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 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.

Computer Oil – making the most of your classroom machine

WD40 is the magical sprayable oil which can fix almost any mechanical problem with a few well placed squirts. It is a mechanic’s best friend.

Sadly, WD40 does not work for computers, in fact it would probably not do your computer much good at all! When you are using an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) for teaching, or any type of computer based applications, things almost always go awry. Believe me, I know!

Having worked as multimedia coordinator with hundreds of computers, where I supported not one but two flagship schools in central London which had both staff and student machines, each with a multimedia room and one with an additional computer lab, I have done a lot of trouble shooting both for my own and other teachers’ classes. One of the most common mistakes people make is to overestimate the power of their computer.

It is difficult to remember to conduct the basic maintenance that keeps a computer running efficiently when you are using it in front of a class. People tend to open up hundreds of new tabs on their browser, running very processor heavy sites such as BBC iPlayer, without closing windows which are no longer needed, or keeping other applications running in the background. IWBs often come with their own software and usually they are connected to low-spec computers which the school or institution buys en mass on the cheap, so don’t overwork them. If you want to keep your computer and IWB running and avoid crashing it, keep open only the windows and programs that you need and close things down when you are done.

Although I just told you to close windows, you still need to watch out for overheating issues.  The computer’s CPU produces a huge amount of heat when it is running, as much as the filament of an electric kettle. Overheating will cause your computer run more slowly and eventually crash. Think about the position of the computer. All computers have fans and vents, make sure these are not pointed at a wall or enclosed by a desk, as this will reflect the heat back into them. Also, don’t put things on the computer, as this can again lead to overheating. Another overheating risk comes from running too many applications and keeping too many windows open. The final thing you can do to avoid overheating is to ensure that the computer is not left on all night. Turning it on and off after each lesson may not be practical, but shutting it down each night will keep it running for longer and also is much better for the environment. You can create a scheduled task in control panel using a batch file which means that the computer will shut down automatically at a specified time each night. Just be sure that you remember to turn off the monitors and projector screens as even in standby these use a lot of power and again this is bad for the environment.

The computer will also run faster if you only have programs installed which you need. Many programs, such as apple Quicktime, will start themselves and run in the background upon startup even though you’re not using them. Check which programs are running in the startup and remove them from the registry to make the machine more efficient. You can also speed up the computer by ensuring that all the temporary internet files have been cleaned off, and that you defrag your hard drive often. By default, most Windows installations are set to use Virtual Memory, which is hard disk space acting as RAM. If your hard disk gets full and the Virtual Memory quota cannot be met by the physical remaining space on the disk then the computer is prone to crash.

If you are not sure about any of these things, ask your IT support to check them all. If you don’t have an IT support then you should ask your school or institution to hire someone in for the day to check all this, or do it yourself using online tutorials and ask for a pay rise!

Computers are sensitive animals. Many of them are made to work like slaves for long hours in hot sweaty conditions. It is not unknown for computers to be badly beaten when the pressure is too much and they begin to flag. This is not wise if you want your computer to work like a well oiled machine. If you click on something and it doesn’t work instantly, this means the computer is running slowly. Often people then fire a volley of double-clicks at the computer, which just means you are asking it to do the same job hundreds of times. Nothing slows a computer down faster than this clicking spree. Be patient with your machine, and don’t be fooled into thinking that whacking it has any effect.

If you combine all these small tips, you will notice a marked increase in the speed of your machine. If the machine really is a piece of junk, you can always buy more ram or re-format the hard drive and see if that makes it any quicker. Failing all this, ensure your school or college invests in decent hardware, but even if your machine is a top of the range machine, remember that a little love goes a long way and that there is no oil in a can panacea to make it run reliably unless you use it sensibly.

When to (and when not to) use tech in class

The question of when to use, and equally as important – when not to use, technology in class has been a question that sadly gets left out of many of the discussions around new learning technologies. Unfortunately, a lot of the choices about tech in class come from a top down implementation. So, your school gets a load of new interactive whiteboards. They give you a 1 hour training session, remove all the old whiteboards and say ‘off you go then’. Questioning their practicality often gets you branded as ‘negative’ or even ‘anti-progressive’.
Happily, there are those who dare to ask questions about this approach to instructional technology. People like Mike Levy, Phil Hubbard and Greg Kessler (among others) have voiced their concern over ‘tech for tech’s sake’ and this is coming from the leading CALL experts and advocators. Interactive whiteboards, for example, don’t do things that normal ones do. You can’t have more than one person writing on it at the same time, for example, so if you are doing a spelling race or something like that you won’t be able to use it. A lot of great software and apps are being released at an amazing rate, but all too often they are put into use without prior evaluation. As CALL practitioners we need to ask ourselves, is this useful? How so? When would this be useful and when would it not? These questions are not dissimilar to the questions teachers ask themselves when planning or evaluating any resource for a lesson. You don’t need to be an expert to conduct this kind of evaluation either.

A good example is a Blended Learning Lesson Plan I wrote myself for use in my institution. I was thinking about this lesson from a very top-down perspective, I’m sorry to say. I was concerned our Moodle forums were underused, so I thought ‘how can I get these forums to be used in class?’ I created a lesson plan where the whole class is taken into the computer room and forced to use the forum to post a response to something.
Not only did this only mean that forums were used a lot for the hour of the class and then never again, it was also questionable pedagogically. Why make people communicate over a forum when they are in the same room as each other? In the pecking order of communication, face to face is always best.

Forums are powerful collaboration tools, but the point is to allow asynchronous sharing and knowledge. The same lesson applied to learners who are in a separated by time and space would be great, but not if they could just have easily have actually spoken to each other.
We are at a stage now where technology is so ubiquitous that we are not always so keen to implement it for its own sake. We need to critically evaluate the new item, see if it works, decide what it is good for and what it is not so good for.

I woul like to invite you to post your comments about any new piece of technology you have used in class. Was it useful? What can it do well? What are its limitations?

CALL Teacher Education

There is a brilliant book entitled ‘Teacher Education in CALL’ (Hubbard and Levy eds. 2006) which details the current state of CALL teacher education – some of the predominant findings are that there is not enough CALL Teacher Education going on as part of INSET or PRESET training, and even when CALL is part of Teacher Education programs it is often considered unsatisfactory in terms of preparing teachers to actually use CALL applications in class.

In the TESLCA-L List-Serv I started a post about CALL and Autonomy and was soon contacted through the list by Greg Kessler, a researcher and CALL Teacher Education Specialist who contributed to the ‘Teacher Education in CALL’ book. The post took on a slightly new purpose then, focusing on CALL Teacher Education and how this can feed into Autonomy Training.

I decided I would expand the idea by adding a post here. By joining the free mailing list TESLCA-L you can read the archived postings and also add to them, or alternatively leave a comment here on this blog about the subject.

We are particularly interested in:

  • any CALL preparation courses you have taken
  • your attitudes towards CALL use and CALL Teacher Education
  • any experiences you have had while trying to integrate CALL into your classes

We look forward to reading your postings!


Here is an updated Bibliography now listing only articles that deal with both Autonomy and CALL or Technology. This list was updated thanks to comments by Steve (see below).

If anyone has experience using technology for Autonomous langauge learning or experience with Online Self-Access Centres (OSAC) please add a comment to the discusion below.

Continue reading “Autonomy” »