L&SG Webinar, April 2010
First thing to consider is how you are going to use this platform to support learning. Will it be to provide a formal learning community for training or some other formal learning solution? Will it support more informal learning approaches in your organisation; helping individuals to build their professional learning network or providing a group space for teams or communities of practice, or will be to support sharing (of files, experiences etc) across the organisation? You might be looking for an enterprise-wide social and collaboration platform to underpin all the above in your workplace – to embed learning within working. Or if you are a professional body or training provider you might be looking for a platform to provide extra value to what you do. How you want to use your platform will be key to choosing the right platform
This will also determine the functionality that your people require i.e. whether it will focus more on the social side of things or on collaboration. Here I’ve outlined 4 major areas of functionality that you might want to consider - the social is more about making connections and having discussions, the collaboration elements are more about groups working and learning together. I’m going to use Ning as our benchmark – since many people are familiar with it, so how does it fit in here?
In my view Ning performs very well as a social platform – but is weaker on the collaboration side of things – only really supporting blogs - and using 3rd party apps for other tools.
A third consideration for some will be whether it is closed or open source – ie whether you have access to the code and can change and add to it. And of course whether it is offered as a hosted platform or can be downloaded and installed either on your own servers – or on other servers – for your own use or installed by the Ning is a closed source platform and is available as a hosted solution. And that actually has implications for my next criterion …
Ease of set up, customisation and use are also important considerations – and on my 5 point scale, this is how I would rate Ning:
1 – Very easy to set up
2/3 – Relatively easy to customise in terms of look and feel as well as the functionality to be included
2 – Easy to use
Finally, cost is clearly going to be a key factor for many people. And this ranges from platforms that offer networks to be set up for free, to those that offer a variety of paid-for plans – for example to remove advertising or to have your own domain name, and those that I call commercially available (i.e. on per user or per seat basis).
Ning of course gained a lot of interest because it was a free platform, as well as offering premium plans as well. As many of you know it recently announced the fact that it will not be providing free networks any longer – and that users will from August have to pay for their network or move it out of Ning. This has upset a large number of creators of free networks.
Finally, here is a summary of some of the other things I like/don’t like about Ning.
- It offers very easy customisation through some very visual theming – which makes for some vibrant looking networks
- On the other hand, if you belong to a number of Ning networks – although it is able to read in some basic information about yourself into a new network, you have to set up a new profile page each time.
- You also were only able to create max of 10 networks – although I am sure this is changing with paid-for networks – but there does appear to be a limit to the number of Ning apps you can make use of
So now, I have covered the 7 key criteria – it’s time to look at 3 different platforms, but before we do, here’s another question for you?
First of all we are going to spend a few minutes looking at Grou.ps. This site is very similar to the Ning platform as you will see, and in fact currently it is highlighting the fact that you can migrate your Ning network to groups very easily
This comparison chart shows you that functionally it is very similar to Ning – however, it does offer more collaboration functionality than Ning
This is the admin view of a site I set up with Grou.ps– and you can see the similar layout to Ning, with its tabs, and layout. Just like Ning there are lots of nice themes to choose from. It has all the standard functionality – profile pages, lists of members, a forum. With blogs you can read in the whole content of an external blog if you like. One of the things I like about groups is that it has wikis which Ning is weak on. You can set up a wiki page, edit it and even lock it down whilst you work on it. It has groups like Ning – with group discussion activity in the same. The other thing I like is that it has good Facebook integration, which means if your users have Facebook accounts they can use them to set up their account and it brings in their profile data. Users can also share stuff on Facebook.
The second platform I want to show you is Socialtext, a commercial platform that is intended as an enterprise social platform for business use.
It offers much of the social functionality required but key features are: social spreadsheets; wiki workspaces; a Dashboard and a very effective internal micro-blogging (ie Twitter-like) service.
This is a screenshot of a demo version I have. The first thing you see is the dashboard – which is personalisable – which contains elements of activity on the site – Active People and Active Content – are recent stuff you can move things around and edit the display – and you can to the dashboard in the form of widgets as you like and of course delete them and add extra content. Once again it has the standard profile page – where you can provide more business like information and what it calls the people directory. Groups can be set up by departments or teams.
