Tuesday, March 15, 2005

My Computer Ate My Homework

One of the issues that we face as we implement our Tablet PC program for both students and faculty is how to handle backups. The more ubiquitous, the more necessary Tablets become, the more critical it is that the information contained on them remains readily accessible--regardless of the vagaries of care or carelessness exhibited by the users. The last thing we want to do is put a program in place that causes someone to lose significant amounts of work. The second to last thing is to give kids yet another excuse when they don't turn in work.

Up until the beginning of the program, the only machines on our network were school-owned, networked machines. Student accounts had roaming profiles (in a Windows 2003 domain) and files were stored on a network drive that we backed up regularly. We recently implemented some features of Windows 2003 server that even allows the user to recover previous versions of a file without our involvement.

Now, however, we not only have files stored on the local machine, but these machines are carried out unprotected in all kinds of weather, left on the floor in public areas (we lost one already to having a chair set on it), and thrown in backpacks that are then thrown on the ground or on the floor of a bus or at a peer, or ... I'm sure you understand the risks to these computers and those risks apply to every bit of work done by the student as well.

There are tools that would allow us to automate the backup of all the files, or selected files, on the computer and safeguard the students' work just as we have always done. In fact, I use just this mechanism on my Tablet. We run Backup Exec and the laptop agent does a stellar job of keeping my files backed up to the network. About my only quibbles with it are that it doesn't always handle open files well, and my day planner software keeps its files open constantly, and I take a hit when I work at home--it will backup over the VPN which really impacts overall performance of the machine.

After discussions with a number of faculty members, this is the route we will probably be going with all of our faculty machines. Although we don't have all the possibilities and options figured out yet, it looks like this will give us the combination of data protection and centralized control that we need to have for faculty. (Why do we need centralized control? Well, we have one faculty member who put over 6 gigabytes of music in his network storage. When he gets a Tablet, more likely than not this would end up backing up wirelessly, causing problems not only for him, but for everyone else on the same access point, and for everyone on the network to some extent. We want to block backups of certain file types.)

So why not just put this on the students' Tablets and give them the same level of protection that we always have? Well, one factor is cost, though this could be built into the program or managed in any of several different ways. A bigger issue, I think, is what we are teaching the students. Or, more precisely, what we are not teaching them.

I am trying to look at every aspect of this program as an educational opportunity or to see the real educational need inherent in it. There are a number of things that our students will encounter in college and later in life that we can use this program to help prepare them for. One of the things they are most likely to encounter is the need to take responsibility for their own data. No one backs up my computers at home unless I do it. I don't know of any college that automatically backs up its students' computers, either. Even if there is one, it is far from the norm. In a few short years, not only will no one be backing up their data, probably no one will even be telling them that they need to. We want our students to leave Vermont Academy with this understanding and this habit.

What we have done at this point is to create a simple command script (a DOS batch file, for you old hands) that backs up selected file types to a secure network location, which we then put on tape. (OK, technically, our script excludes specific file types.) The script backs up everything under My Documents so as long as a student saves his files there he can back them up. During the introductory training, I explain how this works and show students how to do the backups and (this is important) confirm that the process works for each of them. Thereafter, it is up to them to simply click on an icon on their desktop to backup their systems. We suggest that they do it every day both to keep everything backed up and to keep the backup times to a minimum. Then, if a machine fails so drastically that the hard drive is inaccessible, we can quickly restore the most recent set of files to a loaner and the student is back in business.

We have tried to make it as easy as possible, but still leave the responsibility in the hands of the students. This doesn't guarantee that no student will lose files, but then that is not the goal. Our goal for us is to make sure that no student need lose files when a crash occurs and to give students the means to prevent data loss. Our goal for them is to learn enough responsibility to prevent it for themselves.


  1. I find it interesting that you have opted to transparently backup faculty devices, but intentionally want students to
    have to initiate the backup themselves. While I certainly understand the educational value of this, it is obviously a debatable issue so I'd
    like to play Devil's advocate on this a bit and see what you and others have to say.

    First, in a Tablet PC (or laptop) initiative, I think we all agree we have to train the faculty as well as the students at least in the beginning. With that in mind, shouldn't the faculty learn to be just as
    responsible as students for backing up their work. One might also argue that they can be a positive role model for each other and students by taking data backup seriously and making sure it happens.

