What is a social network?

A social network is a website that allows multiple users to communicate and share files in an environment that has limited visibility to people outside the network. Popular examples include myspace.com and facebook.com.

How can social networks be used for education?

With social networks, instructors and students can:

  • post announcements to keep the class informed
  • create profiles to introduce themselves to the class and create a sense of community
  • use discussion forums to exchange ideas, critique work, or hold a debate
  • maintain a blog to share thoughts with the class (Private student blogs can also be set up so that only instructors see what students write.)
  • share links, videos, images, audio files, and documents


Recommended Social Networking Tool: Ning

While some instructors use social networking sites like facebook for education, others prefer not to mix the social networks they use in their personal lives with those they use for school and work. In addition, most social networks aren't designed for education, so it can be difficult to repurpose them for instructional use. For educators, Ning offers several advantages over other social networking sites:

  1. Separation: Ning allows instructors and students to create and manage social networks that are used only for a specific course or class project. Users don't have to worry about providing teachers and students with too much access to the personal information they post on sites like facebook.
  2. Robust community-building features: In Ning, students can do many of the things they can do in other social networking sites—create profiles, share images, videos, and audio files, post links, participate in discussions, and create blogs.
  3. Customization: Instructors can customize the interface and available features of their Ning network in ways that are not possible in other social networking sites.

Should I use Facebook to create a group for my class?

The short answer is no. It is possible to create a group in Facebook and allow students to join that group without sharing personal information. Facebook users can control their privacy settings so that their personal profiles are only visible to their friends. Unfortunately, the features of Facebook groups are very limited and not particularly user friendly.

Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University is a leading proponent of the educational potential of Facebook. However, in his own Facebook group called "Teaching & Learning with Facebook," Dr. Fogg notes, "Compared to other online systems, Facebook's tools for groups are limited. Facebook offers no wiki, no real group notifications, no applications you can install on a group page."

In addition to these shortcomings, it's also difficult for users to access a group page once they've joined it. Facebook profile pages don't include links to the groups you've joined, and it's very easy for users to join a group and forget about it. Until some of these issues are resolved, Ning is a better option for educators interested in creating a social network for education.

Issues to Consider

  • Ning's free version includes Google ads in right sidebar.
  • Some Ning features may not be needed. Keep in mind that Ning is best used to foster a sense of community. If all students need are blogs, it would be simpler and more effective to have them use a tool like Blogger. If students only need to share resources to collaborate on a project, it might be best to have them use a tool like PBwiki. If students only need to participate in online discussions, a discussion forum in a course management system like Blackboard should be sufficient.

Ning Help

  • Download the printable Ning guide for answers to common Ning questions.
  • For additional information, visit the Ning help page. (Ning's online help is very clear and thorough.)
  • Ning does not provide any  video tutorials on the basics of setting up a network. However, if you perfer video demonstrations to text-based help, you might find the tutorial below helpful. It provides an introduction to new features of Ning's redesign as of April 2009.

Ning Video Tutorial