Thursday, August 19, 2010

Creating a classroom social network--my quest for a Ning replacement

Like many educators, I used the Ning platform to create a social network for my class.  Through plenty of trial and error, our social network evolved into a significant component of my class, and it also enabled me to understand how a social network can serve as a foundation for the digital aspect of our classroom community.  As I've mentioned before, the 21st Century learning community is one that exists both in physical and online spaces, so going into this year, I, without question, had every intention of involving students in our online community from the start of the year....and then Ning had to throw a wrench into my plans with their decision to place their own greed over allowing their platform to be part of the digital learning revolution in K-12 education.

With Ning's announcement came an explosion in free social networks competing for Ning users, so this summer I took it upon myself to sort through them and find a replacement.  I spent quite a bit of time setting up accounts and playing with different sites.  Most of my hours were spent with grou.ps, grouply, spruz, socialgo, wackwall (now wall.fm), and buddypress (more for blogging).  Many of these sites claimed to be great Ning alternatives, and all had different strengths and weaknesses.  But sadly, I found many to be limited in the functions that I grew so fond of with Ning.

One site that I felt had the most potential (at first) was grou.ps.    Though it took me some time to learn how it navigate it's administrative functions, its features put Ning to shame.  Its appearance grabbed my attention from the start, and I especially liked the facebook-like activity feed, which gave users the ability to "like" and "comment" on member's activities and status updates.  Though RSS feeds couldn't be added to the pages, it allowed users to put outside RSS feeds into the site's blog.  And though users couldn't change their profile's appearance, grou.ps did allow them to add blocks of Google Gadgets and html to their page.  I liked the freedom in this aspect, but in playing around with this feature while logged in as a student (something that I always do before using a site with my class), I also found this freedom to be the site's downfall. 

I'm not sure why, but the Google Gadgets that users could search through did not get filtered, so at school, students would be able to find and use widgets for sites that they otherwise would not have access.  Not just games either.  Gadgets for Youtube and Facebook could be accessed by students, and ones for porn as well (yes, I deliberately searched for it...just to be sure).  I'd be lying if I said that the possibility of using  grou.ps with my class and hoping students didn't find this loophole didn't cross my mind.  But I know the 8th graders whom I have not yet met well enough to know that they would figure it out eventually....I'd be willing to bet within a couple of days.

Of course this realization made me frustrated; it meant I had wasted valuable time and had to go back to the drawing board.  Thankfully, my misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I revisited the sites I had previously examined and found that Wackwall (wall.fm as of today), a site I had quickly dismissed because of its dull appearance, seemed to be an even better alternative. It was fairly user friendly and designed with educators in mind.  It had all of the options I needed, and it allowed for users to put RSS feeds and html on any of the pages. Especially cool was that it gave users both a profile page and a dashboard, where students could customize the arrangement of elements and include feeds and widgets both of their interest and related to the class--a suitable alternative to startpages like Netvibes and Pageflakes, which are blocked by my district. 

So, wall.fm is where our class social network will begin this coming year, though I'm going to move forward with it knowing that I'll run into plenty of issues that I hadn't considered.  Who knows, I may even end up changing platforms for our social network half way through the year, but I've learned to accept that possibility as part of the process when integrating new web tools in education.  Being able to embrace this reality is the core of what makes not just 21st Century teaching, but all teaching. 

I'll be sure to share my reflections on both using wall.fm and my emerging digital community embarking on its creation in the coming weeks.