Exploring Internet File Sharing And Collaborative Tools

A Column for Young Professionals.






Publication: The American Music Teacher
Author: Crappell, Courtney
Date published: April 1, 2012

How long has it been since you received photos, comedie anecdotes or chain letters in the form of forwarded e-mail from friends and family? Ten years ago, this type of email forwarding was popular, but it seems less common today. Perhaps the waning popularity of e-mail forwarding is due to the growing availability of online social networking. Whatever the cause, its demise is a welcome phenomenon. Despite this current trend, my inbox is nevertheless sporadically plagued by a message from a distant relative who believes that I will enjoy a presentation of high resolution photos documenting the journey of recently hatched baby sea turtles (set to a New Age soundtrack and moving in agonizingly slow motion) toward the safety of the nearby ocean. While I am as big a fan of baby sea turtles as the next beach-roving carnivore, as demonstrated by its apparently herculean efforts to download the prohibitively large file, my e-mail client does not share my enthusiasm. After several minutes of pretending to work on the problem, it finally delivers an error message that the invisible struggle has ended unsuccessfully. Obviously, as computers grew in capacity and processing power, our files also grew in size. However, the ability of e-mail servers to deliver them to others remained relatively static.

In fact, as a file-sharing tool, e-mail has never been the most successful device. Perhaps the first problem is remembering to actually attach the file before sending the message. If you are collaborating on the creation or editing of a document (assuming that the actual file format is not an issue), maintaining a clear mental picture of which version was originally sent, and which edited version should be returned, requires careful file placement and renaming strategies. Nevertheless, as music teachers and performers, we regularly share files with others. We share audio and video recordings with our students and audiences. As we run our businesses, we share documents, such as studio policies and registration forms, with our prospective clients. Working along with our local music teacher associations, we collaborate in organizing meetings, running festivals and competitions, and many other activities that require the creation and distribution of electronic files. Fortunately, inexpensive, or even free, online options help solve the problem of sharing large files, and of collaborating on document creation and editing.

To solve this problem, I frequently find myself using different websites for different projects. Their features and functionality vary from site to site. Normally, file-sharing websites offer free memberships with limited amounts of complimentary storage. A few questions that arise in choosing a site that provides the best solution include the following:

With this online file-sharing tool:

* Are my files permanently stored online?

* How much free storage do I get?

* How does the file recipient receive the download invitation (for example, by e-mail notification and clickable hyperlink)?

* How long does the invitation last? Does it expire after a certain period, or is it available until made inactive by the author?

* Will the file recipient need an account, and if so, will they need to login to the account to access or edit the files?

Or, with this online collaboration tool:

* Will the recipient need to download the file, edit, and then upload a new version, or can he edit the document in the web browser?

If the goal is simply to share a large file, many websites offer this free service with relatively little hassle and setup. For example, the site YouSendlt (www.yousendit.com) offers free accounts with the ability to send file sizes up to 5OMB. With that free subscription, comes 2GB of online storage. Files stored on the site remain available for download by the recipient until removed, while locally stored sent files remain available for download for only one week. Of course, these specifications and features change frequently and only serve as an example here. This model of file sharing is popular on many websites. Related sites can be found using the website, Siteslike (www.siteslike.com). Siteslike enables users to enter a web address to rapidly find 50 websites with similar features and functions. As with any search engine, results vary in quality and objectivity, but the site can be a fast way to find the most popular alternatives. (Unfortunately, the search for similar sites on Siteslike fo Siteslike is disabled. If you are interested in that search, try www.similarsitesearch.com.)

Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) and SugarSync (www.sugarsync.com) offer a slightly different way to share files and folders. Their primary function is to sync your files with an online server that then distributes the most recently saved version to each of your electronic devices. This approach resembles the "cloud" storage recently introduced by Amazon and Apple. Both Dropbox and SugarSync create folders on your devices that are automatically synced to their remote servers that are then synced to your other devices. This means that if you update a file on your laptop, your desktop computer, tablet PC, or smartphone will automatically sync with the new version. Older versions are usually preserved in case you need to revert to a previous edition. Currently, Dropbox offers 2GB, and SugarSync 5GB, of free storage. Since all files are backed up on the server side, sending invitations to share folders and files is simple. For example, using the SugarSync application, you can click on a file located on your computer and immediately get a public download link.

Offering collaborative possibilities, Google Docs (www.docs.google.com) allows multiple users simultaneous access to documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more. Signing up for the service is easy - you simply need a Google account. You can either upload a compatible file or create a new file on the site. Google Docs offers the option to create a hyperlink that can be sent for sharing with others. Even without an account or signing in, a visitor may be allowed to read and edit the file. On a related note, Google Calendars offers a useful tool for sharing studio calendars. In fact, if you consider the entire suite of tools available through a Google account (video chatting, group discussion threads, file sharing/editing, e-mail, calendars and more), it becomes an impressive collaborative workspace.

When working with groups, Shareflow (www.zenbe.com) offers a clear alternative to long strings of reply-all e-mails and clunky file attachments. Its formatting and general mission is similar to that of the project started by Google, called Google Wave. Unfortunately, Google Wave enjoyed a rather brief lifespan and is now unavailable. Shareflow is one of many websites seeking to take its place. If you have ever used a discussion group, the format will look familiar. In Shareflow, what would look like a topic or thread in a discussion group is now called a "flow." (In Google Wave, they were called "waves.") Within a flow, you can read and post messages, or chat with other invited members in real time. Within flow posts, you can attach files that may be previewed in pop-up windows without the hassle of first downloading the file. An account is free, and you can manage your postings and responses via email if you choose, but each participant will need his or her own account However, the convenience of simultaneous real-time editing of files by multiple users, a feature of Google Docs, is unavailable at this time. A similar collaborative tool called Zoho (www.zoho.com) offers this feature. Zoho's learning curve is much steeper than Shareflow's, but the site offers an enormous array of creative and collaborative tools. A free version with a limited amount of storage space is available, but its subscription plans are intended for serious business applications and cost hundreds of dollars.

The list of file sharing websites and online collaborative tools grows daily, and this discussion merely scratches the surface of what is available. Complementing the functions of the tools mentioned above, in sharing files via download links, a consistently useful tool is Bitly (www.bitly.com). Bitly offers a quick way to shorten long and unwieldy URLs. It also provides statistical analysis for tracking link activity. Another useful tool is the Microsoft Office suite's ability to add password protection to its files. For instance, if you would like to simply share links to your studio documents from your website, but want to avoid offering free access to the entire online community, you can add a password to a Word or Excel document by opening "preferences" and altering the "security" settings. This can be a simpler, and often cheaper, approach to private file sharing than adding a members-only area and login feature to your studio website.

The varied Internet sharing options now available allow for many creative possibilities. They can make our work as musicians and teachers easier and possibly even more interesting. While finding the right tool for the job can initially be a challenge, file sharing and collaboration is now simpler and faster than ever.

Author affiliation:

By Courtney Crappell, NCTM

Author affiliation:

Courtney Grappell, NCTM, serves as assistant professor of piano pedagogy at University of Texas San Antonio where he coordinafes the class piano program and teaches piano and piano pedagogy. He holds a D.M.A. degree from the University of Oklahoma.

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