Online File Storage for Teachers
kosta.dimeropoulos [at] senecac.on.ca
Seneca College of Applied Arts & Technology (Toronto, Canada)
Like most teachers, you've probably had your share of frustrating moments with your computer. Lost diskettes, missing documents, files inexplicably corrupted to the point that they simply won't open--these are but a few of any teacher's computing woes. Fortunately, the use of backup systems has become an increasingly common insurance practice against these everyday miseries. One such system is online file storage : the ability to save files online for anytime, anywhere access.
While not a cure-all for every computer-related misfortune, online storage can be a solution to many common problems faced by teachers today. It can also increase collaboration with fellow staff members and enhance learning for students. This article focuses on two convenient, easy-to-use, and free methods of online storage. First, there is the increasingly popular practice of attaching files to messages in a web-based e-mail account, then either downloading them or forwarding them to colleagues. A second but less well-known technology is the online "hard drive"--a web-based interface that functions much like your computer's hard drive.
Introduction to Online File Storage
Prior to Online StorageIn the late 1980s and early 1990s, computer users relied mainly on file storage that was tied physically to their bulky desktop computers, or, more specifically, to their computer desks. Diskettes helped them carry files to and from work and home, but these files were unavoidably small or limited in number as a result of diskettes' limited storage capabilities. Smaller, more powerful storage media and notebook computers have made rich digital files more portable, but only if you remember to bring the hardware along.
No matter what kinds of hardware teachers own, they appreciate the benefits of the World Wide Web. These include the ability, for instance, to find free encyclopedia articles, newspaper columns, and photos, as well as the freedom to access web-based e-mail from any Internet-ready computer. Such advances have transformed our computers into portals that can interact with hefty servers, such as the mainframe computers that run popular Web services like Hotmail.
An increasing number of teachers have their own personal computer and access to numerous computers in the workplace. Moreover, the high-speed Internet connections of the workplace are increasingly becoming affordable for home use. This juncture in the development of computing and networking technology is enabling us to transfer large files between computers, servers, and other computers with few barriers of time or place. And with every passing year, faster connections will be able to convey rich video and audio files with negligible wait time.
How E-mail Storage WorksWeb-based e-mail, such as Hotmail, is primarily a tool for sending and receiving messages, but it is also an adequate way of storing and organizing files. Typically, you log in to your e-mail account with a user name and password. Then, you have access to a variety of folders, such as your Inbox. With the click of a button, you can create new folders, just like those on your computer. You can then store messages in those folders and attach files to them. Want to send one of those files to either a colleague or student? Simply send a copy of the message with that file attached. It's that simple. Simplicity, in fact, is the main selling point for this method: you can check if you have new e-mail and access a particular file stored in the same e-mail account.
There are limitations, however. First of all, e-mail providers have yet to offer the ability to display shared files online for public access. As a result, colleagues or students who need to access a particular file might wait hours or days until that file is e-mailed to them in order to view it. Second, storing files in an e-mail account is not always a problem-free endeavor. You're probably already aware that you must use your account at least once every month or two in order to keep the account active. Therefore, ensure that you're a regular e-mail user in order to protect your online files. E-mail storage also necessitates creating messages to which files can be attached--an awkward technicality. And managing those messages can be a hassle: if you want to retrieve a particular file, for instance, you have to remember to assign its host message a subject name that has a semantic association to that file. Otherwise, you'll be left staring at a cluster of messages and guessing which one contains the file you're looking for. You should therefore consider these little inconveniences if you choose e-mail for your online storage needs.
How Online "Hard Drives" WorkOnline hard drives give users a given amount of storage space on a server. Technically, they're not the same as the hard drives in most computers, but they offer storage space like one. Accessing this online space is similar to logging in to an e-mail account: you simply visit a Web site and log in with a user name and password in order to access that space. However, you will not be faced with an e-mail interface like Hotmail's. Instead, you will be working directly with folders and sub-folders that contain your files. To manage these files, all you do is click on folders, move files from one folder to another, or download ("open") and upload ("save") them to and from the server as if you were using your personal computer. No e-mail messages, no attachments--just files and folders.
The advantages of this method are plain to see. For one, the interface is tailor-made for file storage. Some services, such as xdrive.com, even allow you to place an icon right on your computer screen that represents the online hard drive. In effect, it's almost as if you've installed a second hard drive on your computer: you can transfer files from your computer's hard drive to the online hard drive simply by moving those files from one folder to another. What's more, it is easier to rename, revise, and duplicate files using an online hard drive than it is with e-mail storage, since you work directly with files, not messages. For instance, to rename a file, simply click on it to select it, then click the Rename button and type the new name.
The real beauty of online hard drives is the ability of some to display shared files directly on the Web. With an easy-to-use Web page design program like Microsoft FrontPage or Claris Home Page, you can create a simple Web page that contains links to lessons, templates, and assessment sheets stored in your online folders. Students and colleagues simply visit your site and click on the files they wish to view or download. You'll never have students asking for an extra copy of any document again, since you can provide online access to your syllabi, lessons, rubrics, and even sound and video files.
