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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

Matt Williams Matt Williams  |  Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.