I run two Nings - one serves as my class website, and the other connects our school to our feeders for vertical teaming purposes. So when my intern, while reading her Twitter feed one afternoon, looked up from her laptop and said something along the lines of "Have you seen that they're going to start charging?" I... well, I kinda freaked out.
My first intro to this social networking tool was through the Educator's PLN. This site is now thousands of teachers strong and offers invaluable resources and support to its members. After perusing it a bit, Ning seemed like the perfect one-stop shop to bring more of a sense of community, student ownership, and interactivity to my classes' online world. So I got to work, and within moments my slick new class site was up and ready to go.
Signing my kids up for the site was cake. I could upload/embed videos for use in class - no more worrying about whether a video would be blocked by our network. Files could be uploaded, as well. Each class had its own group, which made organizing assignments and class specific information much more manageable, and there was shared space, too, so classes could collaborate on some activities.
Next came an email from our school's librarian pointing me in the direction of English Companion. Seriously, if you teach English, you must check this site out. It rocks!
I preached the goodness of Ning wherever I could and soon set up the second site for vertical teaming.
A few days ago, the company announced that a stripped down version of Ning (Ning Mini) will be available to educators for free. This is a small bit of good news, but some of the features missing from this option seem essential to me for making the classroom community site work. Groups, for example, will no longer be available, so there goes some of my organizational infrastructure. Video uploads won't be an option either, and many videos I could embed are blocked by my system's network to prevent them, I'm told, from eating up our limited bandwidth.
A recent #edchat discussed the changes to Ning, addressed what they mean for educators' use of the site, and touched on what we can learn from the company's changes with regard to future of social networking tools in schools. One of the most powerful but daunting suggestions was that we should find ways to eliminate the middle-man by developing our own social networking tools. That makes sense to me, but social networking is still a very scary thing for many people in leadership positions. In fact, my class site is not allowed to be officially linked to our school's website because students create and add content. The fear is that a student might post something inappropriate, which could potentially make the school look bad. But which looks worse? An interactive site that shows evidence of student learning and tons of activity and is monitored throughout the day by a teacher who's iPhone is buzzing every time something new is posted? Or a glorified Word document that hasn't been updated since last August?
I know my answer, but I also know that perceptions of social networking aren't going to change overnight, and teaching teaches patience.
So I'm looking for some guidance. Do I keep the sites I have running and deal with the changes? Should I piece together what I need from a variety of other free tools and forget the idea of one tool to meet all my needs? Please post any suggestions, ideas, or alternatives you may have. I'm bummed about the Ning changes, but I'm hoping this turns out to be an opportunity to learn a little more about what else is out there.