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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teacher Tech Tip: Cloud storage via Dropbox.com

Cloud storage will make your life easier by giving you fool-proof file backups and super-useful new ways to access and share your files! Invaluable for teachers and, well, everyone.

I assure you I'm not a corporate shill (well, other than for my own company, that is), I just like to spread the word when I find a service that I like. Well here's a service that I LOVE:

Dropbox.com is free cloud storage. It's awesome. I used it during this past school year and it kind of changed my life.

Why is cloud storage a big deal and why should you care?
At a basic level cloud storage is a super-easy and super-reliable way to backup your files. But once you've backed up your files to the cloud, there are many awesome new ways to access and interact with your data. It's kind of mind-blowing.

I'm a tech geek and it took me a few weeks to really wrap my brain around what was now possible thanks to cloud storage. It's more than just a backup; it's a massive paradigm shift.

This post is written for teachers but it's also tagged "startup" because anyone building a business could benefit from what cloud storage / Dropbox has to offer.

First off: better backups
In my school district every teacher is issued a Macbook. It's the center of our world. If it were to crash or get stolen, most of us would be in quite a tizzy.

There is, of course, a backup system in the district. You click an icon on the desktop and it does a backup. If there's a problem, you can restore your data from the last backup. This is more or less how backup systems have worked since computers began storing can't-lose data.

But this system is flawed. Each teacher must remember to run the backup program. If you don't run it, you don't get backed up. The district should, at a minimum, run automatically scheduled weekly backups, but they don't. So instead the onus is on each individual to be responsible and run frequent backups. Most teachers know about the importance of running backups but rarely do it. If a teacher backs up her laptop more than once a month, she's a backup superstar. There are teachers that run it--at most--once each semester, if at all.

Another problem: your backup is only as up-to-date as the last time you backed up. Obviously this is a problem when you do infrequent backups. A teacher could lose a whole semester's worth of lessons if his laptop crashes and he hasn't done any backups. Ouch.

I also appreciate their sense of humor

This is why having automatic, regular backups are important--nothing for the teacher to remember and limited possible data loss. But even this is still not ideal. If the backups happen on Friday and your laptop crashes on Thursday, you've still lost a week's worth of lessons, assignments, notes, etc.

The real problem is that disaster recovery just isn't all that interesting or sexy; you only care about it when disaster strikes and, generally, it's too late by then. Teachers aren't better about running backups because backups are seen as just another annoyance of the digital age. It's a chore you should perform, but only because of some vague spectre that might one day bite you. Thus it's hard to really get teachers--or anyone--to be diligent about backups.

Dropbox--and other services like it (let's be fair!)--change all of this.

Fine, I'm listening. Why is it so much better?
The biggest difference is that after you set up Dropbox, you don't have to do anything. Dropbox's PC/Mac application creates a directory on your computer. Anything stored within that directory gets automatically synced to "the cloud"--which is to say: is uploaded to a Web-based file storage system.

Let's say you create a new assignment. You save the Word DOC to the Dropbox directory (or a subdirectory within it). As soon as you save the file in Word, Dropbox notices the new file and uploads it to your protected online storage account. You don't have to tell Dropbox to do it; it just does it. Instant backups, zero effort.

Then you edit the assignment. You hit Save. Dropbox automatically notices that the file has been changed and uploads the new version for you. Done.

Pretty simple. Automatic backups are now trivial. Yay, problem solved!

Big whup, it's a backup. Not impressed yet.
Fair enough. Check this out:

I somehow accidentally deleted my "Expos" directory on my laptop. That had all of my files for my Expository Writing class. D'oh! And, as expected, Dropbox synced my changes--as in, Dropbox ALSO deleted that directory.

"Oh, crap!" you're thinking. Meh. My heart didn't even skip a single beat.

Dropbox has a pretty neat little life-saving feature: it remembers EVERY version of everything you've ever synced with Dropbox, even files you've deleted.

Revision history for a Word DOC. Every time I hit Save in Word, Dropbox backed up a new version.

So even though Dropbox synced my delete action, it was trivial to restore the deleted directory from Dropbox's Web interface. And as soon as I restored it, the Dropbox application on my laptop re-synced and restored all of the files.

Normally restoring files from a backup is a huge pain. But since Dropbox is so tightly synced, the whole process is pretty painless and straightforward.

But backups and restores are just the beginning. Now that your data is "in the cloud," a whole new world of possibilities opens up. And this is where it gets really good!

Next: Part 2: What are the cool things you can do with it?