The image is from my first academic blog, Techsophist. I kept that name for many years until it became clear I needed a professional blog under my name instead of a pseudonym. Earlier versions of this post exist, most recently SP 2017 semester for ENG 704, which is offered every other spring. It is 2019 now, so it’s time to revisit this subject and bring in the new and delete the defunct.
The Blogging Project
In my ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online class this spring, one of the things they will be doing is reflective readings responses using their own blogs. That may sound odd given that the course exists in a Blackboard site and Blackboard has a blog tool. However, what Blackboard calls a blog is fine for student homework but does not offer the features that make a blog what it is–a place for identity construction that I infinitely customizable to fit the individual’s needs. the Blackboard blog is one-size-fits-all in a world that offers free digital couture.
Why I still use blogs in the classroom should be no surprise, especially in an online class where face-to-face discussion takes some mediation. 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 in my blogging history ( 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 if you wanted more features than what the free blogs offered. 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 now 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 am thinking of doing that myself at this point, so don’t feel that you have to pay out cash to blog.
Here are some current blog choices. I am limiting them to free services:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Like the title indicates, not all of these are good choices for an academic blog or teaching space. Know and choose wisely.
- 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. I see that it now also offers CMS options for school districts and universities, so that is a big plus too for K-12 teachers in a district that is considering going digital. See if they would let you be a pilot study for them and have a say in their choice.
- Wix. Students have used this for 704 in the past and I have mixed feelings. Yes, it is blog software at this point rather than a faux-website builder. If all you want to do is type in your posts and move on, it will work. However, what about later? What if you end up doing this for yourself as part of professional development? WordPress and Blogger are still more customizable and offer more features–for free.
- Weebly. Students have used Weebly despite my caution here against it and it does have a blog feature. However, it is t its soul a commerce website builder. Why choose this when you could say, have the teaching-specific widgets that Edublogs offers? A bad choice given the other (free!) good choices.
- Drupal. I still think of Drupal and now and then am tempted to use it again, especially at times like now when I remember using its easy polls as classroom discussion starters. However, WordPress recently added polls, so I’m over it. As a freestanding blog, Drupal 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.
- Drupal for Education. A precursor to this was designed specifically for writing classes by writing teachers. This is clearly not that. Adopted by mega-universities like Stanford and MIT, it is now for education in general. I used the open source version at Missouri State for the composition classes when I was acting Composition Director, but I’m pretty sure that version no longer exists in usable form. At this point it is not an individual blog solution; it is meant for a school or program that has the cash to pay for a custom CMS.
- Tumblr. I think this could work as long as you are blogging only and not using it in the classroom, which is something you could do with WordPress and Blogger. I have not used Tumblr in ages 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. However, if you and your colleagues want to set up a little community where you easily see each other’s posts, Tumblr’s tagging system could do that.
- 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. *sigh*
Faux Blogs (Proprietary Website Builders)
Squarespace, Google Sites, imcreator, Ghost, 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 submitters 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 realize they could easily do it themselves for free using Blogger or WordPress.
Also, be very aware of what is a blog and what is a forum. For example, Medium may seem like a blog when you sign up, but instead, it is a community that you join and that has a downside. It acts more like a forum than a blog in that you post stories within categories and the site rates them. In other words, it is their site and you contribute to their site. 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.
Remember, Blogging Is Always About Identity–Even When the Site Says It Isn’t
The choice is yours, but remember that if a site sys its great for business, it is telling the truth–it is intended for business use, not academia or personal/professional use. This is one time when free options may really be the best options since they market to individuals rather than small businesses or corporations. Blogging is so much more than writing in a journal, and for me, the proof is n how long I’ve done it–from 1999 to now almost 2019. That’s twenty years and I was NEVER good at writing in a diary or journal. Why? Well I have an article about that, and if 704 students (or others) want to read an article that goes into blogging more in-depth, skip ahead to one of the later readings for 704, Why I Still Blog, from the Praxis section of Kairos 19.1.