The Best Blogging Platform for Students
I had been using WordPress blogs with my high school classes for student writing for a number of years. I used an RSS aggregator to collate all the responses so we could read their work together in class.
While open source, WordPress felt bloated. I had to set aside a lot of lesson time at the start of the year to explain how to set up a blog and how to manage privacy settings, to avoid students being subjected to spam or other weird comments. There were regular technical issues, which took up more class time. When WordPress changed its user interface to an even more involved version a few years ago, I decided it was time to look elsewhere. Thus began my search for a minimalist, free, open source blogging platform for students, which would eventually lead to this blog, many years later.
Wish list for a student blogging platform
In my quest for a better student blogging platform, I had a these items on my wish list:
- easy to use
- safe and private
- free and open source
- ability to export RSS feed per blog
- simple sharing (for classmates and for teacher)
- basic word processing
- ability to insert images and hyperlinks
Not required, but useful:
- some kind of like button (to indicate I had seen a post)
Contacting a programmer
I set aside a chunk of time to research and test out various platforms. Before I get into the two most promising choices, I want to briefly touch on an interesting exchange I had with a programmer named 'K'.
She was writing her own blog on a platform called 'Morphy'. I was intrigued by her clear writing style, but also by the simplicity and clean look of the platform. I got in touch and explained my situation. She seemed interested in my idea, but explained Morphy would be difficult for me to set up without programming skills.
This introduced me to a problem I would run into several more times, which is that a lot of privacy blogs require you to self-host. Self-hosting means running or providing your own server for the blog, something I was not able to do within the restrictions of my school's online environment and safety protocols.
It was helpful and eye-opening to talk to K. I have found that developers can be very interested in learning about specific use-cases like mine, especially when it involves education. We had plans to explore options in a video meeting, but that never happened.
Standard Notes and Listed.to
After several weeks of frustrated searches (why is it so hard to find free, open source writing platforms for schools that don't require technical knowledge?) I landed on something that could work: the Listed.to add-on to Standard Notes.
I was already familiar with Standard Notes as I had migrated all my Evernote content over to it a year or two earlier. A limited version of Standard Notes can be used free of charge. The software is open source, and notes are encrypted. This enabled good conversations about digital privacy with my students, plus I feel it is great note-taking software to introduce to high school students as they prepare for college.
The Listed.to blogging platform works from within the Standard Notes application. It takes a few steps to set up, but that only needs to happen once at the start of the year. Once set up, there is far less hassle with the Standard Notes/Listed combination than I ever had with WordPress, so this all looked very promising.
Students write their post as a new note, and once the Listed extension is installed, they can publish from within the note menu. This works equally well in the free and paid versions of Standard Notes. The appearance is very minimal, though it is possible for students to experiment with formatting and themes.
For those students interested in more control, I introduced a Markdown cheat sheet. I did have to teach each class how format headers and lists using Markdown, but they became adept surprisingly fast.
All in all, the Listed solution worked. I was pleased to discover Standard Notes has very good documentation on their help page, with a dedicated section for Listed.
I ended the year with a survey about the students' experiences with Listed. I received mostly positive feedback, though some students missed the broader range of editing and formatting tools they were used to in something like Google Docs.
Continuing the search
While most students could cope with the added layer of complexity that came with using Listed (requiring Standard Notes and an extension, learning some Markdown scripts for formatting), and while I loved the fact that my students got to learn how to use Standard Notes as a requirement for posting their work, I still wanted to search on. I was puzzling that it was so difficult to find a simple, privacy-oriented browser-based blogging platform for students that didn't require payment.
I tried out further options. I looked into the potential of using wiki pages instead of a blogging platform and landed on one platform called DokuWiki. But again, this required some technical know-how to set up, and permission to access to the school's server space, which I didn't have. I also explored some of the very bare-bones online publishing platforms like notepin.co, but felt these were perhaps too basic for my needs in the classroom. I learned about Drupal, Jekyll and Hugo, all of which seemed either unclear (Drupal) or complicated to set up.
I was looking for a simple, minimalist, free and open source blogging tool that didn't require a server or technical know-how to use.
I can't remember how or where, but I discovered BearBlog by chance. It was exactly what I was looking for.
