What is the deal with this Ning thing? (Reflections on the End of Free Networks)

Image representing Ning as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBase

Lots of comments running through Twitter about Ning‘s decision to take away free networks from education.  While it would have been nice for Ning to notify us in a more direct way, they didn't and here are some of my thoughts.

1 – Ning SHOULD Make Money
First and foremost, Ning is a for-profit company and they have a right and an obligation to their investors to make a PROFIT. I appreciate that they understood the power of free networks where STUDENTS were involved as well as keeping politically favorable in treating those networks with kids under 18 with “kid gloves” so to speak as it relates to advertising.

While I disagree with their decision and point out that wikispaces has built a seemingly profitable model off of add-free sites for educators – this is Ning's company and Ning's right to do as they wish!

2 – Ning SHOULD Be Ready to Step Up
That being said, I think that Ning's lack of communication with educators who had free networks is going to have to change.  When we PAY for a service we expect a higher level of communication and thus far when you contact ning you receive NO communication.  I can say this because when we've had issues we've tried for months to get responses and nary receive an email.

The Fact is that Ning is CUTTING staff and CUTTING free networks – if they indeed are charging us – I for one will expect responses and to have a person who can actually help us with our issues for a change!

For anyone who has been deeply involved in administering Ning networks, this isn't really a surprise.

Additionally, Ning should offer backup alternatives and other alternatives for us that we WILL PAY FOR to keep a copy of what we have on the network.  They have a profit making opportunity here and should use it.  However, I think they are just going to downsize and go from there. 

3- Put our Heads Together and Make Wise Choices

I'm not one for panic mode – yes, Julie and I have 7 networks or so that we use with Flat Classroom™ projects that have thus far been FREE for all participants because of the sponsors and funders of our projects.  We'll have to look at what we can do to either keep it free or defray costs.  But one thing we're not going to do is panic.

This isn't the end of the world.  We can pull data out (rip the videos out with zamzar and download helper) and we can at least export the names of those in the network.

I'm hoping that Ning will be rational and make good business decisions but just as they have a right and obligation to make money they also have a right to make overwhelmingly DUMB business decisions and miss the potential profit that they could make. 

So, let's see what happens.  Meanwhile – this message from my friend Steve Hargadon bears printing in entirity here for those who are having level heads and deciding what to do with their networks.

Ning Changes and the Impact on Educational Communities

Posted: 15 Apr 2010 04:07 PM PDT
The news today of changes to Ning, based on a purported (but I think likely authentic) internal memo from the new Ning CEO, is reasonably going to cause some concern in the education community.  Ning has facilitated a pretty historic change in the connecting of educators, often in self-directed ways, through the ability to “create your own social network.”

If there are changes coming to Ning, then as a community we'll want to work together to respond and to help each other.  Some initial thoughts are below.  I'm also going to open up a live Elluminate session on Tuesday, April 20th, at 5pm Pacific Daylight Time (US) / 8pm Eastern Daylight Time (US) / 12am Wednesday GMT (international conversions here).  Let's gather information and then use that time to talk about what is currently known and what the potential courses of action are for existing network creators.  We'll use the FutureofEducation.com Elluminate room:  log in at http://tr.im/futureofed. I'll open up the room 30 minutes before the event if you want to come in early, and we'll run as long as is needed. To make sure that your computer is configured for Elluminate, please visit http://www.elluminate.com/support.

Some initial thoughts:

§ If you have an exiting Ning network, while you can only export the networks membership, I'd suggest doing that now just to be safe.  (In your network go to Manage > Members and then look for the link at the bottom of the page to export.)  I don't think it's appropriate to import those members into any other system without their express consent, but you will want to have their email addresses in a worst-case scenario.
§ I'd urge some thoughtfulness at this stage.  It's not clear what Ning's long-term intentions are for educational networks, and once your user data is backed up, speculating before Ning makes any official decisions or announcements is not likely to provide you with a practical outcome right now.  
§ We know at Elluminate that our LearnCentral.org network's user interface does not yet match the Ning experience, but hopefully, for some of you, LearnCentral becomes an attractive alternative to Ning.  Our model is different than Ning's:  we're creating a single education-wide network with stronger group capabilities, and we're doing so for free because it's a great introduction to the already existing paid services that Elluminate offers.  There will be some scrutiny of commercial models right now given this turn of events, and hopefully we end up looking pretty good in this regard.
§ The Ning networks that I run are all ones where I pay for premium services.  While it's not clear from the above-mentioned Ning memo what or how many premium services will be required to continue your Ning network, I don't have any concerns about my existing networks at this point.  You can see a list of them some way down the left side of this blog page.  Some of them are generously sustained by organizations who support the financial costs, and I can explain how I approached and then have worked with those organizations in our Elluminate session if that's a route you want to go.  
§ I'm also glad, time permitting, to work with individual networks whose continued existence is important to our larger community, as was the case with the Library 2.0 network Bill Drew had grown for some years but which he was going to shut down and we were able to find sponsorship for (hurrah, Brentwood School librarians!).  Feel free to contact me directly at steve@hargadon.com in this regard if and when it becomes clear what Ning's new policies will be.
This does seem like a dramatic turn of events, but something really powerful has happened in the education world, for which Ning has been a great springboard.  Educational networking, however, is now more powerful than one company's services alone.  The road may not be completely smooth, but we will figure this out together. :)

I am not sure those who cover social media really understand what these networks have meant to education. It has meant that we could have safe, partitioned spaces to teach our students on-line safety without having to take them into the larger pool of social media. It has meant that we could connect in many places around the world that do not have access to social networks (China, etc.) and it has meant some amazing breakthroughs in global collaboration.

