Social Networking: What are educators looking for?
It seems like many Web 2.0 applications have a social networking component which has complicated what we exactly mean when we talk about social networking sites. I did a quick Google image search to see what would come up when I searched social networking. I found quite a mashup of Youtube, Diigo, Facebook, Flickr and the like. The focus of this blogpost will be sites that have social networking as their mandate or raison d'etre. Facebook is the posterchild for what comes to mind when social networking is mentioned but not what most educators are looking to use with their students. The educational environment brings demands for safety, the ability to moderate, customize and freedom from advertising. Oh, and there is that whole issue of cost too. Most educators don't have ready cash for buying online services.
Which Site to Use: The tyranny of the dollar vs the down side of advertising!
It is a growing issue in education that a larger and larger portion of library and educational resource budgets need to be set aside to pay for a plethora of online services. As all the players on the web are trying to figure out how to make money on the web there have been casualties and there are going to be a lot more on the way. Look at advertisement rich Facebook. Even though this Goliath is hoping to boast a billion users in the not too distant future, investors are not too sure this will be highly profitable. If that is a problem for Facebook how are the smaller services going to support themselves? For this reason the biggest social media tool for educators, Ning, had to become a fee based service for everyone (no exceptions for educators).
From what I have read and seen Ning is still the best act in town when it comes to setting up a social network for use in a school setting. I tried it out and it has some of the same feel of Facebook, Wikispaces and Blogger combined without the advertising. There is the ability to customize and many ways to add content from other web sources.
Ning: There still is the free option of Mini-Ning accounts!
There is some good news for those for us who are still getting our feet wet. You don't have to go for broke and pay the minimum of $25 a month to have a full Ning account. Pearson has left the door open for small Nings of up to 150 users. You must first signup up for a Mini Ning account and create a Ning which initially commits you to a membership fee of a few dollars a month and immediately after sign up for sponsorship through Pearson . If you are accepted your subscription is covered for up to three years. The catch is that there is an ad at the top of your Ning saying it is sponsored by Pearson and you must also invite a Pearson representative to be member of your Ning so as to keep you accountable (you now have 148 more members you can invite). It is really hard to get around corporate partnership in the classroom when you want everything to be "free".
Here is the shell of the Ning I created by applying for a Mini Ning account. It is easier to use than a Wikispace and feels a bit like a simplified blog crossed with a version of Facebook that is much easier to navigate and understand. I really need to look back at the literature and see how to intergrate this environment with my teaching. All the literature makes it sound like the holy grail of Web 2.0.. It does look to have a lot of potential but I think I need to take small steps.
For the moment I have made this Ning public for the whole world to see (and even join) so that you can see it. I also can make just the main page public and leave everything else private but it still allows anyone to join simply by clicking the join button. The other option is to keep the whole Ning private and still let anyone join or to make it invitation only. There is a bit of all or nothing associated with Ning, unless a full Ning account allows for more viewing options. This can be problematic if you are considering making your Ning a showcase that limits contributers like a wiki can.
If Not Ning, Then Nothing?
There was quite a bit of buzz in 2010 years ago when Ning first announced it was doing away with free educators account and then starting Mini Ning accounts. In October 2012 it abruptly stated it was doing away with Mini Ning effective immediately with the exception of Pearson sponsored accounts for educators mentioned above.
I read some of the posts about what educators could use as a free alternative. One of the first sites I looked at about alternatives to Ning is notable in its mention of an add-on to Word Press called BuddyPress. I think there is a lot here . If you are already using WordPress this would seem like the way to go. You can capture all the benefits of blogging with your class and add a lot more social networking features. You just aren't going to be creating a social network on the massive scale possible with Ning. I hope to learn a lot more about WordPress and its add-on features in the near future when I study the world of blogging and education.
In the same blog post I mentioned above Drupal is mentioned. It doesn't sound like something for those who don't want to get a little messy with technology. My impression is that you want to be tech savvy and like to do design and setup before you want to get using the tool. This may be just my ignorance (please correct me) but I still don't feel like using it as a starting point.
There was one blog post that was encyclopedic in its listing of alternatives to Ning and shows what costs if any are associated with each. It is a good place to get an idea of the breadth and depth of what is available.