    On the other hand, shouldn't computer technology be a tool that teachers
    and students alike should use to support teaching and learning. While there are obviously things about a device one must learn to use it, is learning how to use technology an end in itself or just a means to support better teaching and learning. If you accept the later, than shouldn't we as technology professionals make using these tools as transparent as possible. We know that a computer isn't as reliable as a paper notebook because it is so much more complex, which of course makes it a more powerful tool. Therefore, if we can make the electronic notebook as or more immune to data loss (with automatic backups) as a paper notebook so that students and teachers alike have one less thing to worry about when just using the darn tool, aren't we obligated to do

    I think attachments in e-mail is an example similar to this. Every e-mail user should know better than to run an .exe (or other executable)file that someone they don't know sends to them. Yet, I am (and I expect others are) currently running an e-mail gateway that filters those things out. I suspect most people who ignore what they've been told about that, run a mysterious .exe, then suffer some consequences from doing so, probably won't do it again and have learned a valuable lesson. However, I think it is wise to prevent this from happening in the first place.

    - Bill

  2. First, thanks for posting, Bill. I intend for this to be a place for folks interested in implementing Tablet programs anywhere, not just at VA, so let's have a vigorous discussion on this and we'll both come away better off.

    I think our relationship to the faculty is different than to the students and therefore our obligation is different. Students need to be trained to handle their backups since we know we are sending them out into a cold, hard world where no one else cares for their data. Ideally (in most cases) our faculty will be with us for the long haul, and we can coddle them a bit more and take responsibility for them. We can make their jobs easier without imposing costs on them in 1 to 4 years when they head out to college. I agree that they ought to be responsible for backing up their data, but how many would be? Maybe THEY should have learned this in high school.

    Anyway faculty look to us to make their jobs easier, to free them from problems so that they can concentrate on the job. They are here specifically to teach, not prepare for later life and want the tools to be simple, easy to use, reliable, etc. Adding a layer of complexity, not to mention risk, would be resented by some from what I've seen. Plus, they would see this as a big step backward since they never had to worry about it before. It seems a sad trait of faculty human nature that a large amount of significant technological gain can be offset by a relatively small amount of perceived loss. Our Tablet program can't afford that.

    I agree with your assessment that (in an ideal world) these are devices that students should only be concerned about using as they need. But the reality is that they are unreliable to some degree. We could make the machines immune to data loss, relatively at least, but that would be educating our students to a false sense of security that will almost inevitably hurt them in the future. I see it as a necessary skill to be learned. (I learned that lesson myself, the hard way, when I lost three weeks' work to a disk crash early in my consulting business. It nearly did the business in. No one else was going to take care of my data but I hadn't learned to do it.)

    Let's put this in another context. Why not have all assignments automatically downloaded to a student's Tablet? After all, they are here to learn the material and writing down assignments is an adjunct task fraught with problems. If they forget to write it down or write it down wrong or lose the assignment, they won't get the work done. Blackboard and GoBinder allow for just this kind of arrangement. Are we doing our students a disservice by not implementing it? Or, as I argue, are we actually doing them a greater service because they are going to have to learn the skill of managing their obligations, first to school and later to work? Can we say we have prepared them for college without this skill?

    How far does out obligation to make them "immune to data loss" go? Your email analogy is a good one, but I think it illustrates my point. Certainly we take steps to protect our users, but we still train them to not open unexpected attachments of any kind, not just .exe files or reply to that message from the bank asking you to confirm your SSN and credit card number. We may only do this to protect them against what gets through. But it has the desirable effect of helping them handle their other mail systems better. I.e., we are training them for outside (or later) life.


  3. “Damage”
    Interesting. We had a similar problem (broken laptops) with a special education program where they and a “note buddy” in their class each had apple laptops (connected by AppleTalk, etc., etc.). Anyway, let’s just say that several of the students had “anger management” issues and tossed their laptops. Insurance came through, but there was some significant down time while we waited on replacements.

    If the students have to pay for the insurance, that might help – especially if the cost for a given student goes up with each “incident,” like auto insurance.

    You and your faculty raise some interesting points. I agree that students need to learn to make backups of important work (so do some faculty members, I’m sure ). How about meeting halfway for students: only back up a certain folder or folders automatically for them – that’s what I’m considering. Our student accounts on the network include shares that are backed-up on a daily basis as your school owned machines are. Anything that they keep “outside” on personal machines at home or on floppy disks/usb drives is their responsibility. If the size of the folder that gets backed up by the school is limited in some manner that would probably get around student (and faculty members) who tend to collect “entertainment” files. After a few times of having to reload their non-school-backed-up GB’s of mp3’s, they’ll probably learn to make their own backups. Having them run the backup script is a really great idea too.

