Tag Archives: Ning

Why we’re paying for Ning

It’s Inquiry Week for our Year 8 students, and we are using a Ning to support the students to communicate and archive evidence of their research. We collapse curriculum for a week, and allow our students to investigate in groups a topic in depth around the idea of Triumph over Adversity. We first used a Ning two years ago, when they were free for educators and it was a dynamic learning environment then. What was great was that our students could form groups within the space and use the chat function at night to help them organise themselves for the next day. Last year, after Ning started charging for the service, we looked for an alternative. We used Wall.fm, but it was fraught with problems that I outlined in a post and not something I would use again. One of the stumbling blocks last year was the price Ning charges for a network that includes groups and chat. At the time, we felt that the $200 outlay was too expensive.

This year, our Head of Year 8 really wanted to run a paperless inquiry week. We had a wiki we used last year for the inquiry week, and we added pages that incorporated what the students would formerly receive in booklet form. When we discussed an online environment to support the project, I recommended that we bite the bullet and outlay what is now a $239.00 a year cost to run a Ning that has the features we needed; in particular, groups and chat.

I’m glad we did. I spent time last week in classes explaining the Ning environment and making sure the students were signed up so that we could hit the ground running this week. Yesterday the students went on an excursion and were asked to post a reply to a discussion prompt in the evening. Over half of them got something up last night, and those who didn’t were busily posting this morning. What has been amazing is watching it develop during today and this evening. Groups are formed, and the students have posted their topics and guiding questions within these spaces. This afternoon’s discussion prompt has seen over 100 replies this evening. These are from students, detailing what has inspired them about their topic, and replies from teachers who are encouraging their efforts. The chat space has been used this evening, and i’ve been pleased to see students suggesting that they move to Google Docs to work on their planning for tomorrow. (There’s some transference happening : ) They used Google Docs earlier this year in a Humanities project) The Head of Year 8 sent me an email late this afternoon and said,

The Ning’s like some living organism!

Here’s a screenshot of part of the front page from earlier tonight.

It is most certainly a living organism. It’s providing focus, encouragement, and transparency to our learning environment this week. Even though I’d love to see the powers that be at Ning work more closely with education and provide better pricing, our financial outlay is already paying off. I can’t wait to what it’s hosting by the end of the week!

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Finding the right Ning alternative – does it exist?

Image representing GROU.PS as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Last week was extremely busy, and a combination of successes and failures. I’ve been grappling for awhile now with what to do as an alternative to Ning. We’ve paid for a few networks in the school to be mini networks, and that’s no headache at $20.00 for the year. A mini network enables you to have forums, blogs, to embed videos and pictures and to run this ad free. It suits the functions of the Yr 9 Ning we run, which is into it’s second year now, and other Nings that support our book club and our Sleepout for Schools effort. Another teacher runs a Ning that has pages and chat and her faculty has paid the $200.00 fee to sustain this for the year. As I’m sure you’ve gleaned if you read this blog regularly, I’m a big fan of Ning and its use as a virtual learning community in our school. I don’t object to having to pay the fees either; I think we’re going to see more Web based services begin to charge and I think our school communities will have to start budgeting for this, just like we do for placing books on library shelves or subscribing to databases.

Last year we ran a really successful Ning for a week long inquiry project at Year 8. That Ning contained groups and chat, and the students used these really productively throughout the course of that week to publicise what they were investigating and to collaborate and organise themselves. This last week saw the Inquiry week run again and we wanted to use Ning to support the students and encourage transparency with what they were doing. The issue for us was this; the project runs for one week of the year. Did we want to pay $200.00 for a Ning, a cost that was necessary if we wanted to encourage the formation of groups and utilise chat? Well, no, we didn’t.

So, I looked for alternatives. I set up a site using Grouply, but it wasn’t as intuitive as Ning and forum discussions didn’t seem to be highlighted on the front page, you had to move into a tab to see them. We wanted the students to see forum discussions front and centre when they reached the page. It also didn’t support any sort of chat feature so that made it limited in its use for us. A bit of a callout for suggestions on Twitter led me to Wall.fm, and it seemed I had found the answer.

Wall.fm lets you have forums, blogs, photos, videos and, importantly for our needs, groups and a wall where you can post comments. (a bit reminiscent of Facebook) There are only a handful of themes so you can’t go to town customising the look of the site, but it is functional. You can make it private or have it open. I set it up and it looked like it was going to do the job we needed it to do. I launched it with the kids on their first day of solid research and they were keen to get started. Frustratingly, we hit hiccups when a number of them were unable to validate their membership because the emails didn’t reach their inbox. It was hit and miss. Some kids were flying and forming groups and leaving comments, and others were locked out of the site. As a result, we didn’t have the dynamic virtual learning environment supporting this inquiry like we had last year. Pretty disappointing for all of us.

