Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Innovative Educator’s Learning Network (Alternatives to Ning) Top Picks

As with most who ran learning networks in the edusphere prior to April of this year, I hosted mine on Ning. While there were some who understood (or forgave) Ning when they announced the bait and switch to start charging education sites, I was not one. I do believe in “free for education” and had Ning up there with other online spaces such as Google Apps for Ed and Wikispaces who value their company’s contribution to education and think of supporting education as their way to give back. At the very least I was hoping those of us with thriving and active sites would have been grandfathered in to the agreement we thought we signed up for. While Ning did make a deal with Pearson for free education networks, this appears to be a marketing ploy to promote Pearson. Any of us with networks in excess of 150 or who use groups could not make use of this outreach. It saves folks a mere $20 a year for the type of network that would be useful to few with thriving networks and for that Pearson gets to become a member of your network and brand it.

So, on went the quest for Ning alternatives. There are MANY. So many it will make your head spin. You can check out this list of a couple dozen social network platforms created by Janettee McCrary or you might be interested in a detailed analysis of several of the platforms which you can check out the 23 page (and growing) collaborative “Alternatives to Ning” Google doc that Alec Couros created here. You can also see the survey asking people where they were migrating to here. To make it easy as pie, I’m going to summarize the four sites that seem most popular and then let you know which I recommend and why.

My picks
  • Grou.ps - I like Grou.ps because after all the dust has settled, this seems to be where most have gravitated including many educators who I deeply respect and admire such as Lucy Gray and Jen Wagner. It has a similar look and feel as Ning and the site has a Ning migration tool. I also like how involved the company is in social media. They have their finger on the beat of the customer. When I tweeted about an alternative to Ning, Grou.ps “Chief Grou.pie” (their title, not mine) responded with his (admittedly biased) post about alternatives. For an example of an educator using Grou.ps check out http://grou.ps/projectsbyjen.
  • Grouply - I like Grouply for a few reasons. First, it looks a lot like Ning on the front end and they also welcome Ning users and provide migration. Additionally more than 250 Ning Networks have already made the switch to Grouply. These are big draws, but perhaps what I like most is the special Grouply for Education package of premium services offered to education groups such as schools, classrooms, and parent teacher associations (PTAs). Qualifying groups get an ad-free site plus a host of additional premium features at no charge. I give huge kudos to sites that recognize educators! Grouply was also sited by Website Magazine as the site that “appears to be the winner” among the free alternatives to Ning.

Other Popular options that don’t work for me
  • Spruz - Spruz looked like the front runner early on and was one of the first sites to specifically reach out to Ning users. However, as time has passed the site seems to be losing favor. The big reason why I lost interest is that now they have decided that only 100 members are allowed in the free package. This would not work for someone like me who has networks that currently hold or will eventually contain many more members. Additionally, I don’t see that they’re doing anything special for education and I haven’t heard of any educators moving to this site. Here is one example of a Spruz-powered site.
    • Other popular sites similar to Spruz but that don’t seem to be popular among educators in my PLN are: WackWall, Webs, Big Tent, SocialGo, Mixxt
  • BuddyPress - WordPress fans will love BuddyPress which is from the same parent company. My guess is most of my super tech-savvy friends and colleagues (Jim McDermott, Steve Kinney) would recommend this option hands down. It is a popular, open-source platforms are known for being powerful, flexible, simple and having a sizable group of plugins and customization options. My problem with this option is that it really is best for gurus like Jim and Steve who have a beautiful sense of design and programming skills. This is a do it yourself solution that requires you to take care of your own download, installation and hosting. They even have help for those interested in migrating from Ning to Buddypress. While I think this is an attractive option it requires someone more tech savvy than I. For an example of a site running on BuddyPress visit http://commons.gc.cuny.edu or http://sociallylearning.com (which I also recommend joining!)
    • Other options for the tech savvy network creator: Elgg, Drupal, Moodle, Joomla, LovdByLess, Pligg
There are dozens more options out there. This post is an attempt to simplify the decision focusing on the four networks that seemed to pop up most often among my personal learning network. If you’d like to investigate further you can check out this list, the “Free Alternatives to Ning” document, or do a Google search for “Ning Alternatives.” If you’re a reader who is currently using a learning network alternative to Ning (not a learning network vendor), I’d love to read your insights here.
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