Hello…life has interrupted the flow of my blog posts recently.  Hopefully, many of you have had the time to reflect on Ning’s new business move.  I, myself, have not had time yet to explore other free social networking options but will be focusing more closely on this task in June.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ning has offered a low cost service for $2.95/month or $19.95/year which provides a Mini Network option.  The network is limited to 150 members and removes the option to create Groups or upload videos directly into Ning (although embeds are still supported).  This is the option they’ve crafted for educators.  Fortuitously for K-12 educators, Ning Mini networks will be provided to you for free at the generous funding support of an unnamed educational foundation.  Unfortunately for higher ed, there has been no matching offer to support the free integration of Ning networks into college learning.

Social networking is now used by 95% of our 18-24 year old college students, 70% use a social network on a daily basis (2009 ECAR Report of Undergraduates’ Use of IT).  Traditional college age students today do not remember life before the internet.  Participatory learning — learning in a peer-based environment through shared interactions online — is no longer remarkable to most of our college students (The Future of Thinking, MIT Press, 2009).

Online learning in higher education continues to grow rapidly at roughly 17% in 2008 (Sloan-C) and if we hone in on community colleges we see an even higher growth rate at 22% the same year (Instructional Technology Council).  The significance of this growth in online enrollments is felt most profoundly when we understand that growth in higher ed overall in 2008 was relatively flat at 2% (Sloan-C).  And who is learning online?  82% of online college students were undergraduates in 2008.

The more college learning environments remain entrenched in traditional delivery of content, rather than integrating participatory learning experiences, which are naturally fostered with the use of social networks, the more extensive the gap remains between informal and formal learning in the lives of our students.  The recent decision to eliminate free Ning networks is a moment for us all to re-evaluate the importance of social networking.  If you’ve used Ning with positive results, then figure out a way to move forward. As for paying for Ning Mini networks, I’m not opposed to this option either.  I do find the cost worthy of the learning benefits.  The question becomes, “who pays?”  Is it appropriate for individual professors to pay for the tools leveraged to craft their students learning?  Are institutions open to supporting the use of social networks?  What if only a handful of early adopting professors are “ready” to do so?  Do they have less of a chance of gaining institutional support? Are their foundations willing to support college integration of Ning?  These are all questions I’ve been mulling over for weeks.

How does the Mini Network option support my model?  When I used Ning, I create a unique network for each of my classes (unless I’m teaching multiple sections then I have rolled them into one network).  So, there is potential here for a college professor, leveraging this model, to create many (six or more?) networks each year.  Each network surviving the course of a term, say six months, at roughly $3/month equates to about $110/year.  This also results in my networks being eliminated after the course of a semester, which feels simply wrong to me.  Shouldn’t this be content that students can continue to learn from and experiences I should leverage and share with my colleagues?  Doesn’t eliminating a social network immediately after a class is over undercut the very model of interaction and participation, not to mention life long learning?  More questions I have pondered recently.

I will continue to support social networking in college learning because I think it’s essential for our students to experience formal learning experiences that are more closely aligned with the way they are learning outside of our formalized institutions.  Social networking increases opportunities for personalized learning, allowing students to share images of friends, family and images that support the course content (in art appreciation, students regularly share images of trips they’ve taken to architectural sites or museums, for example).  Encouraging videos to be embedded from YouTube promotes critical thinking through enabling students to apply course concepts and identify videos that synthesize ideas from class in new, interesting ways.  The use of media rich blogging stimulates expression of ideas beyond text, providing a method for sharing images (from field trips) or visual representations of course concepts.

A few free social networking options that have been shared with me are listed below. Again, I have not evaluated these myself and only share them because I’ve received many requests to do.  Please comment on this post with any feedback you have about these or other sites:

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas about moving forward with participatory learning in higher education.  And I look forward to the day that a social networking environment is part of every college professor’s standard teaching “toolkit,” like an LMS.


7 Comments to “A Case for Social Networking in College Learning”

  1. Anonymous

    I began a Face Book group this semester for my high school art history class. We started an art history club (Exquisite Corps – check it out) as a way to get ready for a Skype Call with Cambridge scholar Dr. Nigel Spivey. I was reluctant at first because my students are minors, then I found out the Chinese language instructor at our school runs a FB page that is "mandatory" for her class. How sad that educators live in fear of exchanging information!!!

