Educators will have 10 weeks to decide if they want to keep their content on Ning after the company's May 4 shift to a fee-based model.

Educators will have 10 weeks to decide if they want to keep their content on Ning after the company's May 4 shift to a fee-based model.

Since Ning launched its social network that lets members create groups on any topic back in 2007, thousands of educators have used the online tool to connect with their peers across the globe. Now, the company says it soon will “phase out” its free service, forcing educators to find other alternatives or pay to keep their Ning networks intact.

Education technology experts said Ning risks alienating educators with its decision, especially at a time when school budgets are so tight. Ning, which had planned to use advertising revenue to support the site, announced April 16 that company officials would unveil a new business model on May 4 that would include “price points” for the previously free service.

While Ning’s basic service had been free, it also offered a range of paid options, including $5 a month for custom domains and $10 a month for extra bandwidth and storage capabilities.

For educators who have created content-rich Ning groups for their students and fellow faculty members, Ning said it “will offer a migration path and time to make that change” if users want to move their groups to another site that doesn’t charge a fee.

“There’s a social contract associated with providing a free platform for users … so Ning has some very tricky decisions to make,” said Steve Hargadon, a former Ning educational consultant who is now a social learning consultant for online learning company Elluminate.

Charging every user to host Ning networking groups would be a tough sell, Hargadon said, because it would be similar to Wikipedia charging contributors to add to the online encyclopedia’s vast library.

Charging fees “would wreck the whole model,” he said.

Ning on April 20 debunked persistent rumors about what the company will announce on May 4. Quelling fears that existing content will be inaccessible for anyone unwilling to pay a fee, John McDonald, a Ning spokesman, wrote that every Ning member will have “at least 10 weeks to evaluate the new pricing structure and make a decision to move to the new paid service.”

McDonald continued: “… It’s our goal to have a set of product and pricing options that will make sense for all Ning networks—even those that have limited budgets. Specifically, we know how many nonprofit organizations and educators use Ning, and we plan on offering an option that will make it possible and attractive for them to stay on the Ning platform.”

An internal Ning memo was leaked to several web sites last week, announcing the company would cut about 40 percent of its staff, or 70 people.

“My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business,” Ning Chief Operating Officer Jason Rosenthal wrote in the memo.

Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California, said keeping Ning affordable for educators would maintain the site’s exposure to students, who would be more inclined to use Ning once they’ve entered the business world if they’re comfortable with the online platform.

“If you have a long-range plan at all, you think about what you can do to promote future business,” she said. “And it’s good business to introduce the product to the next generation of users. … The goal is to get them early and get them often.”

Countering the negative backlash from its recent announcement, Ning officials created a web-based survey gauging educators’ reaction to the prospect of the company’s new business approach.

“Many of those who have created and lovingly cultivated Ning communities don’t have someone they can turn to who would fund the cost of premium services; and those who do have institutions behind them may have a hard time justifying the costs of their networks, as they often cut across traditional institutional boundaries,” Hargadon wrote in an April 23 blog entry.

Some observers said Ning’s restructuring might not drive away educators in hordes if the new prices are reasonable, largely because Ning has endeared itself to many in the education community with online services that don’t require in-depth programming knowledge to use.