The ALT (Association for Learning Technology) ALT-MEMBERS and CHAMP-CURRICULUM JISCMail lists have had a flurry of emails recently discussing alternatives for the social networking platform Ning. If you are a Ning user working out where they go or you are considering using social networks in education for your next academic year here are some solutions mentioned by ALT and Champ members (to make this post a quick turnaround where indicated by [G&B] I’ve used descriptions produced by Robin Good and Daniele Bazzano’s ‘Ning Alternatives: Guide To The Best Social Networking Platforms And Online Group Services’ (made available under Creative Commons)):
GroupSite is an online social collaboration tool that you can use to create your own social network. Free to use (but ad-supported) or starting from $29 per month, GroupSite tries to take the best out of social network applications and collaboration services while merging the best of the two worlds: customizable member profiles, group blog, discussion forum, photo galleries, videos and shared calendar are all standard features. Other core characteristics that make GroupSite stand out are: file sharing, members endorsement, analytics, permission controls, readily-available templates, email digest and more. [G&B]
Spruz allows you to create free websites enhanced with social networking features. Blogs, video sharing, photo galleries, forum discussion, shared calendars and member profiles are all standard features of Spruz. Advanced features include: file sharing, permission controls, readily-available templates, chat, analytics, and much more. Your website will also be completely customizable with a drag-and-drop interface and greater control over the appearance of your social site. To ease the transition for former Ning users, Spruz offers a migration script that allows you to transfer your Ning community to a brand new Spruz website. [G&B]
There is a long list of Spruz features here (it is worth checking the free features at the end of this page to make sure it has everything you need). For examples Spruz in education/classroom they have a directory of school/college sites
WordPress (with BuddyPress)
BuddyPress is a plugin for the WordPress blogging platform that allows you to create an online social network. Free to use, BuddyPress enhances your standard WordPress blog to support common standard features of an online community service like Ning: customizable member profiles, blogs, a discussion forum, photo galleries and videos. By using one of the many WordPress plugins available you can also add a shared calendar to BuddyPress and track group activities and events. Other core features of BuddyPress include: activity streams, file sharing and private messaging. To style your BuddyPress-powered social network you can choose among several readily-available templates and assign your social network a unique domain name for a small fee. [G&B]
BuddyPress is a self-hosted solution i.e. it runs off your institutional servers although it wouldn’t be surprised if someone has a hosted solution (at a price). Examples of BuddyPress can be found in their showcase, you also might want to see the Digital Learning Network.
Elgg is an open-source social platform whereby you can create your own online social network. Elgg comes in two flavours: a hosted solution priced between $29.95 and $49.95 per month and a free alternative that you can download and install on your own web server. Whatever option you go for, here some of the basic characteristics of Elgg: member profiles, blogs, discussion forum, photo gallery and video gallery. A shared calendar can also be added by using one of the many user-contributed plugins available. Other standard features of Elgg include: private messaging, file sharing, the ability to create and run a wiki, permission controls social bookmarking, activity streams and more. [G&B]
There are a number of examples of institutional rollouts of Elgg. In 2007 Community@Brighton won the JISC Outstanding ICT Initiative. (In our region I also know about UHI Communities – there are probably more)
Moodle is better known as a virtual learning environment used for managing and delivering courses rather than a social networking platform, but its ‘focus on interaction and collaborative construction of content’ makes it possible to use it in this way. If your institution already uses Moodle then the immediate advantage is it should be an environment users are familiar with (and potentially one less login). There are some limitations in what students can do, for example there may be restrictions on file uploads, but the basic set of social networking features (profile, forums, wiki) exist. There is also the possibility of integrating with other platforms like the Mahara e-portfolio system (Mahoodle) or even Second Life (SLoodle).
LearnCentral from Elluminate
LearnCentral is perhaps not as main of the social networking features as other hosted platforms but being ‘sponsored’ by Elluminate it is not surprising that there is integration with Elluminate’s other collaboration services (online meeting etc). LearnCentral describe itself as “more than a social network or a learning community, this free, open environment represents the next logical step of combining asynchronous social networking and the ability to store, organize, and find educational resources with the live, online meeting and collaboration provided by Elluminate technology”. From what I can see LearnCentral is being used more to support educators rather than student networks but there maybe activity going on in the paid for ‘private communities’.
Edmodo is regularly described as a micro-blogging service for educational use, but there is a lot more to it than that. Edmodo say their “free network offers a safe and easy way to post classroom materials, share helpful links and videos, and access homework, grades and school-wide notices”. The interface is a cross between Facebook and Twitter and is ad-free. Features which might be of interest to educators include managing closed groups, assignments, files and links and running polls. Designed perhaps more for schools and college students it might also be of interest to HE. If you claim your community, Edmodo allows you to monitor student usage and measure classroom participation as well as customising your community web address.
SocialGO is a web-based service that allows you to create your own social network. If you are familiar with Facebook, you will find a similar interface and many Facebook-like features. SocialGO comes in two versions: a free, ad-supported solution with standard features and an ad-free alternative priced at $29 per month. The premium solution of SocialGO allows you to run your own ads and other advanced features like adding widgets to your website and using live audio / video chat. Personal and group blogs, each member has a wall where people can comment and post media, photo and video sharing capabilities, customizable member profiles, discussion forums and shared calendars to keep track of group events. Other features include: activity streams, file sharing, permission controls, readily-available templates, API, Facebook and Twitter integration, email notifications, and more. [G&B]
SocialGo appears to be focused more on the business market than education, particularly with the option to monetize your network with member billing, advertising and reselling (SocialGo is also a UK start-up).
CrowdVine comes in two flavours one for conferences (used at ALT-C) and the other for groups. The main difference is with the conference version there are specific features for programme management, feedback and a ‘want-to-meet’ feature. CrowdVine for Groups can be created for free and are ad supported, or ad-free by paying $24/month per thousand users. A nice feature of CrowdVine are the customised profile questions, which could be used to nurture early network cohesion. An example of this can be seen in the Stanford Stats 252 CrowdVine.
The final suggestion wasn’t mentioned on the ALT Member list, but I would like to throw it into the mix is Facebook.
Facebook have come under fire recently over their over complicated privacy settings but I still think it is an option worth considering. A number of institutions already use Facebook to market/support their institutions, services and courses. A common concern I hear when considering Facebook is the social/work divide. That is the perceptions that students prefer to keep their social life and studies separate. Facebook is one of the few platforms where I see research on its use in education (most recently AJCann highlighted recent work from Leicester on student retention and Facebook). Importantly it should also be remembered Facebook was originally created by students for students!
Not surprisingly there is a Facebook in Education page on … Facebook