In my courses, students work on large, on-going projects, but submit some parts each week, showing their progress. All of the work is done on a computer or table.

Mid-semester, I always get reports from students of technical failures, e.g.:

  • Deleted entire project folder.
  • Reformatted hard drive or upgraded system without backup.
  • Sent computer to be repaired, cannot work on project until it returns.
  • USB not unmounted, files broken.
  • Device containing project folder lost or stolen.

I want to create a policy which is not so harsh as to turn all of these students away. At the same time, I worry if I am a little lenient, students will start claiming problems every time they forget to do their homework. What is a good policy that is not too harsh, recognizing that technical problems do happen, yet which cannot be too easily abused?

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    Add a session about good backup policies at the beginning, and then be strict. Unless parts of the projects are privacy-sensitive, stuff like that ought to have an automated backup in the cloud. – Arno Oct 11 '14 at 10:43
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    To add to Arno's comment, make logging and documenting a backup part of the course requirement. For example, have the students report on a suitable time basis their file structure and other technical aspects you may see fit at the time of the backup. make the report count towards the grade since it adds to their professional skills. – Peter Jansson Oct 11 '14 at 10:48
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    This sounds like a case for a VCS, especially when it's such an incremental work as described here. – O. R. Mapper Oct 11 '14 at 12:18
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    I don't accept the 'technology failed me excuse "as I make it abundantly clear when we go over the syllabus that it is their responsibility to be on time and manage issues that come up. I've noticed a trend in the emergence of this excuse, almost always around mid terms, not so much around end of term, I wonder why? – Emme Oct 11 '14 at 14:06
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    "The dog ate my (digital) homework." – Tom Au Oct 11 '14 at 15:48

12 Answers 12

I know this goes against what you have asked, but I do not think you should have a special policy for students who claim that their digital work is lost/damaged/destroyed. Here are two reasons:

  1. This is not really any different from when students complained that "the dog ate my homework." Both paper and digital formats are susceptible to being damaged, lost, or destroyed.

  2. They will not get any special exceptions from their boss when they lose important digital documents in a real job.

My students do most of their work in digital formats and I've never made special exceptions. I suppose I would do so in some unusual circumstances (say, a university server where they were told to store their work had been hacked).

If you want to help them develop better digital work habits, introduce them to backups, Dropbox and/or version control. But I don't think that is your job.

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    +1 especially for noting that this being no different than the 'dog ate my homework' excuse – user21984 Oct 11 '14 at 11:07
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    I would expect an employer to provide backed-up storage for any data its staff need to produce and store to perform their jobs. If the university is providing backed-up storage for students' project work, there's no excuse for students losing data due to not having back-ups. But if the university isn't providing backed-up storage, then the "It's just like a job" argument is disingenuous. – David Richerby Oct 11 '14 at 12:03
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    @DavidRicherby: A school isn't an employer, and students are typically doing their work on their own machines, not the school's. – Ben Crowell Oct 11 '14 at 14:16
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    @BenCrowell Then it's not appropriate to say "Well, an employer wouldn't cut you slack if you lost your work so nor will we", since an employer would take measures to ensure their staff don't lose data, whereas the university isn't doing that for its students. You can't claim that a student has the same responsibilities as an employee if you're not also giving them the same level of support that an employee would receive. – David Richerby Oct 11 '14 at 15:17
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    @DavidRicherby: You can't claim that a student has the same responsibilities as an employee if you're not also giving them the same level of support that an employee would receive. I can't speak for David Ketcheson, but I don't read his argument that way. I would say that in the world of work, people are expected to behave like responsible adults. College students are adults, and they should be expected to behave like responsible adults. Responsible adults either back up their computer files or else admit that it's their fault when they lose a file. This is common sense. – Ben Crowell Oct 11 '14 at 20:22

A few years ago, these were legitimate (if sometimes dubious) problems. With the arrival of free and easy-to-use cloud storage, however, there is no reason that anybody should ever have to lose data again.

Dropox has a free account that provides 2 GB of storage, automatically backs up any time that you are on the network, and gives the ability to undelete files and roll-back to previous file versions across something like a month of time. Since it's cloud-based, it can be linked to another computer should one be broken or stolen. As long as your students aren't doing something extremely data-heavy, like art & design, the 2 GB limit shouldn't be a problem.

Given this, why not set up a policy as follows:

  • At the start of the class, state that students who work electronically will be expected to keep good backups such that "the digital dog cannot eat your homework." Introduce the class to Dropbox as a recommended solution, but let them know that any cloud-based backup is OK (there are lots of other solutions available too, but Dropbox is currently the best for both universal availability and simple user interface).

  • Then, during the semester, if somebody comes to you with a tale of woe, treat it like you would somebody failing to show up for a quiz. There might be extenuating circumstances, but they are rare and probably come with the equivalent of a doctor's note (e.g., a campus police report on stolen property).

