessly suggest our platform for Social Action / Social Collaboration? The name is Amazee, we are a small team based in Switzerland and offer a free migration service for Ning Networks whose members aren’t willing or able to pay for the new payment scheme Ning has come up with. You can find all the necessary information and a link to the migrator here: http://blog.amazee.com/welcome-ning-refugees-2/. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, if you do have any!

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  • http://www.mspy.com Bernylure

    It might seem that Ning is sending a clear message: “free does not work”. Actually, I do not think this is true at all. Providing free services is very difficult and i know it from my own experience.

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