Monday, October 24, 2011

Using Dropbox To Share Teaching Materials

A professor wrote to me recently to ask about using Dropbox to share teaching materials. I replied as follows.

There are a number of factors that affect the use of Dropbox--and implications that follow from using it.

First, it is unwise and against most university polices to store student grades or other sensitive data on 'the cloud.' Some policies demand that student grades be protected with encryption, and Dropbox does not offer this.

FERPA-protected information like social security numbers should not be stored on systems like Dropbox. I am not a lawyer, but I would assume that the disability status of individuals is similarly confidential, so I would strongly advised against discussing particular individuals in files shared on the cloud--or via non-university email.

If, however, you are 'merely' sharing teaching materials, these concerns arguably do not apply.

Dropbox is very popular amongst professors: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/dropbox-edu/33911 A professional educational technology called Educause has some brief advice about using these services: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7073.pdf But this advice is (mercifully) brief and hence leaves out many pesky details.

If you create a single account (e.g., "mycollegeromancelanguageprofs"), then you will not know who posted what, and any single user could accidentally delete everything.

I would therefore argue that the best practice is: for individual users to sign up for separate accounts. Conceptually, participating instructors can think of every item as existing twice--once as their own work product, and then a second time as filed by topic, level, etc.

In short,
  • Francesca may share a quiz on the past tense, and a handout on literary devices.
  • Gianni may share a handout on pronouns and a quiz on Pirandello.
  • A helpful person might then copy the files to folders on: grammar: verbs, pronouns, etc; literature: devices, authors, etc.
  • Francesca may create a shared folder organized by topic, whereas Gianni might want to create folders organizing by course.
  • Since users cannot control each others' behaviors, a good philosophy might be to 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' (In the absence of rigid taxonomies, 'folksonomies' are useful. Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy )
Some implications follow from using Dropbox in this way.
  • To share a folder with others, each user would need a list of participating instructors' emails. This would only need to be done once, but (so far as I know) every time a new instructor wanted to participate, every user would have to add that user. Here is information on sharing: http://www.dropbox.com/help/19
  • Participating instructors would need to be clear about workflow. Namely, each instructor could create a shared folder, but other instructors would have to know NOT to delete or alter these files.
  • Some user will MOVE files rather than COPYING them, so SOMEONE needs how to sign into Dropbox and restore deleted files.
  • If there is no clear or simple way to alert people "hey, I shared a new file on topic X," a certain amount of poking around and looking at dates might be helpful. I cannot think of a clear method here, so if you do, please tell me.
  • One workflow would then be: for instructors to share files bearing their own names, to label documents clearly. Anyone interested in doing so could then copy the files over to shared folders organized by topic, concept, difficulty level, etc.--e.g., first year, second year, grammar, style, literature, etc.
This web page has the best tips I have seen (and I have browsed 50 pages on the topic): http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/16310/user-guide-to-dropbox-shared-folders/

Using Dropbox to share teaching materials has some complexities, but it is a step up from emailing individual files.

--Edward R. O'Neill