Monday, May 26, 2008

Making a Ning Dashboard

I am an unabashed Ning lover, and have several Ning networks I have either started or joined that I consider to be great resources for personal learning--including my own Classroom 2.0 and the network I run for Ning, Ning in Education.

As part of the larger trend I keep feeling--the growing "tidal wave of information"--I often find that it is hard to keep track of the many discussions taking place in these networks. It's not just a tidal wave of information, it's a tidal wave of good information. Part of what I have known that I needed to do was to find a way to better watch or track the many conversations taking place across multiple Ning networks, and I've wished for some kind of control panel or "dashboard" for doing so.

Well, in our way-too-early Saturday morning Web 2.0 Week in Review broadcast this weekend, Michael Staton did a short overview of RSS feeds and how useful they are, and demonstrated by showing how they can populate portal pages in Pageflakes and netvibes. I've been a pretty consistent user of the main iGoogle customizable page(s), and a couple of times had tried to bring my feeds into that page, but it never felt that productive to me. I'd just skipped over Pageflakes and netvibes, thinking that my Google Reader accomplished all that I wanted for my feeds. Michael made the point that in using a page or portal, watching your RSS feeds becomes more like reading a newspaper than reading your email--you can miss the newspaper for a few days and not feel the need to go back and read the days you missed, but unread email stores up and must be read.


Here I'd been waiting for Ning to come up with some kind of dashboard solution, and all the while the ability to create one had been right under my nose and I didn't realize it. I think we might all agree that this is a very Web 2.0 feeling: hundreds of programs with thousands of mash-up possibilities, and suddenly we discover something that we think must have been an obvious combination, but required we be thinking in the right way to see it.

So I've spent a few hours on this holiday weekend working on a good solution here. One that you should now be able to copy in a matter of minutes. I'm pretty happy with the result, and a week of playing with it will tell me more.

My primary requirements were:
  1. The ability to utilize a separate tab or page for each Ning network I want to track;
  2. The ability to easily copy the tab or page layout of one to set up others, so I don't have to start from scratch for each network;
  3. The ability for others to see or copy the pages, making it a usable model of an easily-customizable solution for other Ning users.
I tried iGoogle, Pageflakes, and netvibes. My final solution is in Pageflakes. You can see (and copy) the results at:
All three are essentially the same, and you can take any one, modify it to your liking, then make it "public" and copy it for each network you want to track. In a short period time, you can have a tab for every Ning network you want to track. If you know what you're doing, 5 minutes tops. If you have to learn (like me), might take a half hour to get it all done. (And I assume we will will be tweaking for weeks/months/years to come.)

Each of the three tabs or pages linked above has the same layout that I set up, but which you can change. On the left is the list of all forum posts and replies. (Ning's regular RSS feeds for forums is either a feed of all new posts, or of all replies to a particular post, but if you want all the forum posts and replies, you can use the following feed URL and substitute your network name: " http://[YOURNETWORKNAME]".) For the middle column I have the standard blog posts feed ("http://[YOURNETWORKNAME], and for the right hand column the photo and video feeds. I don't need to give these to you, really, because you can go to any of the three above pages and just click on the "copy" link at top right and it will copy this page and its settings to your own Pageflakes account. All you then have to do is to edit each "widget" by changing jsut the network name in the RSS feed URL, and within about 45 seconds you'll have a page to track a Ning network. After I figured this out I set up five pages in just a few minutes, including one for the Ning Creator Network and one for the Ning Developer Network.

For those with custom domain names, you can put either the custom domain address into the feed URL, or the name in the original address. I use the latter since they both work and since it makes copying one page to another for a new network super easy.


For those who want to drill down on this topic even more, here are some other notes.

netvibes: I liked the graphics and colors way better than either Pageflakes or iGoogle. But I couldn't share page sets making it easy for others to copy. Maybe I missed something? I also couldn't change the name/url of my "universe" page when I figured out what was going on. I loved the defaul action of using the internal reader when you click on a link, and that it shows the item as read. Pageflakes allows you to configure to use the internal reader, but doesn't seem to show what items you have read or not.

iGoogle: Some of the RSS reader widgets I tried didn't like Ning feeds for some reason, and while you can share individual widgets, that wasn't anywhere near as appealing as sharing a full page template for someone else to use. I would have loved a better integration with Google Reader functionality, and would love to be able to use the Reader keyboard shortcuts on my iGoogle page. I'm still going to use the Reader widget on iGoogle for my other non-Ning feeds. I found it very hard to get the RSS URLs for Reader folders, and even when I ad them, the RSS widgets couldn't handle it.


