09/03/2009 | KELLY AGRELIUS
Today’s K-12 students and teachers are fully engaged in the digital age. They are asked to create dazzling documents, action-packed videos, and dynamic presentations, and more and more, they are doing so with ease. What’s becoming increasingly challenging is the ability for students and teachers to store, access, and share their vast assortment of files in a secure and easy manner.
Many school sites throughout the U.S. have addressed this problem by establishing file servers with shared drive space. However, server and user administration for hundreds or thousands of student users creates more work than most school technologists can handle. In addition, these storage servers typically can’t be accessed from home because of district firewalls.
Other districts have purchased and issued expensive laptop computers for students to advance the idea of “one-to-one computing.” Technology support and the high cost of equipment replacement makes this a controversial solution in today’s economy.
One answer that is growing in popularity is the web locker. Based on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, web lockers offer web-based storage, backup, collaboration, and file sharing that specifically caters to the needs of education. With SaaS-based systems, such as School Web Lockers, ease of use and affordability are key.
Each school or school district typically receives its own secure, password-protected web site, with user-friendly features that take only seconds to grasp. Schools are charged a nominal set-up fee, and then a per-user charge of $1 per year. To begin, each user is given access to their own web locker, which is available via password from the web site.
The idea behind these systems is that users can create work on one computer, and then stash files in their personal web locker for completion later – either on the same computer, or on another one at home or elsewhere – without concern for firewalls. They essentially extend the reach of the classroom beyond the confines of the typical school day, which is the major reason why SaaS-based platforms are catching on. They lead to greater productivity and offer students and teachers more options for getting the job done.
To get started with a SaaS file sharing and storage system, a shared directory is usually created for each class, and permissions are set according to teachers’ specifications. Students can download assignments given by the teacher and upload completed homework to the shared directory, without the risk of the file being stolen or copied. Also, these online storage systems manage filenames using a proprietary file system so that the teacher can receive multiple files with the same name from various students, without getting them mixed up, and without having to teach every student how to embed their name or use some other technique to ensure that filenames are unique.
Safety and Security
With the use of multimedia projects now becoming more popular than ever before in schools, having enough storage capacity on hand is also important. With web-based lockers, all users are given a substantial amount of personal storage capacity: in some cases, vendors provide unlimited data storage for each user. All files are typically backed up daily and preserved from year to year to allow students to easily create a portfolio of work. Built-in security and safety measures -- such as blocked file types, parental sign-in, and the ability for teachers and school administrators to monitor what students are storing – quell most concerns in today’s often dangerous Internet age.
Schools are also finding that web lockers offer a safer, more secure alternative to allowing students to use portable devices such as USB drives or compact disks, which can threaten the security of district networks. In addition, having students access their data on a separate domain from the school network -- via a third-party SaaS platform that is maintained off site -- also addresses further security concerns.
The Green Factor
Web-based file sharing and storage also helps schools further their efforts toward a greener environment. It removes the need for paper by allowing teachers to upload documents and post them directly into student web lockers. A teacher can simply upload one document and post it in all student lockers instead of making multiple handout copies. In turn, students can complete an assignment on the computer and upload the document into the “homework due” folder, from which it is then sent directly to the teacher.
There are a growing number of SaaS-based systems on the market specifically designed for schools. At the high end, you will find comprehensive SaaS platforms with built-in email, word processing, and other features. These robust platforms have a lot to offer, but typically require a substantial time investment from administrators or teachers. There are also less complex and more affordable web lockers systems, which deliver a full breadth of file sharing, storage, and collaboration capabilities, along with 24/7 worry-free maintenance provided by the SaaS vendor.
Even with all of the benefits outlined above, the move to SaaS-based storage is a transitional one for most schools. In some cases, schools are steadily integrating the service, one classroom at a time, and based upon teacher interest. Further down the line, it is anticipated that districts will formally train teachers to plan curriculum using web-based storage. That’s when the trend toward web lockers will really take off in education.