When I mention Dropbox to friends and colleagues, I usually get one of two responses – a knowing smile and nod, or a puzzled and quizzical look. Whether you know what the program is, you have likely heard the name. But really, what is Dropbox?

Dropbox is many things — a multifaceted tool that’s so powerful, you’ll continue to discover new ways to use it. But the short and sweet of it is this: you can use it to store and sync documents and files across computers, tablets, and smart phones. I can write a lecture or lesson plan on my computer at home, put it in my Dropbox folder, and whoosh – it’s synced with my work computer. During my free period at school, I can open that file, make a few changes, and the changes are automatically synced with my home computer. It’s seamless, fast and free. Watch this and then read on to learn some of the ways I’m putting Dropbox to work in my classroom.

 

How Dropbox works

So, how can you use Dropbox as an educator? There are many ways that you can do this. One is to just manage your own material and make it more readily accessible. My PowerPoint presentations are very image intensive and quickly get over 20MB – not an emailable size (my server limits email space to 5MB). Rushing around in the morning, it’s easy to forgot to copy the new version of a big file onto my flash-drive. By keeping my lectures and other school materials on Dropbox, I always have access to the most recent changes.

Additionally, many applications that you likely use (Evernote, Things, 1Password, Elements, to name a few) have a Dropbox sync option. Check your favorite applications to see if they have a “save to Dropbox” feature. Since Dropbox works across platforms and devices, you can use a Mac at home, a PC at work (which I do), a Blackberry phone and an iPad, and you will have access to your documents on *all* of them (there are also Dropbox apps for iPhone, Android and Linux). Thanks to Dropbox’s syncing magic, your documents will be up to date at all times on all devices.

Using Dropbox with students

In addition to making your life a lot easier, Dropbox can be a great teaching/learning tool – and this is why I introduce it to my students. The first thing to do is to create a sharing folder for each class you teach so you can make information available to your students (PowerPoints, hand-outs, reading assignments, whatever).

You can call this folder anything. For my history classes, I usually use the word “share” and create folders with names like “Ancient History Share.” When you go to your Dropbox page on the web, this screenshot gives you some idea of what you will see.

Next step: Put your mouse over the folder and click on the arrow to the right – a drop-down menu will appear. Select “Invite to Folder.”

Next, you will get the window shown below. Input the email addresses of your students (this will also invite them to join Dropbox, giving you and them the free 250MB). You can also input a message like: “Accept this invitation to have access to our course materials.”

Once you have invited students, this becomes a “Shared Folder.” Whoever has access to this folder (everyone who has been invited and accepted the invitation) can add files, download content, and (whether you like it or not) delete content. However, only *you* (as the owner of the folder) can delete or edit out content permanently. If you want to check and see if there have been any inappropriate changes, click on the folder in Dropbox and then click on “Show Deleted Files.”

As the owner of this Dropbox account, you’ll be able to see what was deleted, when, and by whom. You can restore any deleted file or (if a student modified it) revert to an earlier version. I try to upload only locked PDF files to prevent students from accidentally altering content.

How do I employ Dropbox in my classroom?

I use Dropbox in a number of ways. Here are several:

  • To store additional copies of hand-outs. Students know to re-download and print on their own here if they missed a hand-out due to an absence or simply lost it (no one ever asks me for another copy).
  • To distribute PowerPoint presentations – most are too large for email.
  • As a way for students to turn in homework assignments. It’s an easy electronic homework drop (compared to email) and will time stamp submissions.

Dropbox can also be a useful tool in managing student projects and presentations. In my classes students use Dropbox to submit the visual components of class presentations, for instance. It’s a huge time saver, as it otherwise takes several minutes for students to log in/out of their school accounts to access presentations. If you don’t have individual accounts, you’ll quickly find ways to let Dropbox help you work around that issue.

With Dropbox, I also can visually determine that students have completed a particular portion of a project or presentation assignment. Best of all, since all presentations are “turned in” to same same virtual place, every student can access his or her presentation via one log-in (a huge time saver when you’re trying to get through many presentations in a single 50-minute class).

Students catch on quickly

I began using Dropbox during the first weeks of school. By the end of the school year, I noticed that more and more students were using Dropbox on their own. They would store homework assignments there for easy access (many of my students have at least two homes, rotating between parents, and also need quick access to material while in school. Synching makes keeping up simple).

Students can use Dropbox on their phones to review handouts (rather than a print-out, ultimately saving paper). And many of them have begun to sync their files across multiple computers outside of school. A few have even demonstrated Dropbox’s features to their parents.

This isn’t a program you will have to teach your students to use. Don’t be surprised if in a few weeks, they’re showing you some tricks you haven’t even considered. That’s something I always encourage. (Any student who can show me a new ed-tech trick gets 5 points of extra credit.)

Dropbox is more of a mega-utility than a simple tool. It begs you to think up new ways to use it, in and out of the classroom. If you download a free copy of Dropbox via this link, you’ll get an extra 250mb of storage space for free. Install it on your computers and any other compatible devices. Play with it and see what it has to offer!

Editor’s note: This comparison of Dropbox and the competing Box service might be useful to educators.

About the author
Jennifer Carey is Director of Academic Technology at the Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Florida. "I am a lover of new technologies and their ability to share knowledge." She blogs at Indiana Jen and you can find her on Twitter @teacherjencarey