Panic struck my PLN yesterday as it was announced that Ning would no longer be hosting free social networks. My friends and colleagues, some of whom have extremely large Ning communities were left wondering what was going to happen to all of that positive networking that was happening. Luckily my PLN is made up of educators who are the masters of Plan B and before I went to sleep I saw tens of alternatives to Ning being discussed on Twitter. While the crisis is probably just a nuisance at this point it is important to reflect on this situation so that we don’t get ourselves caught up in it again.
Web 2.0 technologies like Ning are attractive to creative educators because they are free to set up, but we need to remember that nothing is really free. Ning is a company that had investors that paid real money to get it started. These investors of course are not philanthropists, they want a return for their investment. When you boil it all down there are really only a handful of ways to make money with a website. You either make money with advertisement, charge a subscription to use it, or use it to sell stuff. Ning was attempting to make money with advertisement but I have a distinct recollection of some educators griping about Nings with ads and asking the company to make special arrangements for educators, which I think that they did for a while. Many of us just believed that Ning was allowing us to use their software and server space out of the kindness of their hearts, which yesterday became clear wasn’t the case.
I don’t fault Ning for wanting to make money. I fault them for a flawed business plan and for making special dispensations when the shouldn’t have. I also question the ethics of what looks like a bait and switch scheme. Let’s look at another website we all use that also announced a plan to make money this week, Twitter. Some of us have griped about the prospect of seeing sponsored tweets in our stream, and we may lament the eventual loss of some of our favorite software, but the bottom line is that the user experience is going to remain mostly the same. It may even improve. Imagine if Twitter had instead announced this week that it was going to start charging its users per month, or per tweet. I think that the reaction would have been quite different.
So what can we learn from this experience? We can learn what we have always known, that it is never about the tool! We have to be careful never to fall in love with or rely too heavily on one tool, or it could end up betraying you like Mollie did Junior year. It always has to be about what the tool does. To that end educators need to constantly make themselves aware of alternatives to what they are using. Luckily we don’t have to do it on our own. This PLN is filled with people constantly scouring the Internet for resources and sharing them with all of us. We just need to make sure that if we don’t click on that link, or read that review that we at least bookmark it and look at it later. We need to insist that our professional development never has the name of a tool in the title like “How to use website X”, instead the PD titles should read more like “Strategies for Critical thinking” or “Teach Your Students to Problem Solve”. These PD sessions should give you a menu of tools to use, so that you can choose what best works for you. But the learning should never focus on the tool, because as we learned yesterday if you are married to the tool you could be in for a messy divorce!