Ning as a Social Learning Platform in a College of Education and Human Development Course

Created on Oct 22, 2015

Dr. Angel Pazurek, Lecturer in the College of Education and Human Development's Learning Technologies program, describes her use of the social learning platform, Ning, and offers recommendations for instructors who are interested in using similar learning environments.

Could you describe the class environment in which you have used a social learning platform?

One of the core values that we have in Learning Technologies is social learning and building community, and we find that we are always seeking new tools to use as an affordance to foster those things. So when we say that we value social learning, it's really about social constructivism and bringing people together in order to exchange ideas and share information to have greater synergy than learning in isolation. When it comes to online learning, online education, and online learning environments, the research suggests that people learn more effectively, more authentically, more profoundly, and retain information longer when they learn with their peers rather than learning isolated, independently, or self-paced.

[T]here are different tools and platforms that allow us to do that better than others. We have found that we like a social learning platform called Ning, because it allows dynamic interaction with multimedia so learners can share ideas not just through heavy text-based forums, but also to share voice or video with tools like Flipgrid and Voicethread. Ning wasn't originally designed as a learning platform—it's not a CMS [course-management system, such as Moodle] or an LMS [learning-management system, such as Cornerstone/ULearn]—and it wasn't originally designed for education. It was designed to bring people together in a social community. In our course evaluations we've found that learners' experience is enhanced through the use of that tool: they feel more connected within that environment and that the interface is more user-friendly, more dynamic, and more interactive than traditional online learning platforms. It allows them to share and interact and not be just users of the platform, but contributors and collaborators and creators within the platform which is an important element of social constructivism or social learning within an online environment.

What were some of the reasons why the Ning platform was chosen?

[O]ne of the things that we talk about a lot among faculty and students in LT is that just because something was not originally designed for a certain purpose doesn't mean that you can't repurpose it for something else. So it takes a great deal of imagination, innovation, and being willing to take risks to try new things and experiment and play. We not only encourage it among our students, but we inhabit that way of thinking as faculty as well. One of our faculty had come across Ning [and found] lots of interaction—people communicating and sharing things within the site. [W]e had some brave faculty who tried it and had great success, and more faculty jumped on board. We take the course evaluations at the end of the semester very seriously, and we've gotten resoundingly positive responses about the use of Ning in our courses. [S]tudents will even say, this is one of the best online courses that I've ever taken, and explain that a lot of it had to do with not just the interaction that they had with the content or with their peers but also with the instructor through the use of this tool. They felt this sense of community.

How would you describe some of the affordances that Ning offers that other platforms do not provide?

The first thing that's unique to this particular online learning platform is that it looks very familiar. A lot of learners will comment that it looks very similar to Facebook or other social networking tools that they have used, so it's very intuitive for them then. They interact within Ning the same way that they interact within Facebook. [T]hey leverage that and put it to use within the Ning environment. [A]lso, it's very easy for them to contribute content. I'm not just referring to responding to things that the instructor places there. Everyone's contributing resources and content, so it's easy for learners to upload content and share resources that way so that everyone is a part of that community—everybody takes on the role of co-facilitators, co-instructors, with one another.

Another thing is that we find that it's really easy to embed and incorporate multimedia—it's important for learners to have a variety of options to share their voice in different ways. [One] example is the podcast pontifications [assignment]—learners create their podcasts and we can upload widgets so that we can have those podcasts playing [see image, below, illustrating the use of the podcast widget in the course].

Sample student podcast pontifications [assignment] submission

Some people are really articulate in the way that they write, and the way that they share their ideas that way. Others prefer to share their ideas through voice, speaking their ideas, or even on video.

The other thing that we like about Ning is when you first log into the environment, you see the people and the conversations that are happening there. Ning allows exploration in lots of different directions. [T]hat can be confounding for learners because they are not used to that, so it can be a bit overwhelming. [I]t necessitates pedagogy and good practice on the part of the facilitator to guide and lead, especially in the beginning, because learners will log into the Ning site, and they are not sure what to click first [see examples of two welcome videos that Dr. Pazurek has previously used in her courses, below]. Once learners get familiar within the environment, they have the freedom and autonomy to explore things on their own time, their own pace, and their own direction.



