Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ning News Rocks the EdTech Community

The Edtech world was hit with what appears to amount to a magnitude 9 quake today with the announcement that Ning will be eliminating it's free service and laying off 40% of it's staff.  Thanks to Lucy Gray (@elemenous) for providing my personal aftershock!  When I read her tweet I nearly fell out of my chair!

In case you have been under a rock for the past few years, Ning has been the answer to Facebook in the educational sector.  It enabled the average user to build a "safe" online community for free and with very little effort; a walled garden, if you will. Every conference I attended this year was abuzz about the possibilities that these DIY social networks provided.  Classrooms could finally break down the walls that bind them and enlightening conversations could continue after the last bell rang. It appears that those days are over, at least when it comes to Ning.

There are alternatives and I'll get to those in just a bit.  But before I do, I need to share some things that I am still digesting as the dust settles over the news. 

First of all, I am extremely proud to be a member of the edtech community.  We rallied today after the initial shock of loosing our free resource.  There were some awesome conversations happening on Twitter, my favorite Personal Learning Network (PLN) tool.  More importantly, panic did not set in as it did during the Wild Wordle Rumpus.  Instead we came together and started discussing alternatives. Way to go!

Second, this reaffirmed a belief I have had for some time.  Web 2.0 utilities are not about the tool; rather, they are about the skillset that we learn while using them.  Will the alternatives I propose in a few moments be Ning?  No.  Will you already have the knowledge to create a new online community using a different tool? Yes!  The web is full of possibilities and alternatives!

Next, I want to thank @budtheteacher for having the courage to state the following on Twitter: "Sometimes, I think teachers have a bit too strong of an inappropriate sense of entitlement. That's not so good." (click the link if you don't believe what you just read).  A lot of us were thinking this, but didn't have the conviction to state it.  Now, don't get me wrong. I LOVE a good free tool and I have the utmost respect for educators worldwide.  However, we sometimes become so invested in our find that we put the blinders on.  As I mentioned in previous posts a lot of exciting tools are available in Beta testing.  But let's face it, money makes the world go round.  Let's keep things in perspective.  When a new food product is released, you may be lucky enough to get a free sample or two at your local grocery store, but expect to pay full boat the next time you want a taste.  Am I wrong?  That being said, I think Ning saw dollar signs and chopped off their nose to spite their face.  A number of sites will allow Beta testers to be grandfathered in at no cost or at a reduced rate.   Hopefully, this will be exactly what happens when Ning realizes the value of the communities and the content that have already been built and added to the free structure. 

Ning truly blindsided their users with this announcement and there is very little chance of finding a way to take the content created somewhere else.  That's what makes this situation unique.  With tools like Wordle or Twitter there are ways to create an escape plan.  Not so with an online community full of valuable content.  Ning has us over a barrel on this one.  From what I understand there is a petition being created to save these sites.  If that fails, I hope that members of sites like Classroom 2.0 (currently with 41,649 members) will be willing to pay a nominal fee for the upkeep of this community - I know I would!

Before I climb completely off my soapbox, there is one other thing that has been bothering me today (and this will likely loose me some followers and ignite the comments!) This also points to the sentiment of @budtheteacher's comment.  Society as a whole has no idea how to do research in cyberspace.  Seriously folks, how hard is it to type "Alternatives to Ning" or "Building free private online communities" into Google, before running around screaming that the sky is falling!

With that off my chest let's get to the heart of the matter.  What are some alternatives to Ning?

Under no circumstances do I endorse any of the following sites.  These are merely suggestions that you may want to investigate.

Let's start with Flux.  This is the closest thing I have found to Ning.  Unfortunately, it is supported by advertising,  I am not sure if they have a way to turn this off for educational sites.  Designing the layout for the page is fairly intuitive and can include discussions, videos, photos, and blogs.  While it has a great deal of administrative settings, I have yet to see a way to "lock the gate" so only invited members can join.

Offering number 2 is Groupsite.  I have some experience with Groupsite back when it was known as CollectiveX.com  It was a wonderful way to quickly build an online community and people who joined my site really seemed to like the sense of community.  Groupsite does allow you to wall your garden, but is paid for by advertising - unless you opt for one of the paid plans.  "This site is a private meeting place that provides members with a shared calendar, discussion forums, member profiles, photo gallery, file storage and more. We encourage you to upload your photo, complete your profile and participate!"  There are number of configurable settings regarding how members can interact.  However, the add-ins are fairly limited.

Jinity appears to be more of a forum than a social networking site.  It is VERY slow and not very "pretty."  While it does allow for blogging and some other basic social network functions, it just feels "clunky".  Additionally, there does not appear to make the site private.  I'd personally shy away from this one.

Let's travel "across the pond" and look at Mixx.  Another site that comes close to our old friend Ning.  You can lock down the community which allows for Blogs, Videos, Forums, Images, Groups, Wikis, Events, Files, Content Management and News.  The most difficult thing about setting up this site is the language barrier.  Sometimes the controls appear in Geman or Dutch which can be interesting.  But it is an interesting alternative.

Simply because I'm running out of steam for the evening.  The last site I want to suggest is Wetpaint.  We have been using this successfully at my district for some time.  While it is more a Wiki than an online community, it does serve the purpose of an online content management service.  Users can work collaboratively to create an end project.  There are a number of modules that can be added to make your site as customized as you like.  You can definitely choose who has control to join and make changes with Wetpaint.  In my opinion, a wiki is much more powerful than a Ning anyway!

Earlier I discovered SocialGo for the first time. It's amazing what you find when you are looking for it!  This site is impressive!  With paid and free options (each appear to be ad free), the ability to keep out unwanted users and a myriad of administrative tools this site is among the most promising of Ning alternatives.  Beyond the base features there is a widget and theme store.  Certainly worth a look.

Incidentally, as I have been writing this post over the past two hours, I have signed up for a new account at each of these sites.  Just to be able to refresh my memory and do a quick feature review.  If it's that easy to sign up and get started, any of the options have possibilities.

If you are still looking for more options take a look at "34 More Ways to Build Your Own Social Network" by TechCrunch.  Or even a Google Doc put together in the heat of the moment by scrambling EdTechGeeks that I discovered via Twitter user @courosa


Finally, if you have any experience with programming there is a surefire way to never loose your social network again and that is to build your own.  The Vivalogo list of the Top 40 Free Downloadable Open Source Social Networking Softwares will give you a great head start on creating a site that you have complete control over.  A number of these sites will provide server side hosting so that you do not have to maintain a dedicated server at you school or district. Of the 40 listed sites, my personal favorite is PHPizabi.  I had some wonderful experiences with this tool a few years back and am certain that it has improved since then.

No matter what option you choose, don't be afraid to continue to communicate and collaborate online.  The internet is growing and changing rapidly.  be proud that you are willing to be a digital pioneer and don't get discouraged when your favorite tool changes.  Remember you have the skill set to work with alternatives!
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