However, those of us that are committed to flattening the classroom and are driven to connect our classrooms on a global basis – this Ning situation is yet another obstacle that we must overcome because truly, the world isn't Flat – it is made Flat by those who scoop away at the hills one shovel full at a time.

Scoop. Scoop. Scoop.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Anonymous April 17, 2010 - 4:54 pm

I am just now taking a class using a Ning and am very disappointed that it may be closing down in a week or two due to it having a cost now! :(

Vicki A. Davis April 17, 2010 - 9:08 pm

Well you don’t know if it will close down – we don’t really know anything at this point! We’ll have to wait and see!

Scott Weidig April 18, 2010 - 2:23 pm

Vicki, I want to preface this long commentary with this statement: Before coming into teaching I was in management and tech consulting for 11 years, and I worked with many companies suffering through what is facing Ning. Additionally, my own company (worldwide) with 10,000 employees and a $4B market cap completely folded in the span of a year. Thinking about individuals you are providing services for pro bono falls way low on a list of priorities…

That said, I am confused about some of your comments and was wondering if you could clarify things a bit? If you would prefer not to, I also understand.

“When we PAY for a service we expect a higher level of communication and thus far when you contact ning you receive NO communication. “

Have you been paying for Ning’s services on some or all of your networks? If so, your comment is valid, but if not…

I agree folks who PAY for services should deserve a higher level of communication from the organization, and if they are not getting it, they have a right to make their belief strongly heard with their dollars (by removing them). However, those that do not, especially when a company is going through a very difficult time trying to work out a reduction in force of 40% of it’s staff to remain a viable entity, need to understand that the remaining resources of said organization have a bit of a different focus as their primary thoughts.

Or are you commenting that you are planning to pay for their service and if you do you expect more support than you are/have been getting? I would expect that you would based on Rosenthal’s commentary that 75% of their finances comes from their premium customers. Steve Hargadon or Alec Couros could better comment if premium network managers received better communication from Ning as I know they are paying for their networks.

I do agree about Ning having / providing an exit strategy… (one of the things I really like about Zoho, your data is yours) however, if they do not already, I can’t imagine them having the time or resources to create one in the 90 days I am hearing free networks have left.

Hank Thiele “To Learn Twice” has a couple of great posts on always having an exit strategy. here is a link to he thoughts about Ning: http://henrythiele.blogspot.com/2010/04/day-nings-died.html

Here is my post on Ning’s actions: http://www.scottweidig.com/2010/04/on-ning-social-networking-the-unfortunate-possibilities-of-web-20.html

I honestly believe that this is tremendously unfortunate for educators and the communities they have been supporting by leveraging Ning. That said, I am concerned that some of the twitter dialogue and edublogging is still making it Ning’s responsibility for saving, archiving, and providing an exit strategy for data… (for folks who have not provided any financial support to Ning). I understand from your comment you (and possibly others) most likely would be willing to pay for an archival service of the networks you have, but (and I am reading much into the same Ning announcement you are) it really sounds like that is too little too late for Ning.

Also, if you are willing to pay for an archival service or an export service why not just actually pay to move to the premium Ning service. I get that running 7+ networks could / would / will be a heavy investment. On the other hand, I know that Ning has been tremendously beneficial to you and your students. Does the trade off of the benefit outweigh the tradeoff of the cost? I would believe that is the same question Ning’s new CEO had to wrestle with before making his decision.

One one hand, this have been a tremendous (if sad) learning experience that will prepare everyone to ask deeper questions and be better prepared for the next set of social networks and free services individuals may leverage in the future… and that is a good thing. I hope it works out to everyone’s advantage in the end.

Vicki A. Davis April 18, 2010 - 8:50 pm

Hi Scott-
I’ll have to reread what I wrote, and yes – there have been Nings that I’ve paid for and I’ve received the same level of service. :-(

My point is this – IF we are paying and we start paying (which many of us will ) then Ning should respond when we have concerns! They should have some form of customer support besides a faq and a forum.

Secondly – as of this comment we cannot do any cost/benefit analysis because Ning has still as yet communicated the cost to us. That is the primary factor we have here – until we get to that point everything is just a waste of time, in my opinion.

Thirdly, to me – tis better to have learned and lost than not learned at all. :-( Lots of “I told you so’s” from some but those some also haven’t been pushing the envelope of global collaboration either – as for me and my friends and colleagues – we will continue to press forward with the students in mind!

Chris April 19, 2010 - 1:15 am

Vicki, thanks for sharing your insights on Ning’s recent move. Education News Now references your article at http://www.educationnewsnow.com/story.php?title=cool-cat-teacher-blog-what-is-the-deal-with-this-ning-thing-reflections-on-the-end-of-free-networks

Jacquie Tierney-Montanez April 21, 2010 - 3:35 pm

Hi Vicki- thank you for highlighting this in your blog. I feel that I have the benefit of seeing this issue from both sides as I currently work in advertising as well as being almost finished with grad school, on my way to a career as an educator. I feel as you do- that a company who is outright “for profit” has every right to make that profit, especially in the economic times we have been facing. Companies all over have been folding due to lack of revenue and as a previous poster mentioned, pro bono services fall by the wayside. My company does pro bono advertising and though our hearts are in the right place, they are put on the back burner sometimes when a paying client comes in. On the flip side, I feel that companies, such as mine, should have separate “piggy banks” to help offset costs for said pro bono users, especially when it comes to education. Websites such as Ning allow educators to convene in a safe environment for their students, and companies should try their best to keep these free services available to them.

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