Yesterday, the not-so startling news broke that Ning is planning to do away with their free, Google Ad supported service for social networks. The twittersphere lit up with posts from people scrambling for free-alternatives, jumping ship faster than a drowning rat (alright, so at least one tweep had the sanity to post a comment that’s close to reality). Steve Hargadon was one of the first educators in my PLN to put up a post about it, spending most of his time discussing how to save a network’s membership information, and offering up his employer’s alternative social networking service, but he finished with one little nugget of wisdom:
This does seem like a dramatic turn of events, but something really powerful has happened in the education world, for which Ning has been a great springboard. Educational networking, however, is now more powerful than one company’s services alone. The road may not be completely smooth, but we will figure this out together. 🙂
Indeed, something powerful has been happening in the education world. Increasing numbers of less than tech-savvy educators have been joining social networks, creating personal learning networks, and have begun to collaborate with their much more tech-savvy peers online thanks to simple free services like Ning. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to launch into a rant decrying the swelling ranks of technology refugees that join twitter only to make a few dozen half-hearted tweets before giving it up, or accidentally sign up for the sme website twice because they forgot their username from the first time. Many of these people educators are my colleagues, and my friends. Many of them are highly successful veteran teachers that make my efforts to instruct seem like a college intern’s attempts at his first solo week. The point is that we, as a community of educators using technology, have drifted far from the more “techie roots” of self-taught programming, web-domain management, and open-source manipulating “geeks”. The majority of our community is now “users” and “consumers” rather than “architects” and “dreamers.”
Which of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need consumers, an audience if you will, to validate the work we do. And to abide by an old adage, “too many cooks spoils the broth.” The growing ranks of educators using free social networking sites, social bookmarking tools, and signing up for automagically created, hosted, and managed blogs has sky-rocketed in the past few years, and that’s a good thing. However, along the way, we’ve lost a lot of what made it so magical to begin with; individuals trying to teacher themselves simple HTML, reverse engineer PHP-scripts, and take ownership of the entire process of creation, not just the product they create.
My brother is a mechanic, and since I got a little geeky there, I’ll use a simple analogy. I own a car; I drive it everyday, get the oil changed religiously, wash it…..occasionally. But I’d be stuck if I had to replace the brake lines (thanks Jon!), or rebuild the transmission. I have a basic understanding of how it all works, but I would be lost trying to build my own car (or even do simple repairs) myself. And that’s where we are with this Ning situation; people reacting almost immediately with cries of “give me a new service to sign up for, and make it FREE!” They don’t understand how “the car” even works, let alone understand how it was built. A shame really, when there are many freely available tools (Elgg, WordPress, etc.) with which to build your own social networks. It’s as if too many people either don’t have the time, or feel they have the knowledge to do something as daunting as setting up their own social network.
Which is silly considering how easy it is to setup your own database-driven, plugin ready website today. This blog is powered by WordPress, which I self-installed on my own domain. I didn’t have to know a single line of code to do it; 5 years ago, I signed up for a webhost (dreamhost.com), got an account, paid to register my domain name, and they installed it for me with a click of the button. Yes, I pay for the webhosting (about $120 a year), but I have complete control over my blog; I can upload and change themes, I can install ANY plugin I want (try doing that at Edublogs), I can directly edit the code on my site (if I was daring enough) and I have much more control over this website than I will ever have with even the premium Ning network that I help manage. I know “how this car works.” Sure, I still can’t build one from scratch myself, but I’ve learned a lot trying to keep this “vehicle” from swerving off the road, and because of that I feel fully confident that should my Ning network go up in smoke, I could recreate something simliar, possibly better, on my own using freely available tools. I wouldn’t need to go find a new service to signup for, and I’m glad that there were a few tweets offering up many open source solutions for creating your own network rather than rely on another service.
We have a HUGE network of educators that we interact with everyday, with varying levels of technological know-how, but we’ve moved further away from a lot of the “home-brewed” sites and adventures that made the Internet so much fun in the mid-90s. We’ve come to rely on others to provide us services that might vaguely fit our needs, without wanting to “get our hands” dirty with the technical side of creating, managing, and maintaining online networks. Perhaps I’m a bit jaded though. My Master’s Program is built around educators developing a working knowledge of Ruby on Rails, one of the most popular open-source set of programming tools to create web applications (social networks, media sharing, etc.). I’ve spent the last 12 months learning how to build “the car” that helps us navigate the streets of the Internet. I’m not advocating that every educator take on a Computer Science degree in their spare time (when we have spare time that is), and I realize that I could very well be coming off as a bit of a curmudgeon here.