I sent a message through the site asking why it may be that we were having issues. I tried changing the email address at the back end of the site to see whether or not validation emails could then get through. No reply at all from the help desk at Wall fm. left me floundering really. If you can’t get support then that doesn’t bode well for a social network really.

Ning don’t look like they’re going to announce education packages that will make something that runs for a limited time frame affordable. So I’m once again looking for an adequate alternative that gives me what Ning Pro can do but at a reasonable price. If my project ran the full year and I needed groups and chat, then I don’t think $200.00 is a big ask. I’d happily fund it through a budget. But a short term project like the one we’ve run really doesn’t warrant the outlay.

So, the hunt continues. I’ve been recommended to try out Grou.ps, so I’m going to set up a trial space and see if I can make that workable. If anyone’s had any success with Ning alternatives, I’d love to hear about them. I spent time tonight uploading videos and photos to our Yr 9 English Ning, and I have to tell you, I just love the ease of uploading content and the look and feel of Ning. It just may be that I’m going to have to suck it up and pay the price!

The inquiry week for the students was a great success, even without the virtual environment. The students all immersed themselves in what they were doing and presented some impressive findings. Twitter came to the rescue for one group. That’s the happy tale I’ll relay in my next post. : )

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Ning, Elluminate and what I know now…

Two events of the past week have brought some things sharply into focus for me. One is the discussion surrounding the monetisation of Ning, and the other is the problems I am having with my computer and Elluminate. Yes, they seem poles apart, but bear with me, I’ll explain the connection. (at least I hope I will!)

I surprised by all of the fuss surrounding Ning’s decision to begin the process of charging for what were previously free networks. I’ve seen tweets suggesting it will be the death of Ning. I just don’t think that will be the case. I think Jason Rosenthal and Marc Andreesson are making sound business decisions that will probably guarantee the continuation of Ning rather than its demise. In fact, if decisions like this aren’t made by providers of what are currently free open source software alternatives, then we may well see more applications we use in schools go the way of bubbleus or flowgram.

There’s no doubt in my mind that monetisation of services and content is the biggest issue facing the Web today. We’ve seen Rupert Murdoch make noises about charging for newspaper content and I’m sure we will see more moves in this direction from other providers. Darcy Norman, an Educational Technology Consultant from the University of Calgary, made the following observations about the impact of Ning’s decision;

WordPress/BuddyPress and Drupal and any of a long list of others can provide the functionality of Ning. But, in order to protect yourself from another potential service change/interruption, you really need to provide a server. At some point, you need a Dreamhost account or something similar. You need to copy files to the server. You need to configure a database and tweak things. This is where the people that use Ning in the first place are lost. They can’t/won’t do this. We can argue until we’re blue in the face, saying it’s easy, saying it’s cheap, saying it’s necessary, but the vast majority of people simply don’t want to manage the technical layers beneath what they see in the web browser. Ning is betting the company that these people will reach for their credit cards to prevent having to deal with technical stuff.

Darcy’s right. I won’t be doing this. I don’t want to manage the technical layers. What I want to do is help my students make connections and understand that this provides them with a new way of looking at how we can learn today. That requires a considerable effort in building a community of learners. An effort that means I don’t have time for the technical layers. So, if I want to use a platform that enables me to do this, then I guess I’ll be paying. And you know what, there’s a part of me that thinks I should. People invest time and money providing us with platforms that we are utilising and they deserve compensation for their efforts.

So where’s the connection with Elluminate, you may ask? Well, I spent close to five hours the other night trying, with the help of some wonderful people (Anne Mirtschin – you are one of life’s angels on earth – you truly are! So are you John Pearce!), to troubleshoot an error message that was stopping me from accessing Elluminate rooms. Was I any closer to an answer at the end of those five hours. No, I wasn’t. I had to postpone the start of lessons in Students 2.0 as a result of it all.

So what’s been brought into focus for me?

This.

I don’t have time to work through issues involving the technical layers and I certainly don’t have time to learn everything that people working the back end of computers know. I work the front end, and I don’t mind having to pay something to make sure it works smoothly for me.

