My current tech crush: Dropbox

Anyone who regularly accesses multiple computers knows how hard it is to keep track of files.  That’s why Zotero now offers online syncing & backup, why MobileMe offers Back To My Mac, why flash drives are so popular, and why, in general, cloud computing has become such a buzzword.

I do ok managing my research files, but managing teaching and committee-related files has been an increasing problem, especially after I moved to electronic-only paper submission a couple of years ago.  I’d save student papers to a folder on one computer and start grading.  I probably could’ve put the folder on a flash drive, but my experience with flash drives is spotty–usually I fail to have it at the right place.  Typically what I do is zip the folder when I’m done on a particular computer and then e-mail the file to myself.  During a semester, I’ll accumulate scores of folders and zips with helpful names like Paper 1 grading, Paper 1 grading 1, Paper 1 grading 2, etc.  And sometimes, as I start grading, I’ll realize I need to tweak a rubric.  Great–which folder, on which computer, is it in?

Madness.  But I know I’m not the only one who does the e-mail-it-to-myself thing.  My wife does it. My students do it.  I’ve seen colleagues do it, here and at other institutions.  I’m happy to tell you that there’s a better way: Dropbox.

Dropbox does something amazing: It sets up a folder on your machine, a folder apparently like any other, except with magical powers: Whatever you put into it is automatically backed up into the cloud, and is accessible by you from any computer with a web browser, immediately and without any fussing.  If you make changes to the file, the Dropbox servers maintain previous versions.  If you install the Dropbox software on, for instance, your work and your home computers, then the Dropbox folder on both computers is always synced.  With no worries, no settings, no configuring–easy.  So, for example, to grade a recent set of papers, I set up my folder in a dropbox, and–there it was.  At home and at work.  Always the same.  I accessed it from another computer through the web interface–no sweat.  I accessed it from my iPhone.  Dropbox works on multiple platforms, and it makes syncing and backup impossibly easy. (Watch Jason Snell explain it here.)

What’s also great about it is that you can specify sharing on particular folders.  For example, at the risk of name-dropping a bit, I was invited to join Dropbox by this guy so that he could share some information with me about an upcoming visit to our campus.  So, we have a folder that we can both access, although we can’t see the rest of our respective folders.  You can also make a public folder, so that you can share pictures and such with anyone.

2GB are free, and then you can pay for more.

There are a lot of web services I like (delicious, 30boxes, pbwiki, twitter, gmail, flickr), but Dropbox is the most intuitive and gamechanging one. You should try it.

*Local readers will say, “but you could just use your M:\ drive,” which is true, but it’s irritating to use with a Mac, and you can’t do–as far as I know–the nifty sharing-with-other-people trick.  What I value in services is how painfree they make my life.

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12 Responses to My current tech crush: Dropbox

  1. squawky says:

    Thanks for the suggestion – this sounds like a very useful option, particularly for those folders of “I might just need this, but I’m not sure when” documents. I’ve always used kinda “techie” solutions for this problem (opening up remote access to my work computer), but can’t do that with our current firewall setup.

    As a Local Reader, I second the “M-drive access on a Mac” as irritating (and other, more colorful words). I used to have my M drive autosync a specific set of folders, but it needs constant babysitting to resolve file conflicts, so it got turned off. Accessing the M-drive from home via the method IT suggests is at best slow, and often disconnects in the middle of transfers. (I use an FTP program that can connect to my M drive, but only when I’m desparate…)

  2. dance says:

    Funny, you totally had me talked into it—until I remembered I only use one computer and carry it around from home to office.

  3. Sisyphus says:

    Hmm, so I’ve been experimenting with using GoogleDocs this semester — how is dropbox different? Whst exactly does it do differently?

    (so far I have no problems with using and with sharing word type documents through GD, but am really frustrated with the spreadsheet thingy, which reformats everything to look stupid and sometimes won’t let me download spreadsheets and also at least once corrupted the file so that it won’t open, download, or let me delete it. So I like the free-ness of GD for sharing word stuff and saving papers but have switched away from putting my gradebooks on there.)

  4. Jason says:

    @Sisyphus: What’s different about Dropbox is that it’s any file type, not just Office-type files. It’s just a folder on your computer, like any other, so you can use it for anything. (For instance, you could use it for remote backup. Or for transferring things more securely than e-mail.)

    And so you can use any program you want, and it just stores it and syncs it. Magic!

  5. Katy says:

    This sounds really cool Jason – I’m going to try it out (I currently email everything to myself).

    Could you do a post on grading electronically? You mentioned in this post that you do it exclusively now, so I’d love to hear tips on how you do it. I’ve tried a few things – just adding comments via track changes on a word doc and using a program called “Comment” that comes on GT’s classroom management software, but neither method has felt any more efficient than paper grading. Suggestions?

    Thanks!

  6. Michael Elliott says:

    Jason — Ah, ha! I am FINALLY using some form of technology before you mention it on your blog. I’ve been using Dropbox for about 4-5 weeks now (for class files, and my current research files) and love it. I ditto your endorsement. Here are two questions, though, that have begun to make me a little nervous. Maybe you can answer them.

    * What if the network goes down? I’ll still have access to my files, right? That’s my understanding of how it works — you have a local version that syncs to the cloud, but am I right on that?

    * Related question: What if Dropbox goes out of business tomorrow. Do I still have the copies on my hard drive(s)?

  7. jbj says:

    @Michael: Dropbox syncs your local folder to the cloud, so the folder you see on your hard drive really is on your hard drive. (On a Mac, you can see this work: You put stuff in the folder, and then the little icon in the taskbar shows that it’s syncing remotely.)

    So, if Dropbox goes the way of Mag.nol.ia, you still have your copies.

    You can even, if it suits your bliss, automagically sync a different local folder with your dropbox folder, which then syncs to the cloud. Instructions are here.

    @Katy–you got it. Either tonight or tomorrow.

  8. Michael Elliott says:

    Fantastic. Thanks, Jason.

  9. Very cool! Thanks for the tip. One of the more stressful features of my work life lately has been bumping back and forth between my work computer (we are provided only with desktops) and my laptop at home. This seems (so far) like a great solution for those files you tweak all the time (e.g. lecture notes) or like to work on whenever you can steal a moment (e.g. research notes).

  10. undine says:

    Okay, you’ve convinced me to give it a try. I tried Dropbox or something like it recently, but it took about 24 hours to sync everything and then gave me an “out of space” message. The key is probably to do what you’ve done and use it primarily for class work.

  11. undine says:

    Dropbox = greater than sliced bread. Really. It is amazing!

  12. undine says:

    I don’t mean to clog your comment thread but just wanted to confirm that two days of using Dropbox was enough to convince me.

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