Ning stays free for educators, with restrictions

Free Ning groups now will be limited to 150 members.
Free Ning groups now will be limited to 150 members.

The social networking web site Ning, which many educators have used to establish online groups with similar professional interests, will remain free for educators despite moving to a fee-based model this summer, the site announced May 4. But some education technology experts believe Ning could see dwindling interest among teachers and college professors because of new limitations on group sizes and video and chat capabilities.

Ning, which has more than 46 million members and 300,000 social networks created by its contributors, unveiled its revamped pricing model last week, which includes a $2.95 monthly charge for Ning Mini, $19.95 for Ning Plus, and $49.95 a month for Ning Pro. The Ning Mini model will be available at no cost to educators. Student must be 13 or older to sign up for a Ning account, according to the company’s web site.

Ning’s new service will begin in July. The shift will mean 80 percent of Ning’s revenue will come from customers paying for one of the three options, the company announced. Jason Rosenthal, the company’s chief operating officer, wrote on Ning’s blog that basic services will remain free for education groups because a “major education company will be sponsoring Ning Mini Networks for educators in primary and secondary education.”

School technology experts said extending free access to teachers was an important step in maintaining good relations with educational institutions, but Ning Mini’s restrictions will make the site much less appealing than it was before the pricing changes. Educators using the free Mini site won’t have access to web chats, certain applications, and video uploads, although teachers still will be able to embed videos in their Ning sites.

The Ning Mini model also limits groups to 150 people. Faculty members who teach courses with 300 students, for instance, would have to create two Ning groups that wouldn’t permit students to “cross communicate with each other the way they used to,” said Steve Hargadon, a former Ning educational consultant who is now a social learning consultant for online learning company Elluminate. “And I think they’re going to start looking for alternatives pretty actively.”

“The biggest hurdle Ning has to overcome now is trust,” Hargadon said, adding that non-educational Ning members will see their content disappear if they don’t start paying a monthly fee beginning in July. “[Some users] feel Ning could change models any day now. … Ning used to have a great trust with educators, and they’ll have to work to rebuild that trust.”

Christine Greenhow, chair of the Social Networks Research Collaborative Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, said Ning’s business decisions could boost the company’s bottom line while establishing barriers for educators hoping to create large groups of people across the globe.

“I think this is a tremendous disappointment,” she said. “The function of social networking sites is to build your network out to friends and family and colleagues. You’re redefining the social networking web site when you’re limiting the number of people that can be in a group.”

Such a sudden shift among a trusted site like Ning, Greenhow said, could deter teachers and professors from free and low-cost social media sites for their colleagues and students.

“Schools are considering whether to open their virtual doors to these online tools,” said Greenhow, who also serves as a visiting fellow at Yale University’s Information Society Project. “Now people will be careful about which tools they’ll use.”

Denny Carter

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