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.

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.

Can the Web sustain free?

So many of us are grateful for the Web; it allows us seemingly unlimited access to information at the press of a button, and most of it’s free. I saw an interview with Bryce Courteney recently. He talked of how the Web has changed the research he conducts for the novels he writes. What used to take him 8 months now takes 7 weeks. I often think of my College days and the heavy books I would cart home and the hours and hours spent in the State Library of Victoria. Life as a Uni student must be markedly different now; so much is available with an internet connection and access to online resources from Libraries.

That’s why this is worth reading. We have to start questioning how sustainable all of this is if so much of it is ‘free’. Some valid points are raised about the effect ‘free’ will have on our economy; can people keep on developing new apps and products or give away what they know without being able to monetise their investment? I’ve quoted a sizeable chunk from the interview below, but would urge you to read the entire interview as it raises other interesting discussion points about the future of the Web and what it will mean to us.

“JARON LANIER: Well, you know, I would like to see us shake-in, instead of a shakeout, in the sense that it’s true that there’s a lot of junk online, and we have to filter it and so forth.

But, you know, the thing that really disappoints me is that we didn’t create enough jobs, just to be very blunt about it. Ten years ago, what I thought was that the Internet was becoming a major new American industry, and what that would bring with it was, in a way, a replacement for the fading American industries, like our auto industry and our display industry.

And we have reconceived of it as something that is in a sense de-economics. We treat it as this sort of frivolous way to send things around for free. And it’s all in the service of advertising.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah, but, Jaron Lanier, you keep using the word “for free.”

JARON LANIER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Isn’t that why it didn’t create any jobs? If you turn people into unpaid journalists, photographers, painters, music video producers, that’s it. It’s unpaid. How could it create a job?

JARON LANIER: Or bloggers or popular tweeters, for that matter.

I think we really made a mistake in separating the Internet from capitalism in a certain way that is bad for our country. I mean, remember, just before that, we had made a — sort of a national decision that we wanted to be this intellectual property country, where we would have things manufactured in China, but we would do the design, we would do the creative stuff.

And now what we have done is, we have forgotten that that’s what we wanted, and we’re making the intellectual stuff more and more free. And, so, we’re sort of left with less and less. And it’s just not tenable. We have to decide one way or the other and really do something to earn our keep. And I think that’s a huge problem right now.”

via After Banner Decade, Peering in on the Future of Technology | PBS NewsHour | Jan. 4, 2010 | PBS.

Part of the problem lies with advertising and how many of us have become, as Steven Hodson describes in a post on The Inquisitr, ‘ad blind’. We’ve become inured to ads on our web pages and find ways to read without them. Take Readability as an example of this. Steven argues that advertisers need to rethink their approach to advertising on the Web; the TV method of, ‘throw it at a captive audience’, just won’t cut it in this new forum. I’ve been one who has bemoaned ads on networks like Ning. I still think ad free platforms need to be developed for education, but I do understand that we may not have access to these platforms at all if they aren’t able to find a way to create income from what they offer.

Perhaps we as educators need to do what people have suggested to me in Twitter conversations; accept that ads are part and parcel of the platform and use them to teach digital literacy. Our students need to understand the business model that permeates the Web and think about it as they browse pages, upload videos and download apps. Especially if they want a job in the future; taking notice just might help provide them with an income.

What does free mean?

Free, in terms of this blog, means giving away knowledge. I’m quite comfortable with that, because I think the return I get is worth it. The return is not monetary, it’s a return measured by connections and personal growth. But I have to admit to thinking thoughts that are monetary in nature. I’ve realised I have accumulated a considerable amount of knowledge, and that knowledge is now probably worth something in the world beyond teaching.

Over the course of the year I’ve found myself in conversation with people outside the field of education and many of them are fascinated by the skills I’ve acquired. They can see how they are applicable to the business world they inhabit. I’ve shown parents the ning environment we’ve created for Year 9 and you can see the lights switching on in the heads of some parents associated with business. One man quizzed me at length and was going to home to check it out to see how he could apply it to his work situation. I have a relation who can’t believe I’m not exploiting this environment and incorporating ads and the like on this blog.

I’m not doing that because credibility means something to me. Monetising this blog seems to me to be a corruption of the intentions behind it. I suppose it’s because being a teacher is one of those jobs where you are putting others before you; your intentions are to disemminate information and help others. Chris Betcher has written a post recently about the requests he’s been receiving from authors, online companies etc. to promote their wares by linking to them or discussing what they do in a post. I get those requests too; I just ignore them and don’t reply.

Right now, I think it’s vitally important that we as teachers prepare the students we teach adequately for the world of work they will be inhabiting. This world of work is starting to use the tools we are exploring in classrooms. I want my own kids prepared and I want the teachers who have them in their care to be on top of new ways of doing things. So I’ll keep sharing my knowlege and hope it makes a dent in the thinking of others.

But that doesn’t mean monetising my knowledge hasn’t crossed my mind and will no doubt continue to do so. It’s a given that investing time learning, in the time you spend away from work, has it’s costs. Just ask any family member living with a hyper connected blogger. Free means time away from loved ones, and maybe they are costs worthy of reimbursement.

Timelines TV – great new free resource for the teaching of history

Thanks to Doug Belshaw who alerted me to this great site via Twitter. Timelines TV looks like a fantastic FREE resource for teachers of history, and anyone with an interest in learning about the past. It’s been put together by Andrew Chater and has British history as its focus from 1066 to the present day. Our students study Medieval history so I can see uses for it at our school. I’ve been watching parts of the video about the Black Death and it seems pretty engaging.

Timelines.tv

You can search for content according to a timeline that you scroll along. As you scroll, titles of videos on offer pop up. When you click on them they load and are available to view in chapters. You can also download a transcript of each documentary. If you don’t like the scrolling to find titles approach, you can click on the tab ‘index’ and a list of contents appears on a new page. Videos are organised into three categories; Changing lives (social), Rulers and Ruled (political) and Nations and Empire (imperial).  The series was commissioned by the BBC and originally transmitted in the BBC Learning Zone.

Another example of excellent free content available for teacher and student use. Remember the days of purchasing videos and the exhorbitant cost of these resources. The times they are a changin’ and I say more power to providers of free content – I hope teachers find these resources – especially those teachers in poorly resourced schools. All students deserve access to good teaching resources.

Visible Body – great for interactive whiteboards

 

I’m not a Science teacher, but I think this new (and free!) software looks like it would be really useful in secondary school science classes. Here’s what it can do according to their Visible Body site;

With the Visible Body, you can:

  • Search for and locate anatomical structures by name.
  • Hide, rotate, see through, and explore parts of human anatomy.
  • Move the model in three-dimensional space, by either clicking directly on the model
    or using the virtual joystick.
  • Zoom in and out, using either the on-screen zoom slider or a mouse scroll wheel.
  • Click on systems or structures to make them transparent or hide them entirely.
  • Click on anatomical structures to reveal names.

Schools with interactive whiteboards would no doubt find this useful and the fact that it’s free makes it all the more appealing. You need to sign in and register to be able to access the site. Great for schools with limited budgets – it’s amazing what you can access for free these days! Thanks to Jane Knight at Jane’s E-Learning Pick of the Day for highlighting this useful resource.