  1. Anonymous6:54 PM

    In the interest of full disclosure, aren't you a paid consultant for Ning?

  2. Yes, sorry, I usually say that more explicitly. I did try to make it clear that I run for them.

    I do have a consulting relationship with Ning, and it's worth mentioning that my consulting work for them is entirely in supporting the ed tech community. Because their services weren't created for the educational market, their focus has been more in being supportive of the innovative uses of Ning in education, rather than trying to "market" to education. They've been quite good in this regard, providing ad-free networks for grades 7 - 12 (can't do under 7th grade because of COPPA), and helping me to organize the free workshops on Web 2.0 I've been holding around the country.

  3. Anonymous8:52 AM

    I'm troubled that it's somehow better or more acceptable that your work for them is all about the ed tech community. Why is that better than consulting for their main site? You're still using your blog and your influence to drum up business for a company that pays you money.

    That seems disingenuous.

    Am I being silly?

    I know you well enough to know that your intentions are good, but the point remains that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time you spend on your blog talking about Ning and the amount they pay you. Is this anything more than glorified advertising?

    I'm just asking, but this seems wrong somehow. I guess you have to feed your family, though.

    Understand I'm asking, not criticizing. You opened this can of worms by posting more and more glory stories of Ning, and not disclosing clearly the fact that you are their paid ed consultant.

  4. I'm sorry you're troubled by this relationship.

    I guess I should first make it clear that there is no "direct correlation between the amount of time [I] spend on [my] blog talking about Ning and the amount they pay [me]." I did a search of my blog for "Ning," and 1) it doesn't seem to me that I'm posting "glory" stories for them, and 2) I have tried to qualify references to them with a disclaimer that I do consulting work for them.

    I do work for Ning because I really like their product, and I hope that the work I do for them is helping educators. Ning's approach to helping educators has been most benevolent, and if I've not reflected that well, I apologize.

  5. Steve, I would really like to do this for three other Nings, but I don't understand how to do it. Can you give me some direction? The Nings are want are:

    You can email me at

    Thank you.

  6. Hi, John.

    First, you want to go to one of the links in my post, where you will see several tabbed pages, each one of which shows a layout for looking at the forum, blog, photo, and video feeds from a Ning network.

    If you have registered an account with Pageflakes, you will see "copy" link on the top right of your screen. By clicking this, you are adding a copy of the page to your own Pageflakes collection of pages or tabs. If you do this three times, you'll have three tabs for your three networks.

    Now, on the newly copied pages in your own collection, click on the edit button for each box. You'll see the URL that is being used to pull the RSS feeds. Just change the network name part (the part before "" to match the network you want this page to reflect. In each box on this page, make the same change to the feed URLs.

    Then, you can click on the tab name area and rename the tab to your network name so it's easy for you to distinguish the tabs.

    Now, go to the next copy page, which should still have all the old feeds from my template page, and edit each box with the feed URLs from your second network. Again, change the tab name when your done. Same instructions for the last tab page.

    You should now have three tabs, one for each network, showing you the latest information! :)

    Hope that helps.

  7. Steve, thank you. It worked! I appreciate your help.

  8. I hardly have time to read all the blogs I want to read, let alone get into Ning (which I've wanted to do for a while). But your tips here might make getting into and using it more manageable.

  9. I like it! Good use of pageflakes!

    And, as for the sourpuss that seems to think there's a conflict between you working for Ning and blogging about ning, 1) Steve wasn't touting Ning here, just giving you a way to stay abreast of multiple Ning networks (the plug is more for Pageflakes, which he does not work for). And, 2) Steve works for Ning because he likes the product, not the other way around. Nothing wrong with supporting what you do.

