A move last week by the online social-networking site Ning to start charging for its services has raised worries that new fees could stifle educators’ technological collaboration and creativity and touch off similar moves by other companies that provide comparable services heavily used by educators.
Despite an announcement by Ning officials that an unnamed major education company would help keep the site’s most basic offering free for K-12 educators, many in the field were disappointed by the company’s decision to adopt a paid model.
“Educators are easily discouraged when it comes to technology,” said Thomas D. Whitby, who started a 3,700-member Ning site called The Educator’s PLN, which stands for “personal learning network.”
“Ning was bringing in the general educators who weren’t techies,” he said, “because it was so easy to use, but this [price policy] may act as an impediment.”
Ning, which provides a platform for the creation of social networks, had become very popular with educators who created networks around curricular areas to trade information or bolster their skills and to interact in a closed environment with students.
The company announced a new overall pricing structure for its services on May 4, but acknowledged the concerns of many educators by saying the unnamed company would cover costs for Ning’s new Mini Networks. Those networks permit up to 150 members for a fee of $2.95 per month or $19.95 per year.
Previously, Ning had provided services for similar networks, with more options and capabilities, at no cost.
Officials of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company gave few details last week, and it remained unclear exactly which education groups would receive free services. Ning officials provided no information on how educators would receive approval for their sites to be underwritten, but said the company would release more information soon.
Some educators, meanwhile, worried that Ning’s decision to focus on paying customers might prompt other social-networking services to use similar tactics.
Fred Ravan, a Spanish teacher at Brewer High School in Brewer, Maine, and a member of several Ning networks, said he had used the site to improve lesson plans and to learn about new technology he could use in his classroom.
“My concern is that this whole Ning thing will set a precedent, and it feels funny, as a teacher, asking my students to pay for a service,” he said. “What if, for example, Wikis and blogs start charging?”
Ning announced two other levels of networks last week, in addition to the Mini, which provides the option of eliminating ads from the sites. The two additional levels provide the opportunity for more members, features, and customization and will be available for $19.95 a month or $49.95 a month per network. The changes also include features such as the ability to back up and export content, to charge for membership, and to accept donations. The new features and pricing options will start in July, giving users 10 weeks to evaluate the options.
The change at Ning has educators pondering whether to shut down their networking sites, cough up a monthly fee, or move their information and members to another type of hosting platform.
Mary Beth Hertz, a technology teacher at the Guion Bluford Elementary School in the 167,000-student Philadelphia school district, launched her Ning site dedicated to Philadelphia technology teachers at the start of the current school year. With about 60 members, the site has brought together like-minded educators to swap information and best practices.
Now Ms. Hertz is exploring other free network-hosting services, such as BuddyPress or Spruz, which are courting Ning members, and hopes she’ll qualify for free Ning service. But she said she realizes that Ning is a business, and that a year from now the company could discontinue the underwriting or raise the fees.
“I need to start doing more research on finding out how to get my data off of Ning,” she said.
In addition, Ms. Hertz, like Mr. Whitby, worries that without a free version, some teachers won’t even try Ning, a site that educators say has an ease of discussion, usability, and interaction that other sites don’t have. With Ning as a free service, Ms. Hertz said, “people could play around with it and get comfortable with it and then branch out from there.”
Ning users began awaiting the new pricing structure last month, when word of the company’s intent to start charging for its services leaked out. On Ning’s official blog, the company’s chief executive officer, Jason Rosenthal, noted April 16 that Ning had decided to focus on its paying customers, about 75 percent of the site’s traffic.
Larger education sites and those affiliated with established education organizations may find it easy to continue what they were already doing. Many are already paying customers of Ning because they wanted to customize their sites, increase their bandwidth, or choose their domain names. Others already had some free services, since Ning had permitted teachers using networks with students ages 13 to 18 to operate those networks without the Google ads typically featured on the free versions. The company normally charged a fee to remove the advertising.
Barrier to Innovation?
Steve Hargadon, the creator of the well-known Classroom 2.0 network on Ning, with 42,000 members, runs about 10 different Ning sites and currently pays about $150 per month in fees. Mr. Hargadon, who is also a social-learning consultant for Elluminate, an education technology company based in Pleasanton, Calif., said educators involvement with Ning has been notable.
“All of a sudden, these educators could build around their specialty,” Mr. Hargadon said. “It was brilliant for educators to connect to each other.”
Mr. Hargadon said he’s pleased with some aspects of the new plan, such as the ability to pay fees on an annual basis rather than monthly, which he said makes it more likely educators can get reimbursed for such expenses.
But he has other concerns. Though $2.95 a month for the Ning Mini Networks is low—something Mr. Hargadon counts as a plus—he is worried that any cost may get in the way of innovation. Also, the Mini option does not include some of the services previously available for free—such as the ability to easily download video and create groups—that have been crucial to the way some educators have used their sites.
Mr. Hargadon said he also wondered whether the unnamedcompany enlisted to underwrite educational sites would be well received by educators. “Not every company is viewed as benign,” he said.
‘The Beauty of Ning’
Education sites affiliated with education organizations may be able get their fees paid for and others may be able to find outside companies to foot the bill. Mr. Whitby’s site, The Educator’s PLN, which he created last October, now contains a large repository of information for educators, including more than 200 educational videos, tutorials on how to use Twitter for educational purposes, and links to education-related blogs.
Even with the new Ning fees, Mr. Whitby, who taught English in grades 6-12 for 34 years and is now an adjunct professor of education for secondary English at St. Joseph’s College in New York City, doesn’t plan to close his site. He said he’s already had corporate sponsors approach him about supporting The Educator’s PLN.
“To have a patron, that goes back to the Renaissance,” he said.
He also thinks the worries about Ning’s decision to charge for its product are unwarranted. When using free technology tools, educators shouldn’t get attached to a particular product put out by a particular company—just to the use of that technology, he said.
“There’s always going to be something else or somebody else providing something similar,” Mr. Whitby said. “Buy into the idea of it, not necessarily the particular tool.”
But not everyone has patrons ready to provide support. After hearing that Ning would no longer provide free hosting services, Ann M. Leaness, an English teacher at Martin Luther King High School in the Philadelphia school district, shut down the Ning sites she used with her 11th graders.
Ms. Leaness had registered her students as members of the site, let them personalize their individual blogs and profile pages, and used their posts as lessons on Internet safety and what’s appropriate to disclose online. She also posted articles and videos on the subject for students to discuss online.
“The beauty of Ning was that because it was a closed environment, I could teach them without worrying about what they were putting out in the public,” she said.
But Ms. Leaness knew she would not be able to pay for the sites herself. Her students recently took a break from using Ning because of state testing, so she decided to delete her networks during the lull.
Now that she’s learned she might qualify for free services, she says she’ll consider creating her networks again during the next school year.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Educators Eye Ning Transition to a Pay Model