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Broken Records: The Importance of Protecting Information

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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I carry a personal digital assistant (PDA), which my wife occasionally refers to as my "memory." On it are found my contact list and my calendar. When a potential client asks me if I have a date available, this is where I look. When I need to write a letter or make a call, it is where I find the info I need. But of all the functionalities, it is the calendar that is the most valuable. It tells me where I am supposed to be, and when.

So imagine my surprise when, in early May 2007, I tried to sync the PDA to my desktop computer and got an innocent-looking message that there's an issue with the calendar, something about "too many characters." This probably had to do with the fact that I still had information on the calendar about flights I had taken back in 2002 and places I had worked in 2000. You see, it truly was my "memory."

Anyhow, seeing the error message, I simply did another sync, and this time it came through with no errors. Unfortunately, what I had accomplished with the second sync was to delete every item in the calendar on both the handheld and the desktop. The first sync had cleaned out the PDA, the second the desktop. Mistake squared. Gone, clean gone. Oh, my goodness.

Only if you have suffered a data loss like this can you imagine the feelings that flooded through me in the next few minutes. You would remember those desperate efforts to find the data -- it had to be there somewhere. You would understand how stupid, how technically inept I felt. "Here I am," I thought, "a person who makes his living through supporting the purposeful use of technology, and I just lost my entire calendar." And you would realize what it feels like to start to come to grips with the reality and to begin to formulate a plan for how you are going to get through this.

Now, bear in mind that this was in May, just before the summer season, during which I would be traveling across the country several times. All those travel plans and dates, along with hotel reservations and the names of schools where I'd be working, had been on the PDA and on the desktop. Now, all that info was gone.

My reason for writing this humbling account of what happened to me is to introduce a conversation I had last Sunday at brunch with my friend Julie. In order to protect her anonymity, I won't give her last name as I share how one of the smartest people I know toasted her digital life. A highly competent person in so many ways, Julie is someone with whom I love to spend time and talk about big ideas and small realities. She was the professor (oops, did I just let slip that she is a professor?) who in 1993 helped me begin to understand how computers work. She has the rare gift of being a person who understands all the technical things as well as the human implications of same.

Well, a few weeks back, she put a flashlight she was using down on her laptop, right on top of the hard drive, and, as she described it, "In thirty seconds or so, strange sounds came out of the speakers, and then the screen went screwy, and then the screen went very, very odd, and then it just seized up." About then, she remembered that there was a powerful magnet on the back of the flashlight, and she realized she had toasted the drive. Talk about gone: Her hard drive, and in fact the entire laptop, was really, really gone.

I was able to cobble back together my calendar for the summer season of 2007 and beyond through my own real-life memory, online flight records, and emails and calls to clients in which I sought reconfirmation of dates. People and databases saved my bacon. But Julie lost everything. She had done a backup some two months earlier, but only of documents. This means that some of her most personal and most valuable digital resources, her pictures, were gone -- forever.

It was a humble conversation at brunch. Both of us looked to the future, and Julie suggested I take a look at Mozy and see how it provides two gigabytes of free backup to home users. I think I will, and I think you should, too.

So, 'fess up, y'all. Do you back up your data? Why? Why not? Come on -- you know everyone should be practicing safe saving. Share your stories and pass along your tips. I promise, I'll save them -- safely!

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


For the most part, I do back up files. I go in spurts where I will not do it and I will hear a story such as yours and then I will do a massive back up of all my files. For the most part, I focus on my photos so I won't lose the memories, however, I am quite careful with my saved coursework files.

I guess for me that it is like any situation...when something bad happens, people react to protect themselves and their possessions. Many have the "it will never happen to me" thought until it's too late. That can go for tragic events as well as something as simple and easy as backing up files.

j d wilson jr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use a Macintosh and it has a firewire port that enables me to create an external bootable hard drive. I have done stupid things (I will not go into details like forcing a backup to quit in the middle of the backup thus destroying my hard drive) that have resulted in the kind of disasters you describe and I have been at least partially saved by creating on an external hard drive a backup (actually a clone) of my entire system which I could then clone back onto my internal hard drive and restore my system just like nearly new. Still, I, like many I guess, procrastinate about cloning my hard drive onto the external drive. On more than one occasion some data has been lost because of the procrastinating. I am considering an investment in the Mac "Time Capsule" that just backs up everything without being told because I do not seem to learn my lesson.

Part of the problem I think is the premium at which time comes for classroom teachers. There are so many demands upon our time that important things do not get done because other important things must be done as well and there are more important things that need to be done than there is time to do them.

J. D. Wilson, Jr.

Kern Kelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Digital Destruction. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. I love Mozy and promote it to all my teachers as a no worries auto-backup. We've also been using more and more of the cloud for productivity like Google Docs, etc. There's no way to lose it and the data is not machine dependent.

I also think it's important to have a local backup. The laptop we provide staff has a built in SD-Card reader, so with a $15 card and the free program any files or folders they setup will automatically stay synced. And that's what backups have to be, set up once, then forgotten about until they're needed.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Jim,

I must say that I am fascinated with all of the different ways in which I have been able to lose data over the years. Even after hearing many stories, such as yours, of people in awful situations, I still admit to not backing up my files like I know that I should. I have truly paid a high price for the convenience that saving information electronically affords to people. It is even more staggering for me to comprehend that I do not know a single person in the educational field that has had zero issues with data loss. It spans great distances, as well as generations.

I will say that I did purchase a 2 gigabyte thumb drive that I keep on my person wherever I go. I have used this to save my files on multiple computers. I realize that this may not be the best solution for backing up files, but it is still better than not doing so at all.

Megan S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Although many individuals have lost information due to technology errors, I would not be able to be an effective and creative teacher without technology. I did not know that you had to safely remove hardware from your computer, so it was no shock when I once lost all of the files on my portable drive. As a teacher, I create all of my lesson plans, worksheets, and tests. It was all saved on my portable drive. In an instant, I lost it all. Forever!

Last year, my school district faced a system crash that caused the electronic grade book to fail. Teachers lost all of the grading information from the previous two weeks. The grade book was backed up bi-weekly. Many teachers trusted the electronic grade book and did not keep a hard copy of grades. It was unfair to students that their evidence of hard work was lost.

Since then, the school district has transferred to an online grade book program that is backed up frequently. It was a costly grade book option, but if you consider the consequences, it is well worth it. The school district also provides backed-up storage space for teachers to use as well. Whenever I need to save information from my computer, I now save it to the school storage space, computer, and personal portable drive. It only requires me to make a few more clicks when I want to save something, but it is well worth it!

Jen Jackson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like Julie, I usually only back up documents and after reading this, have decided to back up my photos immediately.
In my experience as a newspaper teacher, backing up files became imperative when we experienced a school system server failure and lost everything from the past few years. This meant no stock photos, no records of articles, no former layouts to refer to. It was a very sad day. The yearbook teacher and I decided to splurge on an external hard drive, so even if the school server crashed, we would have our pages. I entered my students to an online format,, with which they can archive their newspapers. It's funny how we don't do anything until it all comes tumbling down.

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