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.
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 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.
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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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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