Cloud Storage Tutorial for Teachers and Students

I have already done a detailed post on advanced Dropbox tips for teachers, but I also wanted to do a more general post about cloud storage, give you some options, link you to some important apps, and explain why cloud storage is so important for students and teachers.

For those that don’t know, cloud storage is a term used to describe services that back up your files to a remote server owned by the cloud storage provider. The documents and pictures from your computers, tablets, and smart phones can be backed up (often automatically) to this remote server, which then allows you to access the files from any other computer or mobile device with an internet connection and a web browser (or the appropriate app).

Using cloud storage is becoming increasingly crucial as people depend on more and more electronic devices. Using myself as an example, I currently utilize (on a daily basis!) a home desktop, a work laptop, an iPad, and my mobile phone. I absolutely need to be able to access any and all of my personal and work files from any of these devices at any time. USB thumb drives wouldn’t work on two of those devices and emailing myself every file I needed would be ridiculous.

Here is a pretty fundamental list of the benefits of cloud storage:

  1. Keep the files on multiple computers synced automatically: I can start working on a worksheet or quiz at school, save it, go home, open it on my home computer, and continue working on it without having to bring my school computer home.
  2. Access your files from any device with an internet connection: Since all files are backed up to a remote server, they are accessible from a simple web browser. If I am working on another teacher’s computer, I can simply log into the website to get to a file I need.
  3. Back up your computer in case it is damaged or crashes: If my computer were to completely fail tomorrow and I were to buy a new one, I would not lose anything. I would simply turn on the new computer, install the desktop clients for my cloud storage services, and watch as all my photos, music, and documents downloaded onto my new machine. Easy!
  4. Provide your iPad with a familiar file structure: Some people have trouble getting the hang of the iPad because it does not have a traditional file structure like a Windows computer does. Files are stored individually in the camera roll or in individual apps. By using cloud storage, you can see, access, open, or save your files in a traditional file structure with folders and everything (and then you can open them on your computer, too).
  5. Easy sharing: When I need the students in our school Technology Club to make videos or photo stories of school events, I need an easy way to give them access to tons of pictures and clips to use for the project. I simply dump everything into a cloud folder and then share the folder with the students. This lets them open it via a browser or an app, explore the files, and save copies of what they need.
  6. Clear up space on your iPad: Our students have 16GB iPads which fill up really quickly with apps, photos, and videos. In order to free up space, I have students sign up for a free cloud storage service, upload all their photos and videos to the service, and then delete the original copies off their iPad. This frees up the iPad space but allows them to still access the remote storage version of the files by using the app. They don’t lose anything this way!

There are tons of cloud storage services. Many of them have varying levels of free hosting before they start trying to charge you as an individual or as a company for additional space and features. However, for the vast majority of teachers, simply using two or three of the free providers (and grabbing some bonus space by referring friends) will provide you with more than enough space for everything you need.

I currently utilize six different cloud providers (plus a Flickr account and our school MyCloud server), so I have a pretty good idea of the quality of each. Here is a list of my recommended services along with some details about them and links to their various websites (to download desktop clients) and iPad apps:

