Searching for the perfect platform

"They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis". Macolm Gladwell describing a major insight by Herbert Moskowitz.1

Finding an alternative to WordPress for my website was hard work, and I wouldn't call it fun.

The story goes like this. I teach at a Japanese university and for a while I used Moodle 2 for all my classes. I even ran Moodle on a server in my office, which is evidence that I am geeky. I never really liked Moodle's user interface (UI), which is clunky and inelegant, especially after using Apple products for years. My students didn’t care for Moodle either, since it took them a while to learn how to use it, and they found navigating pages difficult. In other words, they didn't like the UI either. Now, I do understand that Moodle can be tweaked but I wanted easy tweaking, I didn’t want to have to spend hours digging around to make changes. Blame it on my lack of commitment, or my lack of tech savvy, or maybe just lack of patience, but after a while I found that it was taking up too much of my time, and far too much class time teaching the students how to use the system.

My next stop was WordPress. I decided that I would set up a simple website with a main page and separate pages for each class. Even though I lost many Moodle features, for example uploading files by clicking on an icon, I made the change. I set up a simple WordPress site and had students submit their assignments by email. Students seemed to prefer the new website to Moodle, with many of them saying it was easier to understand and easier to navgate. All fair and good, but I began to have problems. For two weeks, bots attempted more than a thousand unauthorized login attempts. This stopped but was quickly followed by obviously fake signups to the website. This "hacking" was getting out of hand, and I don't like spending time on security issues. Add to this my dislike for the WordPress backend 3, and it was obviously time to find something else.

I looked around for a while, and by this I mean a few weeks, but couldn’t find anything to replace WordPress. I tried Drupal, Joomla, Concrete5, SilverStripe, TextPattern, PHP-Fusion, Microweber, Weebly, Wix, SquareSpace, and others. They all could do many things but I wanted something that would let me set up a website and focus on getting my work done. This led me to dedicated blogging platforms, but they don't have the capabilities that I wanted. However, a blogging platform would allow me to get a website up and running in a short time. To be fair, you can set up a website very quickly with WordPress as well.

Most blogging platforms can’t compete with content management systems (CMS)which run full-scale websites, with lots of features and maybe lots of contributors. This is not a bad thing necessarily but it was more than I needed. So, I now had to figure out exactly what I needed and wanted in a website, Here's the list:

  • Easily add pages and add to the pages.
  • Be able to see changes while typing and without having to click buttons or change tabs, and then, wait for the changes to take effect.
  • Have different themes.
  • Able to embed video.
  • Allow commenting.
  • Able to use Markdown. 4
  • A simplified system for student submissions
  • Easy navigation.
  • Simple and elegant UI for me and for users.

So off I went through the blogging platform wilderness, reading more reviews than I can remember, following links for recommended systems, and then trialling the platform. I tried several, including Svtle, Silverback,, Postagon, Ghost, and Droplets. I settled on Ghost because it met almost all of my criteria, except for student submissions. This was not a deal breaker since I had been using’s email upload system for my WordPress site. More on this system in another post. I also liked that Ghost is open source and the organization developing Ghost is a non-profit. Once I began to compare prices for hosting a Ghost installation on a shared server (the lowest price on what appeared to be a reliable hosts was $2.95 per month)’s price of $8.00 per month seemed reasonable since I would not have to manage any kind of software installations or maintenance. This means, no worries about security or updates. Even better, I am giving my money to an organization that is not in the business just to make money. I like that.

I got a trial going in a matter of minutes. The interface is simple and clean, with a split screen that lets me see how the post or page will look in real time. Creating pages and posts requires a single click and I can then begin to start writing. It looks like I will be able to do everything I did on the WordPress site, except for storing documents that students can easily download.

The next few months will be spent migrating my WordPress site to Ghost. Learning a new system is tiring and time consuming, but the new site should make life easier for my students and for me.

  1. Malcom Gladwell, quoting Herbert Moskowitz in Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce

  2. A learning management system (LMS)

  3. The interface that is used for managing the site. A visitor never sees this.

  4. A simple formatting language for writing. See Why Markdown? A two-minute explanation

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