Thursday, April 15, 2010

short-sighted and socially destructive: thoughts on Ning's decision to cut free services

Lord knows I'm not a huge fan of Ning, the social networking tool that allows users to create and manage online networks. I find the design bulky and fairly counterintuitive, and modifying a network to meet your group's needs is extremely challenging, and Ning has made it extremely difficult or impossible for users to control, modify, or move network content. Despite the popularity of Ning's free, ad-supported social networks among K-16 educators, the ads that go along with the free service have tended toward the racy or age-inappropriate.

But given the Ning trifecta--it's free, getting students signed up is fast and fairly easy, and lots of teachers are using it--I've been working with Ning with researchers and teachers for the last two years. So the recent news that Ning will be switching to paid-only membership is obnoxious for two reasons.

The first reason is the obvious: I don't want to pay--and I don't want the teachers who use Ning to have to pay, either. One of the neat things about Ning is the ability to build multiple social networks--maybe a separate one for each class, or a new one each semester, or even multiple networks for a single group of students. In the future, each network will require a monthly payment, which means that most teachers who do decide to pay will stick to a much smaller number of networks. This means they'll probably erase content and delete members, starting fresh each time. The enormous professional development potential of having persistent networks filled with content, conversations, and student work suddenly disappears.

Which brings me to my second point: That anyone who's currently using Ning's free services will be forced to either pay for an upgrade or move all of their material off of Ning. This is tough for teachers who have layers upon layers of material posted on various Ning sites, and it's incredibly problematic for any researcher who's working with Ning's free resources. If we decide to leave Ning for another free network, we'll have to figure out some systematic way of capturing every single thing that currently lives on Ning, lest it disappear forever.

Ning's decision to phase out free services amounts to a paywall, pure and simple. Instead of putting limits on information, as paywalls for news services do, this paywall puts limits on participation. In many ways, this is potentially far worse, far more disruptive and destructive, far more short-sighted than any information paywall could be.

If Ning was smart, it would think a little more creatively about payment structures. What about offering unlimited access to all members of a school district, for a set fee paid at the district level? What about offering an educator account that provides unlimited network creation for a set (and much lower) fee? What about improving the services Ning provides to make it feel like you'd be getting what you paid for?

More information on Ning's decision to go paid-only will be released tomorrow. For now, I'm working up a list of free social networking tools for use by educators. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Update, 4/15/10, 6:48 p.m.: Never one to sit on the sidelines in the first place, Alec Couros has spearheaded a gigantic, collaborative googledoc called "Alternatives to Ning." As of this update, the doc keeps crashing because of the number of collaborators trying to help build this thing (the last time I got into it, I was one of 303 collaborators), so if it doesn't load right away, keep trying.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Diane Ravitch Editorial on the Failure of NCLB

I have long admired Diane Ravitch. While I have disagreed with her on fundamental philosophical grounds, her arguments have always been grounded in the realities of schooling--even if those were the realities of conservative parents and stakeholders.

Now the evidence has shown what some of us predicted and what many of us have known for years: that external tests of basic skills and punitive sanctions were just going to lead to illusory gains (if any) and undermine other value outcomes. Her editorial in today's (April 2) Washington Post is very direct. While I disagree with her on where to go from here, I applaud her for using her audience and her reputation to help convince a lot of stakeholders who have found one reason or another to ignore the considerable evidence against continuing NCLB. Like Jim Popham has been saying for years, all of the improvement schools could make with test scores already happened between 1990 and 2000, once newspapers began publishing test scores.

Certainly this will factor into the pending NCLB reauthorization. Perhaps Indiana's Republican leadership will read this and think twice about going forward with their two core ideas for their Race to the Top reform proposal, even though it was not funded. The twin shells in their reform shotgun is "Pay for Performance" merit pay for Indiana teachers based on basic skills test scores, and "Value Added" growth modeling that ranks teachers based on how much "achievement" they instilled in their kids. For reasons Ravitch summarizes and other concerns outlined in a recent letter and report by the National Academy, the recoil from pulling these two triggers at once might be just enough to blow our schools and our children pretty far back into the 20th century.