I stumbled across Ning a few weeks ago as I was looking for some end-of-year activities for restless students. Ning is a free service that actually lets you create your own social network. While this turned out to be an interesting exercise for my students, particularly once they understood that they weren't creating mere web pages but actually building social networks, Ning (and other services like it) could prove to be an invaluable tool for schools and educators.
Here's how it works:
- Create a Ning account.
- Create a social network
- Create your own set of pages that will be your home in your social network
- Invite people to join your social network
- Manage users, friends, etc., on your social network
Students were a bit confused by the process at first until they realized that they weren't just creating a MySpace. They were creating MySpace! Once you create a social network, others can join your network, just as they would join MySpace or Facebook, and create their own set of pages, have their own friends, etc. Every student in a class, for example, could be a member of a teacher's network. The teacher would be like Tom of MySpace fame. All of the students could create their own pages and the teacher would be a friend to all of the students, enabling easy communication. Similarly, a school-wide Ning could have both teachers and students join the network, but with different user privileges, again enabling simple communication between staff and students in a way that kids understand all too well.
Many teachers have created MySpace pages to work with students outside of school. Given the obvious problems with this scenario, a more carefully managed Ning network makes a lot more sense, providing solid communication tools, but otherwise keeping the network closed to the public.
One caveat: from what I've seen, Ning does not contain specific archiving features for communications between members of the network. Thus, it does not offer tools to meet the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (see No one ready for FRCP) that we archive all electronic communications generated on school equipment. Does this mean that you shouldn't use Ning? I'm no lawyer, but I don't think that's the case (this would have been a pretty silly post, otherwise). Rather, maintain all posts on message boards, prevent users from deleting old posts, and carefully manage user permissions such that communication threads could be easily reconstructed if needed. A number of tools like Ning are emerging as we see the promise of Web 2.0 really come to fruition; we must simply make sure that we're smart about how we use these tools in the context of the law.