ENG 704: Choosing a Blog Platform
An earlier version of this post was done for an ENG 725 on “Teaching Writing Online.” I will be updating those posts to include what’s new since then and to better fit the new course.
In my ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online class this spring, one of the things they will be doing is reflective readings responses. That should be no surprise, especially in an online class where face-to-face discussion takes some mediated contortioning. I know blogs seem so old-school now, but really, I have yet to find anything better for reflection, for “the long thoughts.” Since my first blog back in 2001, I have tried many blogging platforms. some of which have vastly improved through the years. All are free. Some need server space (which does have a cost), but most do not, a real advantage for teachers who don’t want that annual expense. Fairly early on though, by 2003, I decided that the expense was worth it and bought my own domain and paid for server space. Besides listing different blog choices, I would like to examine that choice also.
My decision to go for my own domain was completely wrapped up in the concept of a visible scholarly and professional identity on the web. As a Computers and Writing specialist within the larger area of rhetoric and composition, I felt that it was not only appropriate but mandatory for me to have a web presence. I also realize this would not be everyone’s choice. The domain was very inexpensive and still is: $7.50 – $15.00 depending on who does it. in 2003, server space through a host service was the only way to go. Since then, several free blogging services have branched out to allow you to use your own domain for your web address on their service. For example, Blogger does this. That means you can have a custom URL like superteacher.net and not pay for anything else but the domain registration fee.
I had other reasons to go with a hosting service though. At the time I wanted to use Drupal, which was really a wonderful CMS for the time. It is still good, and I’ll say more about it and DrupalEd in my list. Drupal was download-only, so I went with a hosting service that would download and maintain it for me. It was a good choice since I did not enjoy dealing with database errors or other horrific glitches that seemed to happen regularly to my peers who did their own downloading and updating. The main reason I did this though was because I needed more than a blog. I used subdomains to separate out functions between my blog, my teaching space, and my CV. As you can see from the tabs here, I still do that.
Here are some current blog choices. I am limiting them to free services:
These have been around for a while and include some of the best choices for those who want a blog that has potential to also be a portfolio or LMS (learning management system)
- Blogger. If Blogger then was what it is now, I would have stayed with it for a long time. It lets you use your own domain (for the cost of domain registration) and it has good themes that you can go in and tweak if you want a different color or pattern combination. It also allows either group or single blogs. It is owned by Google now, and its move towards being an innovative blog space with interesting features began on its acquisition.
- LiveJournal. I used this early on. The “friending” concept began here, and the loose collaborative groups that develop this way are very interesting. I don’t think it is workable for academic space though. I used it for a study that was the basis for my dissertation.
- WordPress. The link is for the .com site where people can sign up for their own blog space for free. The .org site has free downloads for the software in case you want it for your own domain and server space. The WordPress themes are the big draw here. There are so many, and so many functions come with them. This site is a WordPress blog that allows you to tab to other subdomains. The Moon City Press site, another site I am associated with, is also WordPress, but its theme has a nifty gallery that rotates the new books and announcements. This is a choice with plenty of customization options while still easy to use for beginners. You can make it as complicated or as simple as you want.
- Edublogs. This uses WordPress, and it has the advantage of its own dashboard interface that has hand-picked widget options that are particularly useful for teachers. The only negative I have is that when I used it for a class, they had serious stability problems. That was seven years ago now and It looks like those problems are long-since resolved, so I would not have any qualms recommending it now. If you are liking WordPress anyway, consider Edublogs first.
- iWeb. Don’t use this. I’m not even sure it still exists except on ancient Apple computers that came with it.
- Drupal. I still think of Drupal and now and then am tempted to use it again, espcially at times like now when I remember using its easy polls as classroom discussion starters. As a freestanding blog though, it is overkill and keeps its geeky street cred by being tweaky and difficult for many initial users to set up. It stopped having a free hosted option in August 2016.
- DrupalEd. This was designed for writing classes by writing teachers. I used it at Missouri State for the composition classes when I was acting Composition Director. It is free, and it you have a school that is interested, I can get you in touch with people who can give you advice on setting it up. This is not an individual blog solution; it is meant for a school or program.