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A change in the Ning – Free takes its toll

The networks are all a flutter today with the news from Ning that they have slashed jobs and will be charging for use of their networks in the very near future. Read this from Jay Rosenthal, newly appointed CEO of Ning;

When I became CEO 30 days ago, I told you I would take a hard look at our business. This process has brought real clarity to what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do now to make Ning a big success.

My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business. Our Premium Ning Networks like Friends or Enemies, Linkin Park, Shred or Die, Pickens Plan, and tens of thousands of others both drive 75% of our monthly US traffic, and those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us.

So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product 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.

Although I have to admit to being taken aback by this news, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised.

I’ve been speculating for quite some time on the ‘free’ model of enterprise many of us are familiar with and expect from the Web. This is a model that I don’t think can be sustained, proof of which came with this announcement today. So what will it mean for those of us running Ning networks?

Plenty.

Do we continue the networks and pay the fees? Do we lobby Ning and ask them (implore them!) to do as Wikispaces do and provide a free platform for education that doesn’t include ads? Do we export the data and look to a platform like Elgg to fill the gap? Do we wait and see who might see this this as an opportunity to launch a platform that will see large take up from disenfranchised Ning users? Do we sit back and wait to see the plans that Ning have promised they will send to network creators in the next two weeks?

All things we need to consider. I’m waiting to see the message from Ning for creators. I’m hopeful they will not been driven by monetary incentive and will see a need to support the education community. I’m not entirely confident this will happen however. I suppose we all need to get on the Ning discussion forum and do our bit to lobby Ning to think of the education sector and the good work they can do to support student learning with the use of their networks. Chris Champion has said it very well with this comment he left in the Ning forum discussion;

I am a creator of both free Nings and a “Premium” ad-free point my domain ning. The premium Ning represents a conference with paying customers – for a $360 annual cost, we have a network that we don’t have to host. Is it cheap? No. We could have done Elgg and dealt with more administration issues, plus about $80 in hosting. But Ning is nice because people who are already Ning members don’t have to create new accounts, learn new things. It works because people are comfortable with it. Unfortunately, we might find that the ONLY place people use the Ning is our premium site. So be it. As long as it doesn’t cost our users additional fees (we build in the fees when we price the conference), they won’t mind.

The other side is that I work for a school. I as well as another teacher use Ning to provide a protected social network in which students can share ideas, projects, and learn appropriate behavior and candor on a social network. This particular use is far more important to me than the Premium ning I manage.

I call on Marc Andreessen and Jason Rosenthal to follow the model of Wikispaces: grant K-12 schools the continued use of Nings for the classroom without ads, and at no charge. Do I think Ning is worth a few $ monthly? Yes. Would my school pay? Absolutely not.

Marc – I paid for Netscape way back before it was free. I was one of the few who paid because I am a developer (and computer science teacher now) and I recognize the value of hard work. But I also recognize the opportunity to provide teachers and students with great resources. I hope you do too.

Effectively, the message from this is that free can’t work. We have to become accustomed to the fact that if we want the Web to work for us, we have to outlay something to make it happen. I’ve been reading the work of Jaron Lanier and he extols this message. We need to be paying attention and we need to accept that this is the playing field we are operating in. Open source software has risks associated with its use, and we may find this is what will happen to other platforms we use that are currently free. The monetisation of the Web is an issue we all have to face, and it may be that it is time for us to start outlaying the cash to make it work.

The pity of all this, is that once again, it will be those that can least afford to lose out who will lose out. The schools whose budgets are tight will not be able to sustain their networks, and kids and their learning will suffer. It’s also a pity for all those educators out there who have stuck their necks out and successfully used Ning networks to assist their students. They’ve often had to lobby school administrators to move out of walled gardens to do this. This move by Ning provides grist to the mill to all those skeptics out there who will gleefully redirect them back to platforms like Sharepoint that don’t support the collaborative learning that you can achieve in a Ning environment. I do hope Ning is listening and will do their bit to support the education sector.

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Wallwisher for collective intelligence

I’m trying this year to make a concerted effort to shift more of my teaching into collaborative sites to make the most of collective intelligence. I’m really pleased that the Year 9 English team I work with has once again enthusiastically embraced the use of Ning across the year level to support our learning. What’s even better is that the Yr 10 teachers have decided to use a Ning platform across their English classrooms as well. I’m especially pleased about this because the students who enjoyed writing in the Ning last year have some continuity and input into their learning.

