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. : )
- It’s a WinWin, Grou.ps launches referral program for Ning exiles (eu.techcrunch.com)