I discovered recently that this will be my last semester using the Ning as my virtual classroom (for student blogs, discussions), which is both a sad and exciting discovery to have made. I like the Ning so much that I never would have made the choice to leave it on my own but, as with so much software, the decision is being made for me: Ning is transitioning to a new version, Ning 3.0, and the legacy mini-Nings (a holdover from its foray into the education market and a partnership with Pearson some years ago) will not transition with the other communities. Ning has promised 12 months for communities to make the transition, which means I won't have any trouble making it till the next of the semester, and I might squeak by in the fall semester also, but for a change as big as this, I will need to devote a considerable part of my summer to working on it.
So, as a result, this will be my last semester with the Ning, and I am 99% certain that the students will be using Blogger blogs starting next fall. Blogger is my own blogging platform of choice so I know I can give the students good support and encouragement based on my own experience, plus I am enormously inspired by all the work I see Gideon Burton and his students are doing with Blogger as their shared platform (for example, the new "Literature of Awe" course blog).
I could, of course, transition to a real Ning and use their 3.0 platform. But that would cost me $25/month (as opposed to the $20/year I currently spend), and I really cannot justify that cost. If my university assumed the cost, I would gladly stay with Ning since it has some enormous advantages as a community space for online students. My university, however, has no interest in this kind of thing. I'll save those complaints for a separate post. Suffice to say, the microscopic amount of social capital I have accumulated at my school would not be well spent in trying to get my school to support a Ning community for my online classes.
Plus, I know that it is time to move on. Ning has some advantages, but it has some real disadvantages also. In particular, I no longer see any need to use a closed community. When I first started using Ning for my classes, which was back in 2008, the world of social networking was still something relatively new and the idea that students positively needed to learn how to use social networking tools as part of their education was really not something that crossed my mind. Now, however, in 2014, it seems to me very important for students to know how to use the kinds of tools that they will help them to build their professional presence by networking with others online. This is something badly neglected at my school, which seems to put a higher priority on promoting Internet FUD (fear-uncertainty-doubt), encouraging students to try to "cover their tracks" online, keeping things private, rather than helping them learn to make a distinction between private and public so that they can decide just which things they can, and should, share as they begin to build a professional identity online. So, I am not worried, as I once was, about using public tools, provided that the students have the option of including their name, or not, on their web publications, just as they make that same choice for the websites that they build for their class projects.
What I am going to lose, though, is the nicely integrated "feel" of the Ning, where all the blogs come together in a single shared webspace, with the newest blog posts appearing on the homepage of our Ning site. I use a single site for all my classes, which gives it a really exciting look as the images being used by Myth-Folklore students in their blog posts appear side-by-side with posts from students in the Indian Epics. It's a really stimulating and thought-provoking space in which to ask students to spend their time (unlike, UGH, Desire2Learn). When I go to the Ning and take a look, it just makes me feel good. I'm able to have that space with zero effort on my part; I have written a few widgets for the sidebars of the Ning, but for the actual site design, I've been happily able to use a Ning template without modification.
Now, as I contemplate leaving that behind, I will have to think about how I, on my own, can get that sense of a lively, shared group space. If not a portal, then one really good aggregator page. My current thinking - but luckily I have some months to think about this before summer comes - is to go with individual Blogger blogs for the students (which has the enormous advantage of putting them in control of their own blog, which I like very much) while I figure out some creative use of RSS to bring together the latest posts in some way that is both useful and visually attractive. I'm not a programmer or even a tinkerer on the level of someone like Alan Levine or Stephen Downes to come up with something really sophisticated like the wonderful ds106 website, for example, but I am guessing that with some hard work over the summer I can build some kind of aggregator that will suit my needs, creating a simple single landing page to bring together the flow of student activity that I would like to see as a kind of "window" into the work we are doing together as a class. I love RSS as a technology (even though it may be dying a slow death, I know, I know), and the time I would invest in learning more about RSS and aggregators would, I think, be time well spent and very enjoyable, too.
And, since I am deep down a lazy soul who likes to find shortcuts for things, I am also thinking I might be able to use a software product like Feedly or Flipboard to provide the solution I am looking for. At Google+ someone told me that Feedly has something in the works like the old Google Reader bundles (eegad, how I loved Google Reader bundles! I still miss them!), and that indeed might solve my problem for me.
Moreover, I will really welcome the opportunity to encourage the students to feel like owners of their blogs in the same way that they are the owners of the Google Sites that they build for their class projects. Even if I am not able to come up with a good solution for the "group space" that I have enjoyed so much with the Ning, I am sure I could make this work even if the blogs are free-standing, with students going from blog to blog using links that I provide in the same way that I now provide links to their Ning blogs and, for some assignments, their Ning posts. I will have the advantage of Blogger RSS and Blogger labels to build on (RSS and labels being poorly implemented in Ning, it's true), so I really don't have any doubts about being able to come up with a workable solution for fall that will offer all kinds of great advantages compared to what I am doing now with the Ning.
So, while I am very sad to see my Ning days come to an end, I am very excited about what I will do next. It's been fabulous run with the Ning, and I have no complaints about it - it's been a great tool for me and for my students, and I think it is more of an indictment of the education culture in this country rather than Ning itself that Ning's foray into the education market did not turn out to be profitable for them. I wish them well in their future growth, and I will always be grateful for the six years during which I had the pleasure of using Ning as the social platform for my classes!