Workspaces are areas where you can work together either across the organisation (or can be within groups) and they contain things like wikis (editable pages) and social spreadsheets. One of the powerful elements for me however, is the internal micro-blogging system, which they call Signals. This allows you to send a message to all the people on the system/in your company or privately to individuals – a much quicker way of contacting someone than by email. So there’s a quick tour – back to preso.
Finally, our 3rd platform is Elgg. As you can see this is an open source social platform that you can download and install yourself. It is highly customisable and configurable in terms of its look and feel and functionality
I have been using Elgg for sometime and I have configured my version to content functionility for for social learning purposes and I call mine SoLearn. Although hosted in the cloud it has been set up as a “walled garden” so no one can access or view any of the content within it without a username and password.
This is the dashboard – Elgg actually offers you two types of dashboard – the personal dashboard (like Socialtext’s) or the river of activity dashboard – which is what you are seeing here. One of the KEY things about Elgg however is its very strict levels of permissions – every user can decide who else can see what about themselves and what they produce – so in other words the activity list will only show you what you have permission to see.
Once again, there is the standard stuff – a member’s profile page – with draggable widgets for the user to set up themselves – and a members directory. There are also a wide range of social media tools available – and I have chosen this set for my users – you can see blogs, social bookmarks, files, pages or wikis) and there is also an internal micro-blogging service called the wire – where you can write messages to the people on the system – and which you can also set up to send down to Twitter if you want.
There are also groups, and it is very easy for any member to set up a group – for any purposes – which can have closed or open membership, and the owner of the grooup can decide exactly what tools they want it to contain – for instance it might only have a discussion forum in it – or it might include the tools to uplaod files into the group space or create pages or wikis. Groups are very powerful spaces for groups
I’ve also helped a number of organisations set up Elgg-powered social sites, e.g World Wide Fund for Nature called their platform learn2perform – a social learning and collaboration platform for staff worldwide. Note: users can register online and then their account is subsequently validated by administrators before they gain access to the platform.
I’ve also helped SportsPath – an organisation that provides training for football managers – to set up a community site for their programmes. In this case, they have to be a bona fide student with a username and password to access the site.
I also helped the University of East London get their early implementation off the group. Their site is more open in as much as you can see some of the recent content appears on the front page. The site has also been customised nicely by the UEL systems staff.
In terms of functionality – they all perform well on the scale – however I would still probably see Grou.ps more as a social network – a la Ning … whereas Socialtext as an enterprise collaboration platform (because of its tight integration with work processes). Note Socialtext is not actively marketed as a social learning platform, but if you are of the view that learning and working are the same thing, then this is worthy of a closer look … And Elgg – because of its high configurability – can be used as either a social network or an organisational collaboration platform.
Grou.ps is based on an open source model and the code can be downloaded and installed on your own servers, however, they admit that “the current downloadable version is a little buggy and does not have all the features”, their team is currently too busy developing the live, hosted version of GROU.PS
Although Socialtext started life as the first commercial open source wiki that could be downloaded, it hasn’t been updating the Open version since 2006 and focusing all its attention on its Enterprise version, which is offer as a hosted version or appliance version (ie a pre-installed version to run on your own site)
Elgg, is also an open source product which can be downloaded and installed on servers – but they’ve also just introduced a hosted version of elgg – still in beta – albeit with a fairly standard set of functionality. Elgg development continues apace in the Elgg community and there is a steady release of new plug-ins to enhance the functionality.
As for Socialtext it is unclear – but it would seem that you own the data and determine how it is used, but it also appears the data can only be exported from the appliance version, and whether this is just membership data is also not obvious – so if these are important considerations you will need to find out more
If we look at Groups, then set up, customisation and use are relatively easy. For Socialtext standard functionality is in place, although the look and feel is “skinnable”. Personal customisation of the dashboard is relatively straightforward, as is use of the platform. Elgg, however, is a different beast. The set up and customisation is not an easy task and requires PHP programmers, although once the functionality has been set up, it’s easy enough for a site administrator to turn it on and off, and the platform itself is also fairly easy to use. But of course there is a trade off with the cost …
Of course there is a trade-off – the Elgg platform is free to download – so instead of licence fees you can spend your money on people services. The in beta elgg.com site will be available under a number of paid-for plans. Compare this with groups which has a free option with no branding and no ads – as well as premium services, and Socialtext which is available on a commercial per-user basis
Contact me for help in choosing the right platform for you – email@example.com