How secure are your course materials online?

If you’re using an online service such as Google Docs to share your teaching materials or for students to publish their work, you’ll never want to see a news item like this:


Gurgle Docs Is History

Disgruntled employee pulls the plug

Earlier today, a Gurgle spokesperson expressed regret that the popular document sharing service is no longer available.

“Everyone kind of assumed we had a big server farm running Gurgle Docs, but actually it was all on an old iMac in someone’s office. When that employee was laid off recently, he formatted the hard disk on the way out.”

The spokesperson continued that while the company had no backup and no way of restoring users’ documents, he was sure that users did have backups of any important files.
(cont on page 3)


Tongue in cheek, of course, but there’s a serious issue here: how to ensure the security and continued availability of online resources. Whether they are resources developed by the teacher or the learner, if there is only one accessible copy the resource is not secure.

While the incident described in the spoof news item above is very unlikely, a number of things can go wrong with online services. Firstly, the service can withdraw or stop developing a feature, such as Google did with Notebook which is no longer available for new users. If you’re lucky (as with Notepad), the service provider will let you export your data. Another example is the withdrawal of an RSS feed service by Facebook.

A more serious problem is when a service fails for business or technical reasons – this happened recently when ma.gnolia had a serious technical failure and user data was lost. Even if you were lucky enough to retrieve all or some of your data, this would clearly be a major disruption to a teacher relying on the service for course delivery.
(See also http://mashable.com/2009/01/30/magnolia-data-loss/)

Some learner-contributed content (such as forum postings) tend to be reasonably transient, and their loss might not be a disaster. But imagine the problems caused by loss of access to data where learners are encouraged to create an e-portfolio directly in Google Docs. As I’ve suggested elsewhere in relation to YouTube’s Quick Capture, it’s much safer to create local files and upload them than to work directly in the online service.

When incorporating the use of online services into a course, I recommend that teachers:

  • Check the terms of service – who owns the copyright of contributed content? Can the service provider start changing for the service? Do they have the right to withdraw the service without notice? Do they have the right to delete any content without notice?
  • Advise learners on clear strategies for ensuring backups of all files, and on any limitations imposed by the terms of service.

Loss of data can cause irreparable damage to a student cohort. Online services can prove to be very valuable components to teaching and learning, but we do need to take a few sensible precautions to ensure security of content and ongoing access. Most of us have experienced loss of data through careless backup procedures: the loss of teacher-generated and learner-generated content for a whole course could be much more embarrassing!

6 thoughts on “How secure are your course materials online?

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  2. Paul Left Post author

    And now Vox is closing down:

    http://closing.vox.com/

    Teachers using a free Vox site to support learning will need to look elsewhere. But at least it ought to be reasonably easy to export a Vox site into WordPress (say), whereas getting your stuff out of Ning was not straightforward.

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