Choosing a Blogging Package for Students

by Scot Hacker


I was recently commissioned with the task of selecting an appropriate blogging tool for our upcoming Intellectual Property Weblog class. Selecting blogging software is becoming increasingly tricky, in part because there are so many packages out there, and because so many of them are so good. All have been appending each other's features as time goes on, making their advantages progressively less distinct.




Our criteria for blogging software for the class were:





  • Must allow multiple authors (this is to be a team/group blog)

  • Should be low cost or free, ideally open source

  • We want to host it ourselves rather than using 3rd party servers

  • Ideally searchable

  • Should have some kind of CMS (Allow posting of drafts, which other editors approve)

  • Commentable

  • Searchable

  • Easy posting from Macs (bookmarklets, hotkey for hyperlinks within a web form)

  • RSS syndication and, ideally, aggregation






Time is limited, so I chose five blogging packages to install and test:








We're inevitably missing lots of good ones, but one can only do so much in a couple of days.




Multi-author / CMS (team blogging) turned out to be really easy in some blogging packages, almost impossible in others. While this feature is built into Movable Type and Greymatter from the start, Radio makes you rely on 3rd party tools or hack out an aggregation of multiple blogs. LiveJournal has "communities" built specifically for this purpose, but each author has to have a separate account, which would mean either paying for or finding lots of LJ invitations to spread around. Even then, only Movable Type offered the ability to make a post in draft mode, then have another author / editor approve and make it live.




Search functionality was surprisingly absent from most of these packages. Greymatter puts it right up front. Movable Type puts search into the back end, but not into the front end, which I found somewhat bizarre. I'm assuming I can add searching to MT's front end fairly easily. Blogger makes you buy the Pro version, Radio doesn't make it all obvious whether searching is possible, and LiveJournal doesn't have it at all.




The professor for the class wants to avoid requiring students to type achor tags manually. Fortunately, most blogging packages today offer some sort of extended JavaScript attached to web forms which allow for easy selection of words and insertion of hyperlinks, bolding, etc. Unfortunately, all of these seem to work under Windows only, which is a disappointment. Same goes for bookmarklets, which allow you to click a toolbar link while viewing a particular web page and have its URL and headline swept up into a linked proto-post. Movable Type's bookmarklet system works on the Mac -- and it works beautifully. That, unfortunately, does not account for situations where a student wants to make a 2nd or 3rd link in a post. The only solution to that, it seems, is LiveJournal, which has dedicated platform-specific client software rather than relying on web forms. But LiveJournal just isn't suited for our needs in other ways.




Radio's web form for posting has nifty anchor, bold, etc. buttons when viewed under Windows, but not from the Mac. Bookmarklets for Radio may or may not work on the Mac. A bookmarklet system does not seem to be bundled with the product, and I didn't get around to checking out the 3rd party solutions.




I found the following discussions at Radio Free Blogistan (run by friend Christian Crumlish) largely mirrored my experiences getting Greymatter, Movable Type, and Radio up and running:







I concur that MT's pain is all in the up-front setup, while Radio's setup is easy, but the system is fragile. I was just getting up and running with Radio and starting to like it when I made a change that prevented the entire system from running. Not even reinstalling the entire app could get me running again.




I keep my personal blog at LiveJournal, and really love the system. I'd recommend it to anyone looking to get up and running quickly, and who lacks technical knowledge. It's custom client is a joy to post with, and LJ's interconnectedness of blogs is unparalleled - truly wonderful to follow the links between friends and friends of friends, etc. But it quickly became apparent that LiveJournal was not appropriate for this class. Greymatter and Radio are both great systems in their own ways, but Movable Type moved to the front of the pack very quickly, and is the package we'll be using. If only Movable Type handled RSS aggregation as well as Radio... but one can't have it all.


9 Comments

arvedhs
2002-08-23 19:03:07
Good Overview
I'm a technical guy but have zero knowledge of "blogging" other than being aware of the concept and format. I've been thinking of getting into it - this was a valuable overview of some of the tools available.
dalepike
2002-08-26 10:46:02
Consider Manila?
UserLand software, the creators of Radio, also have an application called Manila. Unlike Radio, Manila resides on the server. Out of the box, it supports multiple user sites. It also, through a feature called "gems", makes content management quite intuitive.


