I know I'm going to butcher this telling, but I'm thinking of a scene from one of my favorite movies, "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." It's been years since I've seen the film (note to self: visit my Netflix queue), but there's this great scene where DEATH comes knocking on the door, interrupting a dinner party. Death is there to gather all the people present for their time has come, and Death is met with indignation and outrage from the group. Only when Death points to the main dinner dish (salmon) as the cause of the group's demise do they finally get in line and follow Death out the door into the unknown. One of the last punchlines is from a woman who, though dutifully following the rest of the group out the door, mutters, "But I didn't have the salmon."
I imagine that's how many of us feel about the recent announcement from Ning that many of our beloved Personal Learning Networks are possibly facing obliteration as the days of free networks are coming to an end. "Not MY Ning!" we say. "How can this be happening?!" "My Ning is for EDUCATIONAL purposes!" "I didn't have the salmon!"
Now, to be clear: there are a lot of unknowns in the outcome of our educational Nings. By the time this post is published, Steve Hargadon (from Classroom 2.0 Ning) will have hosted an Elluminate discussion on Tuesday the 20th to suss out a lot of the facts and allow people to come together to talk about next steps. You can see all the details about the conversation at Steve's blog, as well as some very good advice about backing up your Ning's membership data. The recording of the actual Elluminate session can be found HERE.
Regardless of the decisions that are about to be made, many of us are feeling (or will be feeling) the shock waves of realization that our Personal Learning Networks are vulnerable, be it Ning, or some other service. Namely, if Ning (or fill in the blank with any other Web 2.0 service), changes course, or goes completely belly-up, how do we easily "relocate" all that has been built at the service we've been using into a new setting? If people do need to abandon their Nings because they are unable or unwilling to move into a paid subscription, does everything ---all the threaded discussions, all the groups that have been created, all the relationships that have been established--- suddenly crumble to dust? Are we always building temporary communities that can easily be blown away due to changing business plans or disruptive economic impact? Are we kidding ourselves that we actually "own" any of the content we've placed at the sites we use?
Stephen Downes articulates his beliefs for why we will always be at the mercy of someone else's vision/decisions/plans when using commercial resources in this post from 2007, called, "Why the Semantic Web Will Fail." While I mostly agree with his assessment that:
"[T]he people saying all the semantic-webbish things - speak the same language, standardize your work, orchestrate the services - are the people who will shut down the pipes, change the standards, and look out for their own interests (at the expense of yours)... I know they'd sell me down the river in a minute, if it meant one iota of business advantage."
...I by no means imply that Ning is operating under this credo. Times are tough. Ning just cut 40% of its staff. Difficult decisions are being made that we're not privy to.
However, let's face the facts. Unless we've built the tool/environment/resource ourselves (and that means taking on the care and expense of bandwith, storage, servers, etc.), we are continually at the mercy of the resources we use. In effect, we are sharecroppers who work the "digital land" and fill it up with the "fruits of content," (which benefits the "landlords" with advertising revenue) but could be kicked off or left behind at any minute. Even if you are in fact paying for the service (and not relying on the generosity of Google Ads, or other revenue keeping the site alive), that service could still disappear literally overnight due to business, economic, or even philosophical decisions that we have no say in.
Sounds bleak, doesn't it?
I don't think it has to be. First off, this is an opportunity for discussion, planning, rebuilding, perhaps even a bit of a "wake up call." It reminds us that just as we plan for things going wrong in our lesson plans, we always need a backup plan, or even, an exit strategy. (See Wes Fryer's post about Ning alternatives for some great ideas).
But it also forces us to "walk the walk."
We've been saying for years that we are educating our students for unknown futures, jobs that haven't even been created yet. In order to do that, we need our learners to become industrious, independent, creative, and flexible thinkers who are ready for anything that is going to come along. Algebraic thinking is a necessary skill as these learners are going to have to use knowledge and understanding in a "general" rather than "specific" way. They'll have to take what they've learned from experience "A" and be able to transform it and adapt to the completely new and unexpected demands or needs of experience "B."
If our Nings (or fill in the blank with any other service) suddenly disappear, then we will have to do that "adaptation and transformation and flexible creative problem-solving thing" right now. Not our students in the future, but us ---their teachers--- in the present.
When I think of all the amazing content that could be lost if we lose our Nings, I do indeed take great pause and feel the wind knocked out of me. Next, I think about all the hours that many of us have invested in teaching and coaching and coaxing the reticent teachers into joining these communities. For many people, this was their introduction to the power that a global Personal Learning Network has to offer. I fear that some will lose interest or commitment in maintaining participation if they suddenly see all their efforts turn to dust, and are told that we need to pull up stakes and go find some new land. We've all been believing that we are "settlers" in the digital networks, and it's a blow for some to find out that we are actually "nomads."
Hopefully, things with Nings are going to work out. Or at least the transition will be painless and involve feedback and input from the participants. Hopefully those that have joined the journey, stick with it even if we have to completely rebuild ---and in rebuilding, we'll get a very good feel for those 21st Century skills that we want our students to have. Hopefully we'll learn together from this experience and have a better idea of how and where to build a more stable community.