  1. Dropbox (sign up via my referral link – then download the app): Dropbox is the current king of cloud storage providers. They give you 2GB to start which you can instantly inflate to several gigs by doing a few simple tasks (follow them on Twitter, etc…) or getting referrals. Dropbox has a great desktop client for computers and one of the best iPad apps. The app even lets you automatically backup your iPad/iPhone camea roll to Dropbox, which is a great feature.They also have established integration with tons of various iPad apps and website plugins. Finally, they maintain a history of your document edits so you can find old copies of a document you might have changed and saved in a way you don’t like or one you might have deleted accidently.
  2. OneDrive (formally Skydrive) (sign up – then download the app): This is Microsoft’s cloud system. It is automatically integrated into Windows 8.1, so you might already have an account and be backing up your stuff and not even realize it. They give you 7GB to start with. The OneDrive website lets you edit Office documents right in your web browser, which is pretty cool if you need it in a pinch. Their app is pretty decent but not quite as robust as the Dropbox app. If you have a Windows Phone or a Windows Tablet you can set it to automatically upload photos and videos to your OneDrive account.
  3. Google Drive (if you have a Google account, you already have Drive, but you might not know about the desktop client – then download the app): Google Drive is automatically given to anybody with a Gmail, Google+, YouTube, or any other aspect of a Google account. You get 15GB split between your Drive and your Gmail storage. Be warned that if you keep all your old emails and attachments archived in Gmail, this can take a chunk out of your starting Drive space. You can store traditional office documents on Drive, but you can also utilize Google’s web programs to create documents, presentations, spreadsheets, forms, and more. Which leads to Drive’s best feature: if you edit a Google Doc on your iPad using the Drive app, it syncs across all your devices (as opposed to Dropbox, where you’d have to open the doc in Pages and then any edits are stored locally on your iPad instead of on the cloud server until you re-upload it manually).
  4. Copy (sign up via my referral link – then download the app): Copy is relatively new, but wow, they make a great first impression. They have a fully functional desktop client and iPad app that lets you do most of the stuff the other services do. They start you off with 15GB or 20GB if you sign up via a referral link (like the one I posted). Then they will give you 5GB extra for every person you refer. You could quickly and easily inflate this to a huge amount of space; but this is a limited time deal, so get it while it exists. If you are reading this post months in the future it might already be gone. But Copy is still a great service and worth having, especially if your other free services are filling up. When you share files with others, Copy will also evenly divide the space between the shared members. If two people are sharing 10GB of data it will only take up 5GB of allotted space from each of them.
  5. Box (sign up – then download the app): Box seems very focused on business solutions. They have additional plugins and web apps that provide different features that corporations might find useful. As a teacher, you might want to grab it for the easy extra 10GB of space. It has all the usual features you’d expect, plus a desktop client and a decent app. Many iPad apps have Box integration as well.
  6. iCloud (if you have an AppleID, you already have iCloud – make sure to turn it on): iCloud gives you 5GB that is best used to automatically backup your iPad, iPhone, and iWorks documents. That is pretty much it: emergency, behind-the-scenes backup and syncing across multiple iDevices. It does not really have the functionality of these other services, but you should use it just to protect your iPad. It also lets you sign in via a web browser, find a lost iPad, and edit iWorks documents on the web (like Google and Microsoft).
  7. Flickr (sign up – then check out Flickr Studio): This is not really a cloud service, but it is worth mentioning. They do not have an official desktop syncing client, and it is only really used for photos. But for that, it is amazing. Flickr gives you an unbeatable 1TB (1,000 GB!!!) of photo storage space. You can edit photos online and organize them into sets that are either private or public. With that sort of space, you can basically upload and back up every photo you ever take in your life. Ever.

* Please note that the details listed above, especially the starting space, is subject to change at any time based on the whims of the company. So if this post gets too outdated, I will have to return to it and update it.

So, you’ve signed up for one (or seven) or the above services. You’ve installed a bunch of desktop clients and iPad apps. There is one last iPad app you should get to help you organize all this stuff: Cloud Commander ($3.99).

Cloud Commander lets you do something very important: link access to all your cloud drives in a single app. The app supports pretty much every service imaginable, including Flickr and Evernote:

But not only that, but you can link multiple accounts from each service. I have a personal Gmail and a work Gmail, so I can link both Drive accounts to Cloud Commander and access all 30GB of space. That is a very cool feature that the native apps don’t support

Once you’ve linked all your accounts, Cloud Commander acts as a mediocre file viewer (you should stick to the official service apps for that), but an awesome file manager. The layout is a split screen that lets you navigate between two services at once:

Then you can easily copy or move files from one service to another. Got a bunch of PDF’s in Dropbox you want to upload to OneDrive? Just drag them over. Want to download a Flickr photo set to Copy? Just drag them over. This is the easiest way to copy or move files between services if you aren’t on your computer with the desktop clients installed.

I recently had all my students install Copy and showed them how to backup their iPad photos and clear space out of their camera roll. They were able to sign up via their iPad in just a few seconds and it only took them a minute to get the hang of it. Now they all have 20GB of “extra” storage. Our school converted to Google for our email accounts, so everybody now has Drive installed and can automatically back up their stuff (even if most of them don’t even realize it yet). Our principal created a Google Form for classroom observations, uses the Google Drive app to fill out the form, and can easily look at a spreadsheet with results from her computer or iPad.

There are a million other things you can do with this technology. You can’t implement iPads in your school without implementing Cloud Storage at the same time.

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