Further thoughts:
-Not free, but academic licenses are available (I think it is $299 right now for a one-year subscription)
-RSS aggregation is not available with Manila, but it creates RSS feeds very nicely
-searching is not automatic, but it isn't hard to set up
-supports multiple types of editors


The feature set, in general, lags a bit behind Radio, but it really is easy to set up and VERY easy to create new sites.


I've been using Manila for several years in an academic environment. We've begun to use Radio for some applications, but Manila still can't be beat for ease of creating new spaces and document management.


Just my humble opinion...


Dale Pike
Director of Instructional Technology
College of Arts & Sciences
UNC Charlotte

deus_x
2002-08-26 12:22:53
Simplifying MT entry composition & RSS aggregation
Well, tooting my own horn, something that might help you ease the pain of blog entry composition:


http://www.decafbad.com/twiki/bin/view/Main/MTWikiFormatPlugin


It's a plugin that provides a tag you can use in MT templates to allow authors to use a simplified wiki-inspired markup shorthand to write blog entries.


As for aggregation.. well, you could give students each a copy of AmphetaDesk. Or, if it needs to be server hosted, AmphetaDesk could probably be wrangled into that. Otherwise, there's likely some other server-based RSS aggregator I've forgotten about at the moment.

adamrice
2002-08-26 12:32:53
Movable Type
MT, as I have learned, allows you to customize its fields (although it's a bit of a pain--see http://www.metamocha.com/docs/000012.htm). Apparently this will be an explicit feature in a future release. It also has plug-in support, and one of the plug-ins allows GREPing of entry contents, so it might be possible to just paste a URL into an entry and have it transformed into a hotlink that way.
fozbaca
2002-08-26 13:02:10
MT-Search
For a front end search on MovableType you mgiht want to check MT-Search . It even has the advantage of allowing for an "edit" link if you were the author of the post.
danmitch
2002-08-26 19:58:27
I use Manila
I make extensive use of Manila with the classes I teach at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. Perhaps of most interest would be my experience using multiple Manila sites with a web-based distance learning class I taught last year.


This particular class (a GE music course) make extensive use of collaborative learning methods, primarily by putting students into small work groups to complete projects which then became the basis of assignments completed by the entire classs.


Each group had its own Manila site which they used for discussing and preparing group assignments. They also used set up threads and stories to help coordinate their schedules for completing assignments.


When the groups finished their individual work one member from each group posted their assignment on another central class Manila site that was accessible to all students in the class. This posting consisted of a number of questions on topics that the individual groups had focused on. The class then used the same discussion threads to answer the questions. Then the original groups returned to comment on the answers posted by the class and, finally, I posted some wrap-up commentary on each thread.


I ran my Frontier/Manila server on an old Mac OS 9 server that was also running WebStar, Filemaker, and a few other things. You can also run it under Windows or Mac OS X if you want a more powerful server - only necessary if you plan to support a very large number of sites and users.


We did not find that the slightly better Windows client support you mentioned (easy formatting of text) made a significant difference. Most students who needed to post a URL simply typed in the full URL; Manila automatically turns it into a link. Others quickly figured out how to use the simple Manila shortcuts feature.


Another note: In each group there will typically be a mix of students and you are likely to find that at least on is web-savvy enough to do any sophisticated html coding that the group may need and/or help out the other students.


Dan Mitchell

netologies
2002-08-26 21:00:59
RSS Aggregation and MT
Scot, if you are looking for an aggregation tool that compilments Movable Type check out Brent Simmons' NetNewsWire. If the class will be running Mac OS X, choosing NetNewsWire will provide them with a great tool to slice-n-dice their stories for incorporation in their blog. I use it everyday.



willrich
2002-08-30 05:04:40
Another vote for Manila
In terms of ease of setup and flexibility, I vote for Manila as well. I'm a Blogger convert who has spent the last couple of months setting up Manila sites for my students, and the ease of collaboration and management of information capabilities are really great. The price is right, installation is easy, and with some HTML and CSS knowledge, you can create any look you want.
anonymous2
2003-01-08 05:57:18
Check out Nucleus
I tried out MT as well, but found Nucleus more to my liking. It is a PHP/MYSQL application that was very simple to install, especially compared to MT. It uses "plug-ins" which are actively developed by numerous individuals which makes it easy to customize your blog and build upon the base system. Bookmarklets do work in Linux - Iuse Galeon as my main browser. It has a search function, supports multiple users , multiple blogs, and a RSS plug-in.



http://www.nucleuscms.org/