I’ve known about Wallwisher for awhile but didn’t see a use for it with the work I was doing with my students. I don’t like to use applications like this gratuitously; it has to be meaningful to what we are doing in class. This week we were doing character analysis and it came to me that Wallwisher might be useful to track our thinking. Our task has been to find quotes from the novel we are reading (Bye, Beautiful by Julia Lawrinson) that help us with our understanding of the characters. We’ve created walls for Sandy, Frank, Billy and Marianne and the links to these have been pasted into a text box on the Ning so that everyone has easy access to them. Here’s an example of the wall with quotes applicable to Sandy;

What we are doing is leveraging our collective intelligence for the good of the group. Eventually, we’ll be writing an essay related to this text and the students will be able to access these walls to see if there may be quotes there that are useful to use as supporting evidence for the points they are making.

I can see Wordle would be useful to create a word bank of descriptive terms related to the novel and specific characters. If you’ve got ideas for other sites I could be using I’d appreciate leveraging the collective intelligence of my readers!

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Have I told you lately how I love YouTube…

Have I? Maybe I have, but it’s worth repeating!  

I’ve been reading blog posts from Australian bloggers who are part of the Government rollout of  the Digital Revolution, and about to find themselves in 1:1 classroom environments. I’m getting the message that there are a number of teachers out there pretty daunted by this prospect. Teachers with little idea of how you utilise the technology around you in your classroom environment.

I can’t imagine teaching in a school without laptops now. Today’s English class was an example of how YouTube has made an impact on my practice.

Prior to the class I uploaded a YouTube video to the class Ning and a link to another video that wouldn’t allow embedding. We are studying poetry and both were different readings of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est. I wanted my students to appreciate the difference to your understanding and interpretion of a poem when it is read with feeling. The visuals in both videos were very different and that was also part of our discussion.

I’d also begun a discussion in the Ning entitled, ‘Are the song lyrics of today the poetry of our time?’ That led to us looking at Paul Kelly and Kevin Carmody’s ‘From little things, big things grow’. The girls found the lyrics online and one of them loaded them into the Ning so that they could follow them while we watched the YouTube video. This led to a discussion of why this song was penned and its importance in allowing us to understand the plight of the Aboriginal people in Australia. This then led to a discussion of the impending National Curriculum and the focus on an understanding of the history of our country.

We discussed ballads and the students made reference to the poetry of Henry Lawson and A.B. Paterson. I recalled how effective ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes is as a story in verse. We did a hunt through YouTube and found various versions available but ran out of time to look at one full length.  The video below is what we will start with in class tomorrow.

The point of all this is that this lesson could have been delivered without technology, but it made all the difference being able to utilise YouTube and our Ning environment. I’m lucky in that my school has a good internet connection, has an open rather than block attitude, and streaming of YouTube videos is fast.  

I really enjoyed today’s lesson, and I told the kids this at the end of it. Hopefully they did too. Hopefully, teachers launching themselves into 1:1 classroom environments will soon realise the possibilities that exist when you can  make use of the wonderful content on sites like YouTube. I know that I don’t want to go back to the flat photocopied reams of paper approach that was the way I taught in the past. There was nothing wrong with my teaching then, but I really do believe it is a whole lot more interesting now.

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SlideRocket statistics – lessons our students need to learn?

I’ve been extolling the virtues of SlideRocket for some time now. For the past year and a bit I’ve been using this online presentation tool and I’ve been really impressed with what you can do with it. But I know I’m still no expert. There are plenty of features I haven’t found time to explore yet.

Last week I embedded a presentation I gave about Ning onto a wikispace site I have and this blog. Since then a couple of other people have embedded it into sites they have too. I made the presentation for public viewing and allowed for the code to be embedded should people want to use it. The other day I remembered that you could view the statistics for your presentation. In other words, you could see how many times it had been viewed and by how many people. Here’s a screenshot of what I discovered;

SlideRocket_viewing_statistics

Now that is pretty cool. First up, 386 views by 156 different people demonstrates the reach you can have by sharing what you do. Secondly, I am blown away by the fact that I can pull up details of the location of where those people are who have been viewing the slides. I’d be interested to know who the person is from Newport Beach is California who spent 15 mins with them today!

I used this data today at my school to sway our Tech committee around to the idea of getting a school site subscription to SlideRocket. They are offering schools with under 1000 students a site licence for $449.00 US Dollars. My argument was that we need to be exposing our kids to the kinds of tools they may find when they hit the world of work. They certainly need to understand that the social nature of tools like SlideRocket add to your  understanding of  networking and how this kind of sharing can have positive side effects. The message was well received and I am hopeful that we may see our school population exploring this tool next year.

Fingers crossed!

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