BearBlog is created and hosted by Herman, a developer. He is friendly and approachable, and really supportive.
Herman has created a blogging platform that fills the niche for a simple, free, privacy-conscious, browser-based, open source blogging platform for the regular user.
To get started on BearBlog, you just create an account. After that, you can write. The editor is simple and requires Markdown, but unlike the Standard Notes/List.to combination, can be managed fully in browser. This was the ideal solution for student writing.
BearBlog creates RSS feeds per post and has a neat, mimimalist look. At first, I was put off by the missing comments box, but I have since learned that this is a deliberate choice. For a teacher managing student blogs, not having comments to moderate is a blessing in disguise and removes worry of having to deal with strange trolls commenting on your students' posts.
Each post has the equivalent of a 'like' button at the bottom, and that is the extent of reader interaction. BearBlog posts are essentially static webpages. What's more, by adding the attribute 'make_discoverable: false' in the header section, student blog posts don't appear on the BearBlog 'Discover' feed. BearBlog has some good information pages and a Markdown cheat sheet. What's more, Herman replies quickly to inquiries, and his emails are to-the-point and helpful.
With using Listed.to, we discovered the hard way that if a student tries to use a username that's already taken, they won't be able to publish their blog, but Listed never clearly informs you of the reason. That wasted a lot of time.
In the free version of Standard Notes, editors and extension are very limited, but that seems fair.
Having to use Markdown can be a barrier for some students, but on the whole, they get used to it.
Our school's protection software didn't like BearBlog at first and kept blocking student access, but we eventually found a way around this, with the support of our IT department and Herman.
Current use and looking ahead
I continue to use BearBlog with my students, and they like it overall. I sometimes show them my email exchanges about our blogs with Herman; it's a novelty for the students to see direct communication with the developer of a platform they use. BearBlog enables me to have discussions with my students about privacy and open source software alternatives.
When I eventually decided to write my own blog, BearBlog was the obvious platform of choice. With a premium subscription, you can add your own domain name, and Herman has gone above and beyond to help me set that up correctly for theprivacydad.com.
After posting this article, @ResearchLaw on Twitter suggested Write.as for blogging. Write.as probably comes closest to BearBlog as a minimalist, privacy-protecting, simple-to-use blogging platform.
Write.as is one of a group of is one of a neat group of minimalist, single-purpose online applications:
- Write.as - minimal online blogging
- Snap.as - photo hosting, alternative to Pixelfed
- Submit.as - for accepting writing submissions without signup
- Remark.as - comments tool for bloggers
I'm especially interested in testing out Remark.as as an alternative to using Reddit for my blog's comments. I use Pixelfed for image hosting for this blog, but want to try out Snap.as to see how that feels.
I got in touch with the company's founder, Matt Baer to ask him if he knows BearBlog and to explain how Write.as and BearBlog are different. He replied that he is a fan of BearBlog and noted the following differences:
- Write.as has the option to use a rich text editor (easier for beginners) whereas BearBlog requires Markdown
- Editing metadata happens through the user interface, rather than in the post body
- Themes are very manual/hands-on, involving writing or pasting in custom CSS code
He also added that "the underlying software that powers Write.as is free/open source software called WriteFreely." I looked into it a a little and it seems WriteFreely does require self-hosting. See new links added under Documentation below.
I reached out to Herman (BearBlog) and Matt (Write.as) to ask if they are aware of each other's products. I have actively searched for several years now for a student-friendly, free, open source blogging platform that doesn't require technical know-how or a server; these are the only two platforms so far that really fit those criteria.
Both founders expressed a genuine interest in having conversations about using their platform in education, and both praised the other's work. I like such honest, generous attitudes; this is the kind of openness that could be a much needed, powerful antidote to some of the small-mindedness that I see in privacy communities online.
Explanation of difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com
Standard Notes help page (see Listed section lower right)
How do I change the colors, fonts, and general layout of my Listed blog?
How to Create Your First Hugo Blog: a Practical Guide
BearBlog Quick-start video
BearBlog documentation and contact
The Markdown Guide by Matt Cone
Differences between Write.as and WriteFreely
Matt Baer's blog post on the future direction for these tools
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