If you don't control your information in online social spaces, you risk losing it.

That's what educators have found out this past week since the social platform Ning decided to stop offering free networks, which allow educators to collaborate and discuss lessons with students and other educators in a walled community.

The company will focus on its paying customers instead, who represent more than 75 percent of site traffic. On May 4, Ning will share details of new features and price points, and plans to make those reasonable for educators.

But in the meantime, educational technologists are stressing that educators should either control their data on social media sites or have a way to take it with them when they leave .

Create a plan

As a former teacher and manager of several nings, Bud Hunt understands that teachers like Ning. After all, the company allows them to start a network quickly.

But Ning does not provide users with a quick way to take their blogs, forums and other information with them if they leave, though the company is working on it. Currently, network creators can only export their membership profile information.

So as a district instructional technologist, Hunt cautions educators before they jump onto a fresh platform, particularly one such as Ning. Instead of jumping in blindly, they should create goals, decide what they want the data to do and ask questions so that they can have a comprehensive strategy for the entire project.

"Before you start, you need to know how it’s going to end, or how it can end,” said Hunt, who works in St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colo. "It sounds simple, but we get in a hurry, and we don’t take the time to do that.”

Ask questions

  • Which tool will provide what I need long-term?

     

  • Does this platform have an easy export tool that uses fairly standard protocols and data formats?

     

  • How much control do I have over this platform?

     

  • What will I do if the tool goes away or the creator's business model changes?

     

  • Is the tool useful enough to pay for, either now or down the road?

Before Ning's news, Technology Integration Specialist Lucy Gray hadn't planned a strategy or considered how she would move her data out of a site such as Ning.

"I never would have thought ‘I have to back this up,’ or ‘I have to get it out of there,’” said Gray, who works at the Center for Elementary Math and Science Education at the University of Chicago.

She doesn't have a plan and probably should, she said, though she's not sure if she'll create one going forward. While down the road people might want to have a backup plan, they also shouldn't become paranoid about losing their information.

Lose out or pay up

Gray runs a Global Education network on Ning and said it's provided a great venue for her work. The educators she has talked with are not necessarily upset that the company started charging, but are mad about how it was done.

She plans to wait until Ning announces its new prices on May 4 before she decides to leave the network or stay.

“I’m happy to pay for something if it’s amazingly high-quality and if it’s reasonable,” Gray said. "If that criteria is met when they come out with their plan, then maybe I will pay.”

The company has a right to try to make a profit, and everyone should expect that, said Jim Gubbins, district technology coordinator for Maine Township, District 207 in Park Ridge, Ill. Grocery stores often give out free samples of new products to entice shoppers, but the next time, they will charge for the food, as he also said in his blog post about the news.

That's why educators need to make a choice when they publish their information online.

“We have to be willing to either part with the data that we put out into the cloud or be willing to pony up for it when it comes time for them to decide that they want to turn a buck on it,” Gubbins said.

Ning is a great tool that Alec Couros supports. He currently pays $5 a month to keep ads off his network and $24 to have his own domain, said Couros, who teaches educational technology and media at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.

For him, the lure of Ning has always been that it looks like Facebook, but he can control it to a greater extent. He uses the network to develop long-term relationships with pre-service teachers as well as a few other teacher groups.

Own your information

Couros also runs a blog, wikis, an open journal and a number of other items off a self-hosted site, which costs him $6.95 per month — about the price of a Canadian Subway sandwich. If educators want to take charge of their information online, they should consider self-hosting through open source software, he said.

“This move toward self-hosting also is a move toward control," Couros said. "You actually control the future of your communities in some ways.”

In an afternoon, he could teach someone the technical knowledge they needed, including how to get their domain, install software and maintain it. An open source tool they could set up is BuddyPress, which is based on the same software used for the publishing platform WordPress.

While open source software is not a magic answer, it does provide a way to manage information, Hunt said.

“Data portability is really important," he added, "and if your data can’t be portable, then ensuring control over that platform is fairly important too.”

Choose tools carefully

Educators shouldn't get caught in the trap of moving to different communities each time a company eliminates its entry-level service, Couros said. If you do that, “you’re just going to see a migration trail," he said, "and every time you’re going to lose members, and every time you’re going to lose content.”

Instead, they should take a look at the different online services they use and put a dollar figure on what they're willing to pay for them, said Scott Weidig, an educational technologist with a school district in Illinois. Then they can decide which ones they actually need. After all, the companies that don't charge customers are still storing and maintaining data on their servers.

"We really just can’t be a leech on these services," Weidig said. "There’s got to be something that we can bring them.”

For those who are looking for tools, they can check out the Google Doc that Couros created. Thousands of people accessed the document in one day to collaborate on  tools that are available. Some of those include Grou.ps, mixxt and Drupal Gardens.

They can also listen to an Elluminate session that was hosted by Educational Technologist Steve Hargadon on Tuesday. In the session, more than 150 people discussed the changes at Ning and the impact they will have on educational social networking. Ning's vice president of advocacy, John McDonald, will be talking with Hargadon and asked to have access to the session recording.

When educators choose a tool, they should think long-term and have a way to export or control their data, Hunt said. If they don't, then they'll have to scramble to find a way to get their information out of a service such as Ning, and that's unfortunate.

“We all need to be a lot more thoughtful about what tool we pick for what we’re doing so that it supports all the things we want it to do.”