    As for leaving work at home, that is the individual students problem: they need to come to school prepared .

    Great idea: everything we do in school should serve at least two agendas bwahahahaha!

    More later (after school)


  4. Scott,

    I agree about meeting them halfway. But then, I guess I see giving them a single icon to click to do their backups is that. No onerous configuration, nothing hard at all, really, just the habit of double-clicking at the end or beginning of the day. Ideally, it is simple enough to be so painless that they develop the habit of doing their backups.

    We had one (now former) student throw his Tablet down the stairs in a fit of anger. But since his insurance is "accident" insurance, guess who is now working to pay for his Tablet repairs? Not much we could do there, and I'm not sure what we would have done were we in the midst of a mandatory program. I doubt we would want to loan him one.


  5. Mark,

    Ouch! That kind of behavior by a non special education student would most likely result in getting the student expelled with possible criminal charges pending for “willfully damaging school property” -- it's similar to arson IMHO.

    I wonder how Maine handles their backup situation? I really do feel that studentds need to be given the opportunity to fail win a friendly setting (school). Your solution is pretty good -- I doubt that your average teen will forget to back up at a critical time more than once :)


  6. Mark,

    Another thing that might cut down on problems with "breakage" might be through having programs with "more sturdy" laptops at feeder schools if you're implementing a district wide program....


  7. I think that the tablet PC program is a great idea but there are some issues on the side of the security for the new OS that it is running.
    -rick carlson

  8. Rick,

    As a student, your comments are welcome here. Why don't you elaborate on what you mean? (as if I didn't know.)

  9. Scott,

    Fortunately for us, that student owned his machine. We do have about 30 of ours in the hands of students, plus loaners for machines out for repair so we have some trepidation on this count. No problems so far, though.

  10. Yes Rick, please talk to us some more B-)

    Are you telling us that we should only buy tablets that run OS/X or Linux (sorry, just kidding)...

    Security is a huge issue. I'd love it if Mark would offer some of his thoughts on the subjet.

    Beyond a personal firewall, AV, spyware/malware cleaner, and not sharing passwords, what else would you suggest?


  11. In my opinion, Microsoft apparently did quite a number on the security for Windows XP (at least the tablet edition). While incorperating the securtity settings of 2 users on 1 computer (administrator & student) Microsoft failed to use one of the most important tools COMMON SENSE. I am a mid-yar student, so I just got to Vermont Academy in December. I recieved my Tablet PC in about a week. I had brought a printer with me; a HP Deskject 910cl or something like that; quite old so I thought there would be no problem with Xp handling such an old driver (I mean you think it would be installed already right?). It turns out that it only has new drivers installed. The printer was the plug and play kind. So i thought "Hey no problem, it's a plug and play so it should work fine." NOT! I had to install it myself. And along with Microsoft's ill planed security settings (I can't instal ANYTHING, only an administrator can), I was out of luck printing my homework out from my room.

    Overall, sometimes kids need to install things on the PCs. It wont let you install anything short of a foreign language thing. It's annoying, but I am happy to hear that the IT department at Vermont Academy is working on the. (Don't worry it's not your guys' fault.)

    -rick carlson

  12. Yeah, I hear you! Until the user settings get tweaked to everyone's satisfaction, life is hell on the network.

    IT people naturally want to cut costs, so they want to limit your rights.

    You want to maximize your productivity, so you resent any artificial walls that prevent you from doing the things that you need and/or want to do with your computer.

    IT goals are incompatible with user goals. It is a continuing give and take battle between the two.

    In an educational setting, I think that IT needs must be subservient to user needs in order to maximized user productivity. I would err on the side of the user and nuke any that get out of line (violate the Acceptable Use Agreement). This would cost money and time – both in monitoring the network and in fixing “human errors,” but it maximize productivity. In thinking about it, it may not cost that much more. (I’ll save you a long explanation, but your experience with your printer is one such issue).

    In the end, it will come down to training, responsibility, and trust….

    I really would like to know how Maine handles their laptops.

    Oh…we’re sending more cold weather and precipitation your way…it’ll probably arrive around the 28th.

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