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Technology Independence: What to Do Before it Fails

By Steffen Parker on February 08, 2016 hst Print

Our reliance on technology continues to grow with each new device, each all-in-one software program and each downloaded app on our tablet or phone. We now expect accessible WiFi everywhere we go.
Most educators have some portion of their daily lives tied to technology or the Internet or both – their calendars, phone numbers, homework, office policies, etc. With this dependency comes the challenges created when there is a failure in one or more technologies that support that use, technologies we come to rely upon a regular, daily or planned basis.

However, there are some steps that can be taken prior to such collapses that will mitigate the effect they have on our ability to continue with our work with students in our schools.

Backup – Backup – Backup
Having a separate location where some or all of your computer’s documents (and programs) are stored is the first and most important step one can take to prepare for hardware or access failure. And because we are humans and forgetful, having an automated backup system in place means that we are more likely to have our latest and greatest documents in a safe place if we need them. There are multiple ways to accomplish this through in-house hardware and online services. A combination of both provides the flexibility to deal with any type of technology shortcoming, whether it be a hard-drive crash or a WiFi disconnection.

Individual Backup
For cloud-type backups, Microsoft Cloud, DropBox, SkyDrive, OneDrive, Pocket, Carbonite, iDrive, GoogleDrive (and many more) have different levels of backup, access, cost and retrieval processes. Most provide an automated way to backup your files, either using their own software or a system application already in your computer.

DropBox provides the advantage of creating an exact copy of those files not only on its website, but the user can have another copy on another computer that shares the same DropBox account. Add to this the use of symlinks, which allows the user to keep files and folders in regular hard-drive places within a Documents folder but automatically making a copy in the DropBox folder (which then gets backed up automatically to all other DropBox connections). The user will not only not be without a file anywhere, but never lose any of them due to equipment failure.

A hardware backup for individual computers is now less expensive and easier to manage and maintain. Many of the newer solid-state hard drives have a backup program that comes with them while most operating systems (Windows 8, Mac OS 10.8, Linux) have backup applications that come as part of their utilities. The advantages to these include cost and portability, while the disadvantages are the individual nature (one per computer) and the human factor of remembering to plug the device in on a regular basis.

Group or Large Scale Backup
If you are looking to backing up a room, group or collection of computers, there are various hardware backup systems from a designated computer that back up the others connected to it to a dedicated server (or rack of servers) that only serves as a data collector. Area-wide backup, such as Apple’s Time Capsule, works both as a wireless router and an automatic backup for both Macs and Windows, while AX64 Time Machine will backup or restore your entire Windows OS in just seconds. Backing up all of your devices automatically and allowing you to restore your entire computer hard drive, including operating systems, preferences, applications and the like, provides almost complete security against hardware failure.

Commercial Backup
Given the importance of the electronic documentation in education now, schools and districts should seriously consider offsite commercial backup for their server and all that it holds. While an expense that may never be used, the value, if needed, far outpaces the cost.

Emails and Attachments
While your email program will retain emails in your InBox or any folders you use within that program, relying upon that as a place to store information and associated attachments means relying upon that program, its special format file hierarchy and your hard drive. When you have an enote of importance, save a text or HTML copy of it on your (backed up) hard drive or at least print it out. And download all appropriate (and safe) attachments into a folder within your Documents folder, not just the Downloads folder.

Web Browser Cache
When your connection to the outside world through the Internet goes down, you lose your ability to search for new information, directions, etc. on the web. However, your browser remembers the pages you have visited and saves the last version in your browser’s cache, available for you to recall even when the Internet is not there. The size of the cache and how often it is emptied or updated determines how many sites are retained. Each browser has a different preference, setting or option to determine the different aspects of the cache. Make sure yours is set large enough to be of value (a week’s worth of sites is usually enough), but not so large as to take up too much hard drive space. Accessing these sites is often through your browser’s history, but may be directly from the cache listing itself.

Personal Wifi / Tethering
Besides the obvious choice to take your computer and go somewhere that has a working Internet connection when yours fails, most smartphones have the ability to create a short range WiFi network using their cellular connection to reach the web. While it can be slow, especially if several computers are using it or if your connection is poor, and expensive based on your data plan, it will allow you to connect long enough to retrieve a document or research a question.

For important documents, a printed copy is always a good idea. And if using an online system for an event such as an assessment, adjudication or evaluation, having the form on paper to be completed when needed and entered online when the site becomes available has saved many such efforts.

With a bit of preparation, a bit of funding for additional technology and consistency in the use of those features, technology failures become minor inconveniences as opposed to major upheavals. And like insurance, you hate to pay for it when you don’t need it, but it’s priceless when you do.