How did using this platform impact students' experience in the course, and their overall learning throughout the semester?

The first word that comes to mind for me is ownership. [W]e are very responsive to the formative feedback, comments, and course evaluations at the end of the term. [T]he response that we get from students is that they enjoyed using Ning because it allowed them to take ownership of their learning. They were able to contribute as much as they took away so it wasn't just the instructor providing the information [and] content, they also got to design content and share resources. [I]t wasn't just external compliance to share things, they have this sense of ownership and were excited to share things and upload things with their peers.

What kinds of unexpected outcomes happened have you come across when using it—either positive or negative—and how did you address them?

I've been teaching online since 2000, and found my early practice and tools required me to do a lot more leading than it does now. Now I find that the more leading that I try to do as the instructor, I'm seen as an authority with the right answer and students wait to receive content from me. Wait to receive my response versus organically or naturally taking the lead on their own. I find in an online class now with Ning the more I interject, the more it slows down the conversation. The interaction starts to happen and emerge so naturally that if I interject too much I almost get in the way. It doesn't just happen with graduate students, it's also happening with undergrads. For example, in the beginning [of a course I'm teaching now], I modeled how I wanted students to interact and respond to one another. Now they are taking off, to the point where I'm impressed with the level of sophistication of their thinking through what they are revealing in their conversations for that lesson or that module, but also in the way that they are responding to their peers: they're going above and beyond my expectations. For example, if I say "I want you to respond to a few of your peers"...I tend not to use numbers because if I say I want you to respond to two peers, they respond to two peers and that's it. Whereas if I invite them to respond to their peers and share thoughts or perspectives...the number of postings, the quality of postings, has skyrocketed. It goes back to that idea that I shared about ownership - students have so much more to say than we realize, and when we step back and allow them to take the lead in their learning, to share their ideas without constraints or restrictions, what they share is really profound and the learning is really profound.

What recommendations do you have for other instructors who are interested in using social learning platforms?

I think that it requires us as educators to examine our pedagogy and our practice very closely, and examine our epistemologies about what we believe to be true about the appropriate roles of learners and instructors and facilitators within an environment. If you want to lecture and assess through quizzes and exams, Ning may not be the most appropriate tool for you. The first thing that we tend to think about when we are designing an online course is the content: what content do I need to cover? What standards do I need to meet? What might my topics be? And yes, you start there—you start building the outline or the skeleton, but then you have to think about or prioritize what social learning interactions might help learners explore that content more profoundly, more uniquely, more independently. Not independently with them in isolation, but independently as a group of learners without undue influence from the instructor. You are chosen as the instructor for that topic because you are an expert in that area, but it isn't just about what you know, there's so much more to know that learners will bring to the table that you could have ever provided them with.

Being willing to take that risk [is] kind of a vulnerable position to be in as an instructor. My courses are designed such that even our syllabus is co-created. I begin with a rough draft of a syllabus, but I leave room for new ideas and new topics and new directions according to what the learners want to explore. [W]e have opportunities for the learners to work in learning teams so that they can lead different modules, and they seek out resources with my help and with my support. It requires us to be present and mindful with the way that we're helping move the course along and guide students to appropriate resources. It requires us to relinquish control, to allow things to emerge organically and let learners lead. That's what's difficult...we've been conditioned to be purveyors of knowledge—we're the instructors, professors, we profess what we know, we share information—we need to step back from that and allow learners to take the lead and seek out resources and information on their own, with collaboration, with one another.

Thanks to Dr. Pazurek for sharing her experiences with online pedagogy and teaching. She welcomes the opportunity to discuss these issues/ideas with other educators who would like more information or to chat about how these practices might apply in their own context. Please contact her at