  10. Thanks Steve for thinking this through. I feel like my Ning feeds are just lost amongst my other RSS feeds in my Google reader. I don't get around to checking them after trying to catch up with the primary blog feeds that I follow (which I never do), but feel like with all the Ning groups I've signed up for that I should have a separate reader for them which is exactly what you've done. I still feel like a large part of this is trying to balance reading with participating and commenting, and I think this will help greatly.

  11. Anonymous12:56 AM

    Hi Steve,
    we enjoyed your post. Since you have previously reviewed our original chat program HERE, we have released our new Instant Messaging system for Ning networks called "Who-IM".

    Along with our other suite of tools, WidgetLaboratory provides a Ning site owner the ability to achieve their own Custom "dashboard" from within their Ning site itself.

    We would greatly appreciate your taking a peek at our new product for Classroom 2.0


  12. Steve,

    Paid or not, your information about many topics has helped me be a better teacher for kids who are way past me in tech stuff, and I'm pretty geeky.

    Thanks for the info. I'm trying to manage all my tech stuff, too.

  13. Steve,
    You have made no secret that you are working for ning for the education side. I have attended many of the workshops you organized for NECC, unplugged and Edubloggercon. I must say your relationshop with ning has done nothing but encouraged more collaborative connections for edtech teachers. I do not find it commercialization or inappropriate.

    Your intentions are pure in the way you support teachers of all levels to become involved in creating their own PLN using ning or otherwise.

    I have written you with some silly questions and you always take time to answer quickly. Thank you. I do not know you personally, but consider you one of the people I look to for the "state of technology in education".
    Thanks for all you do for the teachers who are new to connecting with others whether it be on ning or at a FREE conference which you have created for us.

  14. Steve,
    I'd add my thanks for your efforts to make ning school-friendly. Keep up the great work!

    Hey, I clicked the "copy" button while logged into my new PageFlakes account, but I'm just getting a blank page under that tab now. Maybe it will resolve itself, but I'll check back here in a few days if it doesn't, to see if anyone else has this issue and the resolution.

    thanks again.

  15. I must admit that I am troubled by Anonymous's note about full disclosure.

    If full disclosure is so important to anonymous, why doesn't he/she reveal his/her real name?

    As Ghandi said "Be the change you seek".

    Leigh Zeitz

  16. Anonymous12:30 AM

    The "full disclosure" comments are just... silly.

    Regardless of pay or not, you are not a Senator. You strike me as merely an advocate- pay or not.

    I am a huge advocate of Ning.
    I only WISH I were paid. Heh. ;-)

    I do all of these for my school & students:

    There are now probably fifteen more of those created and maintained by teachers in our school JUST THIS YEAR.

    Ning really is a phenomenon.


  17. Anonymous3:11 PM

    Hey Steve I followed your instructions for my nings that I created but I just get

    The address you have entered does not contain an RSS Feed. Please check the URL in the Flake settings.

    Am I doing something wrong in my nings ??

    dave garland

  18. @Dave Garland:

    I'm guessing that you don't have the feed exactly right. Feel free to post it here or send it to me privately and I'll see if I can tell what's going on.

  19. Thanks for this Steve. I've set it up and look forward to seeing how it helps me manage 5 nings over the next little while. Have you (or anyone) blogged about their experience of Pageflakes after setting it up as you have suggested?
    And to Anonymous who had difficulty because he kept getting a message about RSS feeds, I had same difficulty at first, then realised that the phrase .ning was missing from the URL.

  20. I'm rather surprised that you're using Pageflakes, given their recent outage for several days, lack of information for their users, no development work for months, no updates to their blogs, forums being inactive, attempts to force advertising onto people and general poor behaviour. Every posting I've seen recently is about how people are *leaving* Pageflakes!

  21. Anonymous12:29 PM

    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. Wouldn't this make grading blog posts easy? We are having a tough time figuring out an easy way to keep track of what kids are and are not contributing to the network...

  23. I can't seem to get widgets on ning networks to open up when you click on the individual photos. You can do this on blogger etc, but not on the ning networks. Can you explain why this is or how to fix this problem? Thanks

  24. VINTAGE TOUCH--sorry, I don't have any idea.


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