Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Alternative Social Networking Platforms for Education

Last night I interviewed Derek Zabbia from Ning and Steven Gross from Pearson to talk about the changes to Ning's services and the sponsorship by Pearson of Ning "Mini" networks for K-12 and Higher Education networks in North America.  It was a good, albeit slightly confusing, session.  Because Ning's changes and the Pearson sponsorship are happening (and need to happen) in conjunction since they are tied to the timing of free networks going away, Pearson's role hasn't been well understood.  The event last night should give some clarity, although I would argue that neither Ning or Pearson have done a great job so far proactively explaining what is naturally confusing.  (Event recordings:  Full Elluminate or Audio-only.)

Because I think the broader community of educators still wants to know more about what the options are for educational social networking in light of the Ning changes, next Monday night we'll hold another session exploring:  the alternative platforms network organizers are moving their communities to; how you are handling privacy, licensing, and technical issues relating to transferring members and content; what your experiences have been so far; and if any networks are needing "rescuing" right now.  If you have made a transition, or are planning to do so, please attend so you can tell us about it.  Vendors are also welcome to attend, but let's agree that those of us who are vendors (me included, since I represent Elluminate and LearnCentral.org) will not toot our own horns but be there just to listen, learn, and answer any specific questions that might come up.  Details for the meeting are below my notes.

In the meantime, here were some quick takeaways for me from last night:

  • It seemed to me that some number of the participants last night didn't really understand the Ning changes nor did they understand Pearson's role.  While a careful and close reading of all the material on the Ning site does provide answers to most questions, neither organization has done a great job of making things really clear.  I'm sure Derek has a LOT going on right now, but he wasn't able to answer some questions--notably, about the ability to turn networks back on later if they've not converted by August 20th, or about the archive function (which I still don't see on my networks) and the archive format.  OK, so if Derek doesn't know these things, then I think we can forgive ourselves for not knowing all the details here...
  • Steve Gross from Pearson made it clear that Pearson does not have a legal right to nor will they attempt to contact the members of educational networks that are accepted for their sponsorship, although they will be able to contact the network creators and there are no restrictions on the amount of that contact (Steve did say he doesn't think it will be much).
  • Steve also made a compelling case for their sponsorship being an opportunity for Pearson 1) to do something good, and 2) just to watch and learn about how educators are using this type of platform.  I did a poll of the audience to gauge the trust level around this motivation, and I think they have some work to do.  As Steve said, the proof will be in what they actually do.
  • Derek said that they estimate there are roughly 11,000 educational networks on Ning, 7,500 of which are North American.  This is obviously a pretty small drop in the larger Ning bucket, but they decidedly feel the influence of the education market at Ning to work so hard to put this deal together with Pearson.  So far they have had about 2,000 applications for Pearson sponsorship of Mini networks.
  • I took a poll of how many of those present in the session (we had just over 100 at our high point) who were using Ning for educational networking would be able to move forward with the limited feature-set of Mini networks, and about 1/3 said that they would be able to but 2/3 would not (would need one of the higher service levels).  I'm guessing this will be a helpful number to Ning as they look at the response rate to the Pearson program.  I'm also concerned about that portion of the 2/3 who might not have a plan to be able to pay...
  • E.g., a number of folks indicated that the one-month grace period for education, ending August 20th, was putting them in a real bind--since they won't be able to get approval by their educational institution since school won't yet have started for them.  
  • I'm also curious to know if anyone else, like me, has procrastinated decisions about networks--since I currently run several that won't be able to use the Mini but for which I'm not ready to pay the $19.95/month fee for Ning Plus (in particular for me:  using a custom domain name, having groups, and having more than 150 members).  I just honestly haven't spent the time to go through my networks to figure out a plan for each, in part because I think I'm going to have to make some hard decisions on some personal and family networks (I'm already paying fees for my professional Ning networks so they won't change).  Are there some really valuable educational networks that are going to run the risk of being turned off?  If so, do we need to mount a "rescue" operation?  How will we even know which networks are in danger?
  • I remain concerned that those who contributed to educational networks when Ning was in the "freemium" model did so believing that their contributions were part of the "civic" engagement, not unlike contributing or working on Wikipedia content.  To have that content "go away" now because it's not going to be paid for still feels to me like the breaking of a social contract, and I remain disappointed that there wasn't any kind of "grandfathering-in" of existing educational networks.  I also wonder how many non-institutional educational networks will be created knowing that non-payment at some point in the future will result in this same disappearance of content.  I'll be sorry to see that creativity and experimentation go away, if they do.

