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.


  1. Our company, Learning Objects, had an enterprise-level social learning platform that integrates with many LMS'. Here is a post that I wrote explaining, "Why pay for a social learning platform when I can put one together for little or no cost?" http://bit.ly/dBjtcn

  2. Greetings. Thanks for recommending GROU.PS - we'll announce a new program with no obtrusive ads for education groups very soon. Stay tuned. Cheers,

    Our blog address is: http://company.grou.ps/blogs and our Twitter is: http://twitter.com/grou_ps

  3. I was an early adopter of VLE's. To my mind the greatest gains arise when the whole community can easily contribute. That includes the head's pa, the library managers, the exams secretary and year staff as well as teachers and pupils. It is also must better if there is just one web 'existence' that can be used at different levels - allowing hierarchy of what can be seen means that the website that the public view is the top layer and under this various subsets that can be viewed by people depending on their log in details. That includes parents being able to see newsletters or information about school closure or that such and such a school trip has arrived at its destination safely.
    A newsletter takes time to produce and fills a valuable role; it has direct costs - paper, photocopying, time to edit and indirect costs (eg on the day it is issued to students the extra litter to be cleared!) It often does not reach all of its intended audience such as parents. By making the prime delivery method by web, costs saved could go towards a paid VLE / hosting.
    In a similar vein, when bad weather or unusual circumstances close a school, the cost of getting that information disseminated is high - office staff may have to work longer to answer phone calls from parents who are disgruntled because the lines have been engaged. A message on the VLE can be the mechanism that as many as 75% parents can access to their schedule and convenience.
    Such web presence is not always fully exploited - eg for a school open evening a video of the school taken just before the school is opened to the public can satisfy those who cannot attend on the night and even those who subsequently wish to consider the school. Choosing a service that allows expansion for all of these extras is the key. Sometimes looking at how to fund this from cost savings is more important than looking for a totally free service.

  4. Late October, GROU.PS abruptly sent administrators email notices to “pick a plan” within 7 days. They infect lured hundreds, if not thousands of social site administrators from NING, under the pretence GROU.PS would be a free alternative.

    7 Days Left to Select a Plan

    Time Is Running Out

    We are contacting you regarding to your monthly payment for your group. You are currently using the. Unless you wish to continue this plan, in 7 days, your group will be downgraded to Entry Level. We hope that you are taking advantage of our services and will stick with your current plan.

    To purchase subscription and continue with your service plan, click here.

    Personally, I don’t mind paying for a service, but it needs to be a quality service. GROU.PS has had continuous technical issues since day one.

    I suggest you reevaluate your review of GROU.PS