Computer Common Sense

This is the updated version of a widget I’m posting on my d2l home pages for my students this fall; it updates a post from last January.

Over the past few years, I’ve had a remarkable and increasing number of students experience serious losses of data. Here’s help. These are free.

Problem 1: “I lost my files.” Students lose USB memory sticks, crash hard-drives, leave stuff somewhere accidentally, and get computers stolen or infected all the time. Before anything else, if you use Word go to Preferences>Save and set the autosave to work every minute. In any word processor develop the subconscious habit of hitting Ctrl-S every other sentence.

To avoid big losses, use the free “cloud” drive called Dropbox. It gives 2GB of space for free, it’s very quick, you can sync the same files among all of your computers, you can access them from any other computer by logging in to the website, and you can use it to share files with others–really: what’s not to love? Alternatively, or also, use the web-based Google Docs, a free replacement for Word and Excel that can also store any kind of file, even video. It also lets you share files with others (get a group from a class together, and agree to save all of your classnotes to a shared folder). To save photos, use Picasa‘s web albums.

[Beyond just saving document folders, I’d strongly recommend a service like Backblaze or Crashplan or Carbonite or Mozy or Spideroak or Jungledisk to automate regular backups of some or all of your system, in the cloud or on an external hard drive or both. Here’s a discussion of various options from Lifehacker; they describe here how these work, using Crashplan as an example. Your files are your responsbility: every term a student of mine loses their whole computer, but I still have to grade something.]

Problem 2: “My account got hacked.” Alternatively, “I forgot/lost my password.” Students can be astonishingly loose with passwords. First, don’t lock your front door with scotch tape; second, use a good lock. The best system is to use LastPass or another password manager: they are much more secure than you could ever be.

Problem 3: “Someone stole my laptop [or] smartphone.” Avoid laptop theft by using a locking cable in libraries and coffeeshops ($, but much less than your computer). Considering the number of mobile devices people own, everyone should use Prey (free) or Gadgettrack (small cost).

Problem 4: Internet Explorer. Actually, the newest version (9) is getting better reviews. But there’s a reason that it has been losing market share for years. I would recommend that you use Firefox or Chrome. Chrome, for instance, has a built-in .pdf viewer, so you don’t have to download Adobe’s very cumbersome Acrobat Reader. Aside from speed, these have the huge advantage of what Chrome calls extensions and what Firefox calls add-ons to add new features to your browser. These are wonderful (I love Adblock, for instance). Some suggestions follow . . .

Problem 5: “I don’t know where I found the information on the internet.” You must cite all of your sources, including anything from the internet. Tracking your work is very easy, so the problem of losing this is very avoidable and, therefore, silly. I think the best solution is Evernote (here’s a start to how). Another is Instapaper. Extensions are available for Chrome and Firefox that will save a webpage for later reading, such as Chrome Scrapbook or ReadItLater for Firefox. With Firefox you can even get a free, fully-fledged citation manager called Zotero that not only saves citations but will format and insert them into Word documents (there’s a learning curve to using Zotero, but I know users who just love it. You can use it for the rest of your college career, and long after).

Your lives are very digital; avoid losing them. All of these are useable on any computer and often on smartphones, any time. Now that you know you don’t have any more excuses.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

4 thoughts on “Computer Common Sense”

  1. D to the P: Chrome’s got pretty decent apps/extensions for Evernote, and students confused about Evernote might have OneNote installed and not even know it. For ff, Scrapbook and ReadItLater are “lite”-r versions of Zotero, too, which I find can get messy if you don’t put in good effort learning how to use it.

    I don’t have much to add, in fact, beyond alternate suggestions. I use Keepass/KeepassX for password storage myself. One thing that’s happened lately that I didn’t expect is that I’ve really stopped using Firefox, which is weird, in favor of Chrome (easy browsing) and Opera (the stuff I used to use Firefox for). I don’t know why; I’m sick of waiting for the Ff beta to go to RC. But Opera also has dropbox-like webstorage built in, as does Ubuntu, not like anybody’s using either of those, of course. IE9 is nifty, surprisingly, but only because they made it so anonymous.

    I really like the Google Apps idea you propose and I wish we’d do more with what SharePoint already offers on that front. If they could get the web stuff sorted out we could be using that platform as it’s meant: for document collaboration. Since all our students use Word and PPoint, I don’t understand why this hasn’t been at the front of our integration effort. It’s something I hope to work on next semester for our site.

    Anyway, it’s a good list. I also tell students to invest money in serious backup: a portable drive is essential if you’re using a laptop because laptop drives are built to fail. Nothing will protect you if your hardware goes (and I lost a chapter of my diss to a sudden hd failure, so it happens to the “best” of us) and memory is cheap, or they can use online stuff like mozy. Most newer OSes have backup functionality built-in, but they have to have a repository for it.

    The first hardware tip for me, however, is always “Buy an effing stapler.” I mean jesus.

  2. I would really, really like to see some document collaboration facility baked in to our SRU site; right now, there’s none of that. That’s a great idea. I think that they’re all still busy with the new site and the conversion from Blackboard to d2l. A year later.

    And you have a good point about Zotero. I was thinking of just starting them off with using it to save references, and leaving it at that. And now that I look, Instapaper has a free version too. I’m going to make a little list of possibilities for this.

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