Online hard drives are not without their drawbacks, however. Typically, they offer less free storage space than e-mail accounts, although the ability to increase your allotted space for a monthly fee is much greater. And, of course, you can't manage your files and view your e-mail from one site, so you'll need to log in to your e-mail provider separately.
RecommendationsGenerally speaking, there are certain features to look for when selecting an online storage site. First, an easy-to-use, fast interface is essential. If you plan to use e-mail storage, try Hotmail. If you're ready to take online storage to a higher level, however, popular online hard drives such as xdrive.com and freeservers.com are good choices. Whichever route you pursue, stick with a prominent service provider: some upstarts might very well go bust if and when the dot-com bubble bursts again. Second, be aware that storing files online--even with a reputable provider--is never a guarantee against unwanted intrusion, be it from the provider's employees, data-hungry advertisers, or even hackers. Nonetheless, you may be interested in a service that allows you and other users to view your files directly on the Web. Freeservers.com, for instance, offers a free domain name (yoursite.freeservers.com) that can directly display your low-security files in a Web browser. Of course, students cannot edit or delete any of those files without your user name and password.
Most importantly, you should have access to enough online storage capacity for your files. How do you determine this? If you already have all your work-related files in a folder or a group of folders, observe how much space those files consume (this is indicated in kilobytes or megabytes at the bottom of the folder window). You should aim for at least double that amount to ensure that you have enough space for future files. Of course, obsolete files could be deleted in order to save storage space. Or, to the delight of the service provider, you could always opt for increased storage for a monthly fee.
Free vs. Premium ServicesFortunately, many online storage services still offer two tiers: a free level of service, funded by pop-up advertisements, and a variety of premium-level packages. The former is usually adequate for teachers and other users who deal mainly with small text files, such as tests and worksheets. By contrast, premium services offer more storage space, better access, and extra features without annoying intrusions by dot-com advertisers. Even though the most expensive premium package is cheaper than the cost of a monthly wireless phone subscription, it is not surprising that today's users opt for free service, as they do for so many other Web-based amenities.
Benefits to Teachers, Administrators and Students
Improved ProductivityThe main benefit of storing your files systematically and efficiently in a Web-based storage account is the ability to have access to those files quickly and easily. This means no more forgotten tests, handouts, or templates: you simply log into your account, click a folder, and download, or "open," your file. You can then make last-minute revisions, rename it, or print it--just as you would any file--and upload, or "save," the revised file back into the online folder.
Having your files accessible also grants you increased flexibility. With regard to lesson planning, you can use a school computer to download an activity from your online file folder and implement it with your students. You can also take advantage of more frequent opportunities to work on your files. Previously, you would have had no way to revise a document stored on a distant computer. Now, you could log into your online storage account and work on your record of attendance or your list of marks from any web-enabled computer.
Enhanced Collaboration with ColleaguesThe ability to share a document with fellow teachers or administrators is an important part of our job. Online file storage helps solve some of the shortcomings of current file management techniques. For instance, when a draft exam is shared among colleagues, any revision must necessarily be re-sent to all other colleagues before any further revisions are done. Otherwise, duplicate revisions or incompatible revisions will occur. Enter online storage: a group of teachers could set up a free joint account, then make revisions and upload their changes. The next user would simply continue where the last user finished, making revisions and uploading his or her changes. Of course, all users could keep copies of their own revisions should any disagreement arise about any particular version.
One begins to see how online file management can help to tackle barriers of time, place, and money in the school. Since faculty and administrators can't always meet one another on a daily basis, they often don't have the opportunity to participate fully in collaborative efforts. Sharing an online storage space can be an excellent way to work collaboratively on a variety of tasks. For instance, curriculum documents or unit plans could be developed efficiently by a number of colleagues from separate web-enabled computers. And with online hard drives that allow files to be viewed as part of a Web site, online publishing can be an affordable, convenient alternative to paper-based documents, which require extensive photocopying and reprinting if revisions are required.
Better-quality Access to Documents for StudentsThe indirect benefits to students are obvious: when faculties are better able to store, retrieve, revise, and share files, the quality of instructional materials--and, by extension, instruction itself--improves. Moreover, when teachers store notes and other displays for students online, students have ubiquitous access to error-free, polished, full-colour documents, not hand-revised photocopies that are likely to be forgotten in a locker. Nonetheless, teachers need to be aware of the fact that students have varying levels of access to computers, let alone computers with Internet access and the software required to view your files. Based on your students' computing capabilities, you should be both realistic and flexible in your expectations of how students access files.
ConclusionWith the rise of high-speed networks, teachers and other users might actually find themselves saving all their important files to an online storage space by default. This practice would reverse the traditional computing model, which defines your laptop or desktop computer as a primary device to which you add supplementary network services like Web access and e-mail. With online file storage and the ubiquity of the Web, you now have the ability to free your files from the constraints of drives and diskettes and keep them within reach, both in and out of the classroom.
Links Mentioned in the Article
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 2, February 2003