A dozen benefits of Dropbox file storage – and some caveats
Dropbox is a hugely popular service that provides free online file storage. Other vendors provide similar services, like Box.net, Mozy, Sugrasync, and Syncpility or the platform-oriented MobileMe (Apple) and Windows Live Skydrive. However, based on Alexa traffic rankings, Dropbox is the most widely used. I have already recommended this service in A half dozen tools to try and Seven free web tools for students, so I hope you’ll forgive me for giving it a little more space.
Most college-level instructors have to manage a raft of computer files – syllabus, presentations, handouts, images, and more. If you don’t want to lug a laptop into your technology-equipped classroom, you can use a USB flash drive to tote files, but it’s easy to lose that little guy or leave it behind. You also have to remember to copy the right files onto it.
Online storage might be a better choice, and most institutions provide some kind of networked file space. The solution provided by a university tends to be a no-frills proposition, though. And that’s where the features offered a third party like Dropbox begin to look interesting.
Benefits of Dropbox
- Access it anywhere – save a PowerPoint in your office and then open it in the classroom, library, coffee shop, home, airport, hotel, or conference center.
- Use it on multiple devices – backup files on your desktop and see them later on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone
- It works across platforms – sync up a to-do list from a Windows machine and modify it on a Blackberry, Mac, Linux, iPhone, or Android device
- The app is optional – if the computer in your classroom that doesn’t have Dropbox installed, you simply access your files from a browser.
- It’s good to share – you can set up a folder to be accessible by a specific set of Dropbox accounts. Try this with students, colleagues, committee members, co-authors, family, or other groups.
- Make items public – anything you put in your “Public” folder is available to the world; you can even link to an item from a course website (here’s an example).
- Back up essential files – everything you save in a Dropbox folder is automatically copied, not only to “the cloud” but also to other devices connected to your account.
- Keep files in sync – always have your most recent to-do list or folder of browser bookmarks. I keep my genealogy database in Dropbox, so I have the most up-to-date info at home and on the road.
- One less thing to forget – become less reliant on that USB flash drive or portable hard drive.
- We have a history – an account maintains 30 days of “undo”, allowing you to return to last Friday’s draft of class preparation notes – the one before you accidentally deleted that awesome anecdote.
- Keep costs low – there is no fee for 2 GB of space. If you need more, pay up to $20/month for 100 GB. You can earn extra free space by using a special URL to refer new customers (I resisted that temptation here).
- Play nicely with others – on my iPad I access Dropbox files from GoodReader, for example. Other connecting apps include QuickOffice, iA Writer, and Documents to Go. I expect that other platforms offer similar connections.
Caveats and downsides
- Privacy – our university policy dictates that sensitive information must not be stored off site, including grades, student information, and personnel data.
- Proliferation – Dropbox creates a copy of each file on each device – this may get confusing if you use the system on three or more devices
- Space creep – every shared file is also copied to your account, so you have to keep an eye on how much space you have left to work with.
- Delay – with a slow Internet connection, large files – or large numbers of changes – will take time to sync up to the cloud. If you aren’t paying attention, you can shut down mid-sync and unknowingly end up working with a dated file later on.
- No editing – it’s a way to store files, not edit them.
- Not for massive storage – I have an external hard drive for complete backups, which are much larger than 100 GB. Everything on my Mac – software included – is incrementally backed up multiple times a day with “Time Machine”.