It's becoming harder for students to plead that the teacher never passed out a worksheet.
That's because some Texas schools are installing new file storage technologies, such as Web-based "digital lockers," that let teachers post homework documents online for students to print out when they get home. Without the crutch of the cubby-and-backpack routine, slackers will have to be more creative when explaining why they don't have a completed homework assignment.
But schools' move toward online storage is about much more than convenience. For example, when the Lytle Independent School District (ISD) - serving grades K-12 for a community 20 miles southwest of San Antonio - wanted to improve its network security, the district chose an online file-sharing tool called School Web Lockers.
In the past, Lytle ISD allowed its 1,600 students to save their school-related files on each school's or district's network. The problem was students didn't have an individualized logon, nor was there password protection on those district-owned networks, according to Donelle Harris, the district's technology facilitator.
"We found that the kids were accidentally deleting other people's files or getting into network files that they didn't need to be in," she said. "So basically we chose the Web Lockers as a way for the kids to securely store work they were doing in school, and a way for them to transfer work from home to school if they had Internet access at home without them having to bring a memory stick, a [compact disc] or something like that."
Variations on a Theme
Educators should be prepared to choose from a crowded field of online storage products customized for teachers and students. Many of them - including School Loop, Follett Digital Classroom, Microsoft Live@edu and SchoolCenter - offer online file storage packaged with related Web-based services (i.e., blogs, e-mail, instant messaging and grade books). School Web Lockers is another provider in this class of products, which aims to give schools a cost-effective alternative to storing files onto on-site networks and servers.
They are all competing to tap a market - schools - that's moving to a paperless system, albeit slowly.
"A lot of schools have banned e-mail, so students cannot e-mail [assignments] to themselves," said School Web Lockers Sales and Marketing Manager Kelly Agrelius. "Some schools have even banned flash drives because those can carry viruses, and in the case some schools allow those, the kids forget them or lose them, and they've lost their work. Other schools allow kids to store files on their network, but in that case, they can't open the network up to the public because it creates security concerns, and the kids can't access their files at home."
School Web Lockers is one of the simpler options. It features a no-frills, Web-based navigation menu for teachers who want to upload homework assignments, update a blog and event calendar, return assignment assessments and post grades. Conversely students can upload completed homework and download new assignments, as well as post to message boards. The service can accept any type of file attachment, though file sizes have a preset limit. Students can also use the system to save in-progress homework, such as Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets and JPEGs taken for photography class.
Security is also addressed. Each school or district that purchases this Web-based storage service is given its own site so that only enrolled students can access a teacher's posted material. Every student is assigned a user name and password, and uploads and downloads are virus-scanned. In addition, the data is backed up to tape every day at School Web Lockers' co-location facility.
"I think it's certainly saving our technology department time," Harris said. "They spent a lot of time trying to go back through backup files trying to find
the ones that had been deleted [from the school network], and that was the main saver for them was not having to go find them and restore deleted data or files. It's extremely cost-effective; it's like $1 per user. For unlimited storage, you couldn't buy everybody memory sticks to carry around for that. Cost-wise, it was the best option for us."
Students and Teachers Adapt
School Web Lockers spawned its "digital lockers" solution in 2004, when Networld Solutions Inc. collaborated on a pilot with the Riverside Unified School District in Southern California. Today the system is used in 19 states among 200,000 users, Agrelius said.
Jason Sewell, a teacher with the Paramount Unified School District in Los Angeles County, Calif., has been using digital lockers for his world history students for the last three years. Sewell said he uses the service to post PowerPoint slides and worksheets, and only as a supplemental means of accessing homework assignments because some of his students don't have Internet access at home. "I use it for the kids who have to miss [class] because of family vacations or emergencies," he explained.
Web Lockers are used by at least seven Texas school districts, including Lytle ISD; London ISD, in Corpus Christi; Beckville ISD, located 25 miles southeast of Longview; Holy Family Catholic School in Austin; and Millsap ISD in Millsap.
"I don't know that it's a solution for everybody," Harris said. "It kind of depends on how the networks are set up and if I would say, honestly, probably on-site storage for kids might be a little bit easier for them to get to. But kids will learn anything you teach them."
Harris said it's important to train students - and teachers - before rolling out a Web-based storage product, no matter the vendor. The biggest problem for her district was user error. "[The students] kept trying to open [files] out of School Web Lockers instead of downloading the file and working with it on the desktop or on the computer. They were just trying to open it from there and work on it, and we kept telling them, 'It's like a locker. You can't read a book if it's still in your locker.'"
Setting a maximum file size for the system can also be tricky, Harris said. Initially Lytle ISD had a maximum file size for uploads of 10 MB that was set by the district's technology director. But teachers quickly discovered it wasn't large enough because the digital storage was being used for Microsoft Photo Story 3 projects and large PowerPoint presentations. Since then, the district has set the file limit to 20 MB, which has mostly solved the problem. "It was more lack of training for the kids and the teachers than anything [last year]," Harris said. "We didn't have any real formal training; we will when we start back to school this year."
Harris said although Lytle ISD adopted the product districtwide, the decision to use it ultimately rests with the teachers. "One or two of the teachers, some of the more tech-savvy teachers, allowed students to submit their work to them digitally through the school program. Other teachers didn't touch it at all. It's just like anything with technology and school - it depends on the teacher. Some will use it and some of them, about two years down the road, they'll go, 'This is the neatest thing.'"
Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2