    I pay for a Homestead account for my students to access our class notes and images. I felt I had to have a password protect since I am using copy-righted images (if only for academic purposes). If my department wants me to maintain this site they are going to have to pay for it next year! (Homestead has the stats to show how often students log on). It is not a perfect system and not interactive. I would love an alternative but hesitate to get into Ning until the dust settles.

    PS, Michelle I just presented Feminist Art to my students and we began with them using their cell phones to poll two adults in their lives to "name five artists" from any time period. It was a great success, proved the point of the lesson, and was the topic of dinnertime conversations’ for my students that night! Thanks for idea. Lori Rusch

  2. Hi Lori.

    Thanks for chiming in and sharing your stories — successes and challenges. It feels great to hear the "behind the scenes" realities of teachers who are integrating social networking and mobile devices into their students' learning.

    I'd love to hear about how the Skype call with Dr. Spivey went. What an outstanding experience. I'm curious to know if you were able to archive it for future students to view?

    I'm not familiar with Homestead and hope you find support for funding it in the future, especially if you're able to validate its effectiveness.

    Reading about your use of cell phones for teaching feminist art gave me goosebumps. I'm so happy to hear the activity was a success for you too. Many of my students shared the spill over of our class topics into discussions with their family/friends too. I also had students interview someone (anyone) from another generation during the course to inquire about how women's roles have changed. The classroom discussion after that activity was incredible — diverse, emotional and so enlightening for the students. So different from hearing about it from me or a book.

    Thanks for writing. I look forward to hearing more.

  3. It may not provide for as much synchronous collaboration (although, as you know, you could embed and get creative with Twitter widgets, etc.) what about using a blogging platform such as WordPress MU as a Ning replacement? I'm actually considering that right now and am just starting to play around with a couple of test sites. One will be an alternative to Ning (for internal use among faculty and staff) and one will be an alternative to an LMS (for teaching and learning).

  4. Hi Marc. I hadn't heard of WordPress MU (although I am familiar with WordPress as a blogging platform). I looked it up and it appears that the MU product provides a simple process for the creation of many (hundreds) of blogs. I think blog are tremendously useful for learning and integrating media for expression and discussion. However, it seems that your question is, "Is this platform an effective replacement for Ning." To answer that, I'd ask if WordPress MU offers you, as an instructor, a way to create 'groups' of blogs. The grouping or clustering of students together is important, as without it you are going to struggle to enable dialogue and interaction between students which is how we build the foundation of online community. That's one of the things I love about Ning. We're "together" in our own network, a place where we can share, reflect and engage in a conversation and journey — like a classroom.

    There are other features of Ning I'd miss too, like the repository for shared videos and images which make a fun "visual" portrait of our community as a whole.

    Oh, and as for "synchronous" communication, Ning does offer a chat feature for network members (or at least the free version used to) but it wasn't a tool that I used much. I have colleagues who use it to hold "review" sessions with students and has worked great. Other than that, everything is asynchronous in Ning.

    Hope that helps. I'd love to hear how it goes.

  5. Hi Michelle. I still have some playing around to do with WordPress MU, but I am jumping into it under the assumption that group work could be accomplished in one of two ways: (1) create a "category" for each group, e.g., "Group 1," "Group 2," etc., and require that students mark their postings with the appropriate category, or (2) create a "page" for each group. The former approach means that all student postings would appear chronologically on the same main blog/home page, yet it would offer the instructor and students the flexibility to filter their view by group and/or any other categories the students use to label their posts (e.g. "Project 1," "Lessons Learned," "General Course Questions," etc.). The latter approach would provide each group with a more dedicated space in which they can work ("pages" can even be password protected so that only students from that group and the instructor can have access to their work and conversations). University Mary Washington (http://umwblogs.org/courses/) is using WordPress MU extensively in their courses, as an LMS. As far as a Ning replacement, I cannot yet say if WordPress MU is the best solution. Worth exploring as a possibility?… sure… why not. January 2011 is when I'll really be putting this to the test, during an intensive 2.5 day forum. I've already started developing the site. It won't be for a while, but I'll keep you posted.


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