A move by the online social-networking site Ning to start charging for its services has raised concerns 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,” says 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 says, “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, 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 in the future.
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, says 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 says. “What if, for example, wikis and blogs start charging?”
Ning announced two other levels of networks, 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 time 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 S. 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 2009-10 school year. With about 60 members, the site has brought together like-minded educators to swap information and best practices.
Now 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 says 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 says.
In addition, Hertz, like 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, Hertz says, “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 in April, 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 because they wanted to customize their Ning 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.