Date: Monday, July 26th, 2010
Time: 5pm Pacific / 8pm Eastern / 12am (next day) GMT (international times here)
Duration: 1 hour
Location: In Elluminate. Log in at http://tr.im/futureofed. The Elluminate room will be open up to 30 minutes before the event if you want to come in early. To make sure that your computer is configured for Elluminate, please visit http://www.elluminate.com/support. Recordings of the session will be posted within a day of the event at the event page.


  1. Thanks Steve. Your notes are most helpful.

  2. Hi Steve,

    I couldn't get to the session- it was during our school day and I was engaged with classes. Was there any talk about the international situation? ie: did Pearson indicate if they would support schools outside the US?

    Jenny Luca

  3. Thanks for the notes Steve. I decided to keep the Elementary Tech Teachers Ning and asked members to make donations. I had the money raised in four days. I was impressed with how quickly the members responded. I too wish we had been grandfathered in but since that didn't happen I felt it was worth paying for as long as I had some help. I am going to see if I can find a sponsor before the payment is due again next year.

  4. @Jenny: there was an answer, but it wasn't entirely clear--and actually played badly. Derek said something that sounded very North-America-centric and the chat room got a little ruffled. If the network does not primarily involve NA educators, you may not get an exception. But a good case should be made for global networks... I'm willing to also look for creative ways to support global ed networks. :)

  5. Steve - Thank you for your commentary thoughts. Specifically related to the questions that you referred to above that you felt that weren't handled clearly, let me try to be more specific...

    1. How will we reinstate networks that are taken offline starting Aug. 20th? At this time, Ning will began the sun setting process of networks on August 20th. Creators will be given multiple notifications around the timing and means to archive and retrieve data (such as the process outlined below).

    2. Archiving my network? – This function is available and launched in June. http://blog.ning.com/2010/06/content-archive-tool-coming-soon.html . The tool will work for all content an NC has or had on their network. i.e. if they select Mini, but previously had videos and music, this content would be exported as part of the archive.

    That said, we hope to have some additional exciting announcements to announce soon! Thank you for supporting the Ning Pearson program.

  6. At first I was excited that Ning is offering a education-specific model for classroom social networks. However, upon further inspection, they have not changed their terms and conditions to allow students under the age of 13 to become members of a social network. As an upper elementary school teacher this is incredibly frustrating. I believe that online social networking and responsible digital citizenship are critical areas to be taught to upper elementary school students. Yet, there is still NO PLATFORM available for these students. Therefore, the claim that this Pearson connection will now make it possible for PreK-12 teachers to use social networking is false -- as it it truly only students in 7th grade and up that are welcome in the ning environment.

    Is Ning interested in changing this policy?

  7. @Becky: I think Ning is in the same bind as everyone else--it's not that they might not want to serve students under 13, it's that there are huge and potentially costly legal issues associated with doing so. Programs that you can host on your internal network, like Drupal and the other Open Source alternatives, might be your best bet.

    Since Pearson is willing to sponsor Ning Mini networks for *teachers* who serve PreK-12 students--meaning, for professional development networks--they are being accurate. On their side, Pearson is being very generous, but don't really have control over Ning's age policies.


I hate having to moderate comments, but have to do so because of spam... :(