Ning networks in education – 12 steps for startup
Over the past year I’ve set up and overseen the running of three educational Ning networks that have had good feedback over many courses and events. The three networks we have running at the moment are for teacher training & development, so the members are all adults. But based on other experience we’ve had in using similar technology with secondary students, I recommend this approach for younger learners too. YMMV = Your mileage may vary. Let me know what you think.
In this post I’ve listed some steps that I recommend that you follow in setting up a Ning network in an educational context. These steps might appear a bit over-structured (and pedantic) but they’re derived from real experience, ‘hard knocks’ and lessons learnt. I hope you find them relevant to your context. Let me know what you think.
Our networks are private, so I can’t give any links. If you want more info or specifics, please comment and I’ll help.
Our 3 Ning networks
The first is to support trainee teachers on a CELTA course. ‘Groups’ used for courses. ‘Blogs’ used for reflective journals (only tutors are ‘friends’ to ensure privacy of posts and comments). Face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder induction in two 1-hour sessions.
The second is to support school teachers from Singapore schools in developing their skills in using literature for English language learning. ‘Groups’ used to split cohort into tutor/thematic groups. ‘Blogs’ used as above.
The third is the focal point for our own teachers’ research and development. This is too complex to tell the story here. I’ll have to write another post. Lots of ‘human’ face-to-face stuff has gone into making this work.
The 12 steps for EduNing startups
- Become an expert. Play with Ning, and other similar tools (e.g. Moodle), to the point where you really understand what Ning can/can’t do. This deserves another post. I’ve got loads of tips.
- Know your context. This means teachers’ skills, interests, values, time constraints, willingness to experiment, etc… It also means knowing your students, products and technological infrastructure. But teachers come first, because they’re the ones who’ll make this work or fail. They’re the ones who’ll make it sustainable. They’re the ones who’ll help you do the work of persuading everyone else.
- Match your understanding of the tool (1) to your context (2). Play with these two, reflect, analyse and adapt. You’re a problem solver and a fixer. Learn to listen. Be prepared to immediately drop whatever you know won’t work.
- Once you understand Ning and your context, seek to understand the specific situations/courses where Ning will obviously add value. Everyone (teachers, students & management) must see that this is an obvious improvement over what’s currently in practice.
- Set up a prototype Ning site. First and most importantly, change the language settings so that the labels/navigation makes sense to your stakeholders. I changed ‘blogs’ to ‘TP Journals’ and ‘groups’ to ‘SIGs’ and ‘events’ to ‘INSETTs’ because these terms made sense to the people who would be using our networks. Second, add your school logo and play with the css if you know how. All of this is helps when you have to present your idea, it really does. If you make these simple changes, people will be much more likely to buy in to your idea. Be as thorough in this as possible before presenting your idea to anyone.
- Work out your objectives and benefits (not the features) to the point you can state them clearly and concisely in less than one minute. One set of objectives/benefits for management. One set for teachers. One set for students. You’re doing this to get and sustain buy-in. First from senior management, then from teachers, then from students. Management are important. But teachers are most important, because teachers who like Ning will make students like Ning too. Without this buy-in, you will fail. Don’t forget to smile, no matter how tough it gets =)
- Show key teachers and managers your prototype labeled and logo-ed as described in 5 above. Do this one-to-one, because it’ll be easier to manage any objections than if you try to do present it to a group. You’ll be able to adapt and present something better to the next person you talk to.
- Focus on tasks. Very important! Most teachers don’t have time to experiment. Tasks help them to plan. Tasks help everyone to get through the syllabus. Prepare to help teachers decide how to set tasks for their students. Do not assume that teachers and students will work it out for themselves. Without clear tasks, the results will be patchy at best. Tasks should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timebound). Simple is best.
- Talk with individual teachers to get them involved early on and help them so they become advocates, champions and eventually admins. Empower them, don’t try to do all the work yourself, you can’t.
- Always be available to give shoulder-to-shoulder support to teachers and students when they need it – on time. While you’re doing this remember that you’re aim is to empower – make yourself redundant, help the teachers and students take ownership.
- Get evidence of success. Plan early to find ways to record successes. Use Google Analytics to record activity on your Ning site and get students and teachers to complete an exit survey (I use Survey Monkey). Always take time to tell stakeholders about positive feedback face-to-face. Talk first, write later. You’re doing this to bolster your support (you’ll also get feedback which you can use). Remember: face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder and on time.
- Monitor, observe, listen, iterate. Expect things to get out of hand. It’s usually down to poor communication when things do. So be prepared to step in to communicate fixes (3), objectives (6), and suggest tasks (8) concisely. If it’s a technological problem, make sure you’re in close contact with the problem and the people who can help you fix it. Then fix it quickly. Ning Network Creators is a big help for Ning-related problems. And don’t be afraid to contact Ning support too, they’ve been great with me. Don’t talk about problems (just monitor, anticipate & listen), make solutions happen.