What would you do if you lost everything? from Sam Mularczyk on Vimeo.

We Need Back Up!


As a school-based tech facilitator, I have helped many teachers over the years try to recover their data from corrupted USBs and hard drives. Sometimes we are successful, sometimes we are not. Data loss happens often enough that I thought others might benefit from some guidance and best practices on back ups. A back up is, quite simply, another copy of your data.

Data Storage Media is Temporary

As a rule of thumb, all data storage media is temporary. USB Drives, Hard Drives, CDs – there will be a day where they will stop working and your data will be inaccessible.

USB drives are particularly notorious for this – works one day, doesn’t the next. Perhaps the drive got corrupted by removing it from the computer as it was being accessed. Other times, there is physical damage. I had a teacher come to me last year with a USB that had snapped in half as she walked by her computer with it plugged in.

The good news is that storage is cheap. I saw a 32 GB USB drive being advertised for $12. Looking closer at it, the drive had a cheap plastic casing which could easily crack/split. If you are going to be using a USB on a regular basis, I always recommend one that has a solid body made of metal such as this:


The metal case USB’s are usually a bit more expensive (this one is $15 for 16GB) but I have found them to be much more durable.

But despite this, the true cost is often in the data lost. Consider this analogy…

USB Drives and Away Missions


In Star Trek, the Enterprise sends its shuttle on “Away Missions”. Unless its required by plot, they usually do not send all of the officers out at the same time on the shuttle. If they were to lose a shuttle full of irreplaceable officers, this would be disastrous.

I have always thought of my USB drive (and external hard drives) as a shuttle between my home computer (the Enterprise) and the school network (Space Station?). The point is, the USB (shuttle) is not designed to be out on its own for extended periods of time.

The point is: do not use your USB drive as the sole source of your important data. You should always have your data saved in multiple places.

Ways to Back Up Your Data

As mentioned in the opening video, March 31 is World Backup Day. But we should probably be backing up our data much more often then that. Here are some suggestions:

1. Home Computer

If you have all of your teaching resources on a USB or External Drive, back it up on your home computer now. Data is cheap. I’ve seen 3 TB Hard Drives on sale as cheap as $100. There is no reason to not have a copy of everything at home unless you don’t have a computer.

2. Dedicated External Hard Drive for Backup

It is also a good idea to have a dedicated Hard Drive for backups only. I’ve got one connected to my MacOS computer at home that runs an automatic back-up once a day called “Time Machine”, easily allowing me to recover files or programs. It has saved me a few times. In fact, I used Time Machine to restore my entire system onto a new computer after a catastrophic hardware failure. For Windows, many hard drive manufacturers have software to facilitate this and I believe Windows System Restore will do the same.

3. An Off-Site Backup

If you have years and years worth of family photos and other precious digital files, it may be a good idea to do a yearly backup onto a hard drive and keep it in a different location than your main computer. Just think about it – if there was some kind of flood or theft and your computer and “Time Machine” were both lost, this would bail you out. Some people keep a hard drive in a safe or other secure location away from their main computer.

4. School Network Drive

For teaching-related documents, the school network drive is a great solution. As a school district employee, you have a network folder (the H: drive) accessible anytime you log into a district computer. We have several gigabytes of storage with the possibility of more upon request. Mine is 10 GB. The district does daily back-ups. While this does not offer a complete solution due to limited space, it should be plenty for most documents (other than videos).

5. The Cloud

I use Dropbox for all of the resources and school files that I have created. Once installed on your home computer, Dropbox appears as a regular folder that you can drag files into. Anything in the Dropbox folder will be synced with Dropbox servers. This way, I can work on something at home and download it at work without the need to carry around a USB drive. Google Drive is another one. There are also services that offer a complete back-up solution through the cloud, at a cost.

6. Microsoft OneDrive for Business (soon)

An alternative to Dropbox that I have been very interested in is “OneDrive for Business”. Our district’s IT department has been working on configuring OneDrive and, once it is set up, it will be a Dropbox-like experience but with the files saved on the school district’s own servers. I am currently waiting for an update on this feature.

Data Recovery

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you do not have a back up (or perhaps between back ups) there are a few free data recovery tools that you can try. Here are two free, well-respected tools in the data recovery world:

TestDisk is a Partition Recovery program which can be used in cases where a USB drive won’t mount. It could be that all of the files are intact but the partition table (what tells the computer where to look for your files) is damaged. This will analyze your drive and repair it.

PhotoRec is a recovery tool that can recover deleted files or lost data from a reformatted partition or corrupted file system. In cases where TestDisk is unsuccessful, I’ve been able to use PhotoRec to recover files from an otherwise corrupted USB drive. The only downside is, your recovered files will all have gibberish file names but its better than losing everything!

Beware, these programs require command-line commands and would be considered “advanced” but the documentation provided on their respective links is pretty good. A lot of paid recovery software will essentially do the same thing but with a nice user interface. EaseUS is an example of a paid program.

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