The truth of the matter is, we are living in a time when the amount of resources, materials, and other educators that we can tap into is like no other time before it. It’s incredible to be able to connect with other teachers from around the world on a daily basis just by typing 140 characters. The number of great ideas that are shared via blogs, twitter, and other networks is staggering; I encounter daily the sparks of great ideas that could easily consume a person’s lifetime if followed through to full fruition.
In fact, I saw one last night. Some enterprising educator decided to create an ad hoc collaborative group to quickly compile a list of alternatives to Ning. It was brilliant, the document contained several examples of free services, open-source, DIY alternatives, with fantastically insightful comments describing the quick comparison between Ning and the alternatives. There were micro-reviews, links, and several pages worth of great information. It was 21st century educator’s dream! People, responding to a problem had spontaneously joined together (via online tools), and in less than one day’s time had assembled a pretty impressive document for creating free social networks for education…..and that’s when everything went horribly wrong.
Someone decided that this was such a brilliant idea (because I think it was), that they would add even more “cooks” to the pot. The more voices, the better the process, right?
WRONG! This is where education gets a lot of things right when it comes to ideas, but lately we’ve been using technology as though we really don’t understand how it works (which a great deal many of us don’t as I surmised earlier). Within a few minutes, the link to the Google Doc where these bright, eager educators had been collaborating was tweeted and retweeted ad-infinitum, inviting who knows how many hundreds or thousand of people to come collaborate with them. By the time I clicked on the link to jump in and offer up some ideas, there were well over 400+ simultaneous users on one Google Doc, and you can guess what happened then; my web-browser choked, my computer became unresponsive, and within just a few clicks of the keys I received an error from Google Docs. Being a person who isn’t easily thwarted by a simple error message, I clicked the little “x” on the error message and pushed onward. Only to be greeted by another error, and another.
Now, I had a feeling I knew this was going to happen when I clicked on the link. I mean, come on, an open invitation to collaborate on a “hot button” educational issue? That’s a recipe for disaster, and it was. I know this, because I saw it first hand at the MACUL 2010 closing keynote, when Hall Davidson invited every attendee in the session to collaborate in a single Google Doc Spreadsheet, and 500 users later we brought Google Docs to it’s knees, complete with error messages and a never before seen “high traffic” mode that stripped away a lot of the formatting features for users of the document.
The point I’m trying to make is that one educator took a fantastic 21st century learning idea, didn’t consider the technological consequences, and went for it. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have….it was actually a bit humorous watching that number of users tick upwards in a never-ending ascension of collaborative-glee. But with all of the great ideas we’re having about 21st century learning, and the opportunities we have to share and communciate like never before, FAR too many educators are getting the educational side of things, and not the technological side; computers, servers, smartphones, workstations, broadband connections, access points; these are physical devices, with physical limitations, and they cost time and money to engineer, build, and deploy.
The document that was produced turned out to be a really great collective piece of information, but the process in which it was done made it so that 1) I couldn’t physically contribute during the moments of greatest sharing, and 2) I’m pretty sure there are a few hundred other people who either couldn’t contribute OR hampered those already working by clogging that document, and causing all of the crashes. I had a very brief disagreement with David Warlick about this a few years ago, and I feel that it still stands. Teachers today need a blended preparation, one that not only shows them how to use online collaborative tools, but also shows them how these tools work, so they have a better understanding of “how the car gets down the road”. Is it completely necessary? No, but I can bet that if you required that sort of competency you’d be able to take the thousands of great ideas shared everyday be able to fly down the highway with them, rather than causing a 50-car pile up on the freeway in the name of collaboration.
Oh, and the actual Google Document that contains all of this great information about Ning alternatives? I can’t even get to it as of this posting, so I’ll leave it to you to track it down for fear of clogging the collaborative effort even more. If you find it in a more usable form, please post in the comments.