The new ‘dog ate my homework’ & the importance of Backups

Believe it or not, I once used “the dog ate my homework” as an excuse for not doing my French homework. It has, for a long time, being a standing joke that this is the worst and most inexcusable excuse available to students. However, there is a new “dog ate my homework” which I have been hearing students use more and more and which I find equally inexcusable – “my hard drive died”.

As someone who encourages students to type their written assignments and to submit them online through email or through a moodle assignment activity, I hear excuses about lost work which was not backed up quite often. I am quite religious about backing up my own work, ever since a close friend turned to me and told me he wouldn’t know how to continue with his life if he lost all the work on his computer. We have moved on from a society that uses floppy disks and CDRs to store our important files. With digital cameras and online shops such as iTunes and Amazon.com selling music and films for download, many of us now have considerable capital invested in the contents of our hard drives. On my hard drive there are several gigagbytes of films, music and software not to mention all my recent photographs and a growing collection of essays, articles and lesson plans. If I were to lose all this it would be a very crushing blow, something akin to having my house burgled. And yet, computers and hard drives are much more likely to go wrong than a person is to get burgled.

I use several applications to securely backup and synchronise my work. My virus and PC security software is Norton 360, which comes with a small amount of online backup storage which can be scheduled to run automatically. This space is just about enough to backup email contacts, browser favourites and so on. However, for browsing I use XMarks, which is fantastic as it not only backs up your bookmarks but it also synchronises them with another computer and allows you to access them from the cloud on any machine. The other service I couldn’t recommend highly enough is Dropbox. I find this invaluable both as a cloud accessible online storage service and also as a synchronisation tool between my desktop and laptop. It is incredibly easy to use, after installing the program a simple file is created in the My Documents folder and you can simply drop files in there and they will be backed up automatically. If you have more than one computer, the next time you turn it on the new files will be synchronised as long as you have Dropbox on there and registered.

Of course, there are limits to these cloud services, especially for things such as my lesson bank and music files. I invested in a 1 terabyte external hard drive a while ago and I use a free program called FreeFileSync which is very versatile and allows you to create automatic or mirror backups in just a few clicks. Of course, some people create .bat files and use scheduled tasks to automate this process, but I find this method works best for me as I use my computer at different times of the day and night and scheduled tasks don’t always get the chance to run.

When I begin a term and meet a new class of students, I think it is important to explain to them clearly and in no uncertain terms that lost homework from failing to have a backup will not be accepted as an excuse. It is not only a bad excuse, it is a dangerous lifestyle choice to fail to keep your work backed up at all times. If students don’t have a USB stick or don’t want to use any of the free services such as Google Docs, Hotmail SkyDrive or Dropbox then they can simply email themselves the essay they are working on and that will also suffice as a backup.

Although we often think of our students in terms of ‘digital natives’ I think that we can easily forget that they are not digitally experienced although they are digitally literate. Unless you have experienced first hand the pain and frustration of losing a body of work due to hardware malfunction the hard drive can seem like too much of a robust and impenetrable safe box. If we can explain this issue to our students then we not only teach them the worthlessness of the dead drive excuse, but we may save them from the  genuine danger of losing their work.