- Tumblr. I think this could work. I have not used Tumblr because I am not really a snippet blogger; I use Pinterest for my short, mostly pictorial posts. This is a good place to collect things or pieces of text.
- Ning. I really enjoyed using this for my classes in the brief window of opportunity when it was new and free, before they cut off everyone who was not willing to pay. It is a great blend blend of blogging, social media, tagging gone amuck, and pretty effective community building. Missouri State’s Ozark Writing Project used Ning, but moved away when it went commercial. I put Ning on the list because the fond memories still linger, but not enough that I’m willing to pay $25 a month for their entry-level plan.
Faux Blogs (Proprietary Website Builders)
Wxi, Weebly, Squarespace, Google Sites, imcreator, and other similar sites: These are website builders, not blogs, and even when they have a free option, with the exception of Google Sites, they have several levels of pay tiers where most of the options occur. I left out the links on purpose. Please do not consider them for blogs, classroom LMS/CMS, or even what they say they are for– building websites. For one thing, there is actual blog software available elsewhere for free and you should use it. For another, if you need to make a website, say, for a web article you want to submit to a journal, you need to use Dreamweaver or other web authoring software. As an editor for a web journal, I sometimes get webtext submissions that use this kind of site and I have to tell them to build it themselves and resubmit. Web journals need to house all materials onsite for the sake of security and longevity. Sites like these may let you build a website, but they hold on to it–ownership is blurred. It is meant for small business owners who want an informational site and don’t know they could easily do it themselves for free using Blogger or WordPress.
New Kids on the Bloggy Block
I haven’t tried these, mainly because I am happy with Wordpress and truly need blog software that has paged tabs and complex choices that work for a CMS (content management system). Sometimes though, all you want is a place to write. That’s all. A place to write that other people can read. That’s all. There are some interesting new choices that will do that. Here are a few.
- Svbtle. At first, I wasn’t sure about a blogging site so pretentious that it uses a “v” instead of a “u” in its name as if we were still Romans, but this site does have advantages for bloggers who just want to write and want to join a community of like-minded writers. It is so spare that it doesn’t even give a time-date stamp for entries, which for me takes it out of the realm of blog, but if you can work around that, it could work for a readings response blog.
- Postach.io. Do you use Evernote to keep track of your ideas and projects? If you are, then this site would be worth trying. It integrates with your Evernote account and allows you to take an Evernote note and post it as a blog entry to Postach.io. If you don’t use Evernote, this is not for you.
- Google+. I have this and I never, never considered it blogging. Upon refection, yes, it is blogging, blogging that met Facebook and had a baby kind of blogging. The core of Google+ is the circles, groups of other Google+ members that you add and place into “circles” that you define. For example, I am creating a ENG 704 circle for this class. I can then post and specify that the post only goes to people in the ENG 704 circle. Each post then has a specified audience, one defined by you. Most of my Google+ posts are for all my circles, but sometimes I post about things that not everyone will be interested in. An example would be my soccer posts. I only send those to my soccer circle. The posts for ENG 704 will be like that–they will only go out to class members. So, since I am making a Google ID a required tool for the class, you automatically have a Google_ page with a Google ID. All you have to do is access it and start posting. If you set up a ENG 704 circle, you can then let Google notify you when one of the circle posts. Easy-peasy. The down side of this and the reason why I never considered it blogging is that it can never be truly public. Unless you don’t use the circles or make all of your posts completely public, your Google+ page is not able to grow an audience in the way a traditional blog can. It also has no customization, which is one of the fun things about blogging.
- Medium. This site is truly a community that you join. You post stories within categories and the site rates them. That is by definition a forum, not a blog. Quora added blogs a couple of years back, but it too is a forum and I don’t see it changing its focus.
The choice is yours. This is one time when free options may really be the best options. If you want to jump ahead to an article that goes into blogging more in-depth, skip ahead to one of your later readings, Why I Still Blog, from the Praxis section of Kairos 19.1.