The social-networking site Ning announced Tuesday that a “major education company” will help keep some services free for educators who use the site with older students and to exchange ideas with one another.
Ning, which announced a new overall pricing structure for its services, said the unnamed company would underwrite the cost for the new Ning Mini Networks for K-12 educators and those working with students 13 and older.
The company also announced Tuesday that these new Mini Networks will each cost $2.95 a month to maintain, or $19.95 a year, for those who don’t have their fees covered. Previously, Ning had provided services for similar networks at no cost.
Company officials provided few details Tuesday, and it remained unclear as to exactly which education groups would receive free services. Ning officials also did not provide information on how educators would receive approval for their sites to be underwritten, but said it would release more information on plans for educators soon.
The company also announced two other levels of networks, as well as new features that include 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.
Ning provides a platform for the creation of social networks, and educators have used Ning sites to trade information on boosting their skills and to interact in a closed environment with students.
Tuesday’s announcement was much anticipated by many groups with sites on Ning, but particularly by educators who had tapped the social-networking platform to establish groups focused on everything from teaching French literature to the use of technology in the classroom.
Previously, Ning had also permitted teachers that use Ning sites with students from age 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.
The new low-cost Ning Mini Networks will allow up to 150 members and provide the option to eliminate ads from the sites, according to information released by the company. The company will also offer two other options for larger sites, which provide the opportunity for more members, features and customization at costs of $19.95 a month or $49.95 a month. The company said it will allow current users 10 weeks to evaluate the new options and decide what to do.
Ning users had been awaiting the new pricing structure since 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.
Customers who wanted to use their own domain names, customize their sites, or increase bandwidth paid for the privilege. “As part of this change, we’ll be phasing out our free service,” Mr. Rosenthal wrote.
He noted, however, the many active Ning networks for educators and pledged to offer ways and time to move their information and members to other sites.
The change has educators pondering whether to shut down their 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. She has about 60 members and said the site brought together like-minded educators, once isolated in their schools, to swap information and best practices.
Now Ms. Hertz is not sure what she’ll do. A survey of her members found they wanted the site to continue in some form, so she’s exploring other free network-hosting services, such as BuddyPress or Spruz.
But she’s unsure how to move the repository of information on her Ning site somewhere else, and she said schools block some of the other social networking sites—such as Facebook—that educators might want to use. Larger education Ning sites may have more resources or may already be paying customers if they’ve upgraded their sites or customized them.
Steve Hargadon, the creator of the well-known Classroom 2.0 network on Ning, which has 42,000 members, was once a consultant to Ning on education. He encouraged the company to permit educators to use the site for free without advertisements if they were working with students. Mr. Hargadon runs about 10 different Ning sites and pays about $150 per month in fees, he said.
Ning has been the right fit for educators, Mr. Hargadon said, providing an ease of discussion, usability, and interaction that other sites didn’t have. But, he said, Ning officials never truly understood how educators were using the site in a pioneering way.
“It was historic that an educator could start a site around a curricular interest, instead of having a once-a-year conference or a section at a once-a-year conference,” Mr. Hargadon said. “All of a sudden these educators could build around their specialty. 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 that educators can get reimbursed for such expenses. But he still has other concerns, especially regarding some of the changes to operation of sites.
Though the cost of $2.95 per month for the Ning Mini is low—something Mr. Hargadon counts as a plus—he is worried that any cost may get in the way of innovation. He also wonders whether the unnamed company cited to underwrite educational sites will be well-received by educators. “Not every company is viewed as benign,” he said.
Who Will Pay?
Education sites affiliated with established education organizations may be able get their fees paid for. And large sites—such as Mr. Hargadon’s, for instance, or Thomas D. Whitby’s Ning site, The Educator’s PLN (for personal learning network), which has 3,700 members—may be able to find other ways to stay alive.
Mr. Whitby, who started his site in October 2009, said it now contains a vast repository of helpful information for educators, including more than 200 educational videos, tutorials on how to use Twitter for educational purposes, and links to education-related blogs.
“Many, many educators worldwide are depending on this to be there, and it didn’t cost us anything to do this,” he said.
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, said Ning gained popularity among teachers because it was user-friendly and free.
Even with the new fees, Mr. Whitby doesn’t plan to shut down his site. He said he’s already had corporate sponsors approach him about supporting The Educator’s PLN. He said sponsors would be noted on the site in a modest way, and he’s unconcerned about any ethical issues.
“To have a patron, that goes back to the renaissance,” he said.
‘The Beauty of Ning’
But not everyone has patrons willing to support them. Sigrid Lumbra, the social studies coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education, created a Ning site, the Vermont Social Studies Education Network, just a few months ago in an effort to merge two listservs dedicated to similar issues.
Ms. Lumbra said because the new cost of Ning is affordable, she may be able to get the state Department of Education to pay for it, and she would be concerned about directing her members somewhere else so soon after making the transition to Ning.
“That’s a worry for me,” Ms. Lumbra said. “Going to a new technology can be confusing and intimidating anyway.”
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 grade students.
Ms. Leaness had registered her students as members of the site, let them personalize their individual blogs and pages., and used their posts as lessons on Internet safety and what’s appropriate to post online. She also posted articles and videos on the subject for students to discuss online.
“They were so excited,” Ms. Leaness said. “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.”
But she knew she would not be able to pay for the sites herself. Her students recently took a break from using Ning due to state testing, so she decided to delete her networks during the lull. After hearing that her network with students would likely remain free she said she would use Ning again in class next year.
Mr. Whitby thinks Ning’s decision to find ways to ease the cost for educators is the right one. “It’s like a debt to society,” he said. “You owe education the chance to flourish, as long as it’s for the purpose of education and nothing else. It’s kind of like paying it forward.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Educators Eye Ning’s Move to Pay Model