A post by Lorcan Dempsey cited Tony’s Hirst’s comments on use of the Ning social network at the University of Wales, Newport and the University of Bradford.

Michael Webb, Head of IT and Media Services at the University of Wales, Newport was responsible for helping to establish one of the first institutional strategy embracing use of Web 2.0 in the UK, as he described in a talk on “Developing a Web 2.0 Strategy” which he gave at the IWMW 2006 event (a video of his talk is also available).

AJ Cann responded to Tony Hist’s post by saying:

AARRRGHHH! Bad idea! These sites are just ghettos waiting to happen. Do they think that students joining the institution don’t already use social networks? Do they think they can compete with MySpace/Facebook?

He could be right – but we won’t know unless we start to gather evidence on the ways in which social networks may be in higher education.

And I have to say that I’m impressed with the approaches which are being taken at Newport. As Michael describes on his blog they first identified the purposes for the service (“The brief was to create a social place for students coming to the University to meet online before they join the University, and to be able to contact the student mentors“), they considered the legal implications of Ning’s terms and conditions (“we retain ownership of content. Hosting locating is ambiguous, but is the data isn’t that precious.“) and were willing to ‘address the constraints’ provided by the service (the use of adverts, the costs for additional storage space, the lack of single sign-on and the loss of institutional branding in the site’s URL).

In return Newport have gained an opportunity to evaluate the potential of a social networking environment for new students at little cost to the institution:

If we had created the site ourselves it would have taken months. If we had bought in software it would have still taken weeks. This took days. And no worrying about upgrades, downtime etc. What have we lost? We can’t control the development of the service – our users probably don’t understand this, and have already started suggesting functionality improvements.

I welcome this development – and I am particularly pleased that Michael is being so open in describing the reasons for this decision, the possible risks and how the institution has responded to the risks.