Why use reStructuredText and Sphinx static site generator for maintaining teaching materials

Featured image: Les Anderson | Unsplash (photo)

Yesterday I was asked by Edvin Močibob, a friend and a former student teaching assistant of mine, the following question:

You seem to be using Sphinx for your teaching materials, right? As far as I can see, it doesn’t have an online WYSIWYG editor. I would be interested in comparison of your solution with e.g. MediaWiki.

While the advantages and disadvantages of static site generators when compared to content management systems have been written about and discussed already, I will outline our reasons for the choice of Sphinx below. Many of the points have probably already been presented elsewhere.

Starting with MoinMoin

Teaching materials for the courses some of my colleagues and I used to teach at InfUniRi and RiTeh, including laboratory exercises for the Computer Networks 2 course developed during early 2012, were initially put online using MoinMoin. I personally liked MoinMoin because it used flat text files and required no database and also because it was Python-based and I happen to know Python better than PHP.

During the summer of 2014, the decision was made to replace MoinMoin with something better because version 1.9 was lacking features compared to MediaWiki and also evolving slowly. Most of the development effort was put in MoinMoin version 2.0, which, quite unfortunately, still isn’t released as of 2017. My colleagues and I especially cared about mobile device support (we wanted responsive design), as it was requested by students quite often and, by that time, every other relevant actor on the internet had it.

The search for alternatives begins

DokuWiki was a nice alternative and it offered responsive design, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by it and was also slightly worried it might go the way of MoinMoin (as of 2017, this does not seem to be the case). It also used a custom markup/syntax, while I would have much preferred something Markdown/reStructuredText-based.

We really wanted to go open with the teaching materials and release them under a Creative Commons license. Legally, that can be done with any wiki or similar software. Ideally, however, a user should not be tied to your running instance of the materials to contribute improvements and should not be required to invest a lot of effort to set up a personal instance where changes can be made.

MediaWiki was another option. Thanks to Wikipedia, MediaWiki’s markup is widely understood, and WYSIWYG editor was at the time being created. I have set up a MediaWiki instance in BioSFLab (where I also participated in research projects for almost two years) and can say that setting up such an instance presents a number of challenges:

When migrating from a server to a server, this means you have to dump/restore database, adjust the config files (if you’re lucky it won’t be required to convert Apache configuration directives to Nginx ones or vice versa), etc. None of this is especially complicated, but it’s extra work compared to flat file wikis and static websites.

Finally, my favorite MediaWiki theme (skin in its terminology) is Vector, so my potential wiki with teaching materials would look exactly like Wikipedia. While nice and trendy, it is not very original to look like Wikipedia.

Going static, going reStructured

Therefore, we opted to use Sphinx and reStructuredText, as it was and still is a more powerful format than Markdown. We specifically cared about the built-in admonitions, which made it easier for us to convert the existing contents (Python socket module lecture is a decent example). The advantages of Sphinx were and still are the following:

There is a number of issues which affected us:

  • time to deployment after change, varies depending on the change but it’s order of tens of seconds in the worst case,
  • need to automate the deployment on git push (note that this does not increase attack surface, since git uses SSH or HTTPS for authentication and transfer).
  • learning curve to add content: MediaWiki’s WYSIWYG editor beats using git and reStructuredText in terms of simplicity.

Conclusion

A rule of thumb here would be:

  • if many people inside of an organization are going to edit content a lot and the content is more like notes than a proper documentation, then MediaWiki (or DokuWiki) is the choice,
  • if the content has an obvious hierarchy of parts, chapters, sections etc. and/or it is evolving like a piece documentation changes with software it documents, then Sphinx (or any of Markdown-based generators, e.g. HotDoc) will do a better job.

Published by

Vedran Miletić

Researcher, teacher and developer. Also open source and book addict.

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