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    Dropbox, however, doesn't really solve the problem, since it's not a backup service. If a student (accidentally or not) deletes the file from their Dropbox folder, it will get deleted from the cloud, as well. What's really needed here is a version control system, like GitHub or BitBucket, both of which offer student accounts. – Mike A. Oct 11 '14 at 16:11
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    I'm afraid that you are incorrect. Dropbox does offer the ability to revert to previous versions and to undelete files, as I mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of my answer. This has been much to my relief in the past, when a postdoc who had recently joined a large collaboration accidentally deleted several years worth of data. We had it restored within five minutes of discovering the problem. – jakebeal Oct 11 '14 at 16:28
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    Well, what do you know. You can indeed get your last 30 days of history for a file. Maybe that's a newer feature that was added since I started using Dropbox, or maybe I've just been oblivious. Thanks! Though, I still think a version control system would probably be better, at least for long-term programming projects, especially group ones. – Mike A. Oct 11 '14 at 16:44
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    @jakebeal: Lucky you noticed within 30 days. Version control is better. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 11 '14 at 17:23
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    Of course version control is better if you're dealing with groups that can handle it. I've evolved from RCS to CVS to SVN to Mercurial over the years (with git when forced). However, when working with less computer-savvy students or collaborators, I have found it's often necessary to compromise for the increased usability of a solution like Dropbox. – jakebeal Oct 11 '14 at 17:49

Based on this question, as well as based on your previous questions (e.g., here, here, or especially here), I get the impression that students in your school are leading the teachers on quite a bit. I have been teaching large undergraduate courses (400+ students) at a public university in central Europe for years, and many of the problems you often seem to stumble into are pretty much unknown to me. For instance, I can literally remember a single incident where one of my many students claimed that he could not finish his homework because he lost data due to a technical problem. You, on the other hand, make it sound like this is a regular occurrence.

As I don't think that your students are somehow inherently more prone to lose data due to no fault of their own, the logical conclusion is that they are (at least in the majority of times) just making up excuses. Hence, the question is not "how to deal with students who lost their digital work?", but rather "how to deal with students who claim to have lost their digital work?".

My answer to this question (and, incidentally, also to your other, previous questions) is to treat your students as adults. Among other aspects, this means that they are responsible themselves for any technical issues on their end, the real ones as well as the made-up ones. Yes, this will mean that occasionally, somebody will actually be struck by a problem innocently, but at a university, adults are supposed to handle problems by themselves. To me, this is a large part of the learning process at a university - there is no safety net that catches you when you are behaving unreasonably (and, yes, not correctly backing up your homework definitely falls into this category).

So, my answers to your problems would be (formulated a bit more politely, but no less directly):

Deleted entire project folder.

Too bad. Do it again.

Reformatted hard drive or upgraded system without backup.

Too bad. Do it again.

Sent computer to be repaired, cannot work on project until it returns.

Use one of the computers in the university lab, or borrow a computer from a friend.

USB not unmounted, files broken.

Too bad. Do it again.

(Also, speaking as a computer scientist, this is so unlikely to happen on modern file systems that I would be very much inclined to think that you are lying to me.)

Device containing project folder lost or stolen.

Restore from backup. If you have no backup - too bad, do it again.

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    Re: USB unmounted - Windows does "corrupt" files (or the whole disk) sometimes, but in reality most of the data is trivial to rescue, with a plethora of user-friendly file recovery software available such as Recuva. – Superbest Oct 11 '14 at 19:30
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    +1 for 'treat your students as adults'. They're not at school anymore and don't need to be babysat. – sapi Oct 12 '14 at 4:52
  • Though I see your point, in many cases "Too bad. Do it again." is a ridiculous proposition if what has been lost is anything between 9 months and several years worth of work as a large project can be. It would effectively be expelling the student at that point. – Vality Oct 13 '14 at 1:05
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    @Vality And so what? If a student isn't taking the absurdly trivial step of backing up months worth of work, it's hard to see how that's anyone's fault but their own. – sapi Oct 13 '14 at 3:09
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    @Vality No, in the worst case it would require the student to re-take the course. This is a completely reasonable consequence in my opinion. – xLeitix Oct 13 '14 at 6:05

You say your students already:

submit some parts each week

Simply ask them to submit the whole project folder (perhaps in a zip) instead. If they lose their work, they can always roll back to the last version they gave you.

Advantages of this:

  • Requires no extra training for the students. They already know how to send you folders.
  • Requires no extra work by you. You already have a system for dealing with folders they send you, just keep using that system.

Disadvantages:

  • If the projects are very large, it may be difficult to send them. Many email providers have size limits on attachments, and uploading large files takes time. Although you could just ask students to send you a link to their DropBox.
  • Files use more space on your disk.
  • There is some latency associated with recovery. It may be some time until you (or the TA) see the student's request for the last version. If, like I suspect is commonly the case, they have a habit of "losing" work a few hours before the deadline, they may email you saying they lost their data at 3 am, and claim that they couldn't finish the work in time because you didn't reply quickly enough.

Alternatively, you can require them to use a version control system, such as git (there are other version control systems, but I've never encountered a reason to use them over git besides "the rules say I'm not allowed to use git"). With GUI tools like GitExtensions and TortoiseGit, not to mention numerous tutorials online, this is extremely easy to figure out even for novices. Set up repositories for them, and communicate that they will be graded for that week on the last commit before that week's deadline (also solves the "but you looked at the wrong branch" problem - if they have several branches, they can make sure their final commit is to the preferred branch). Advantages over the "send whole folder" method:

  • No busywork on your part required. You don't have to go into twenty emails, download attachment, rename and organize it every week.
  • If they lose data, they don't require your intervention. They can check out from their repository themselves.
  • As git will only upload the difference between states, if there are large files that are static between revisions, subsequent commits will be small and take up little network bandwidth or disk space.
  • Students get experience with a good version control system that is widely used in the industry.
  • Students learn first hand about importance of versioning. Likely, individuals who managed to get in college will immediately understand that the more frequently they make commits, the less work they'll need to redo if they lose data. If for some strange reason they cannot comprehend this, you can explain it at the beginning of the course.

Disadvantages are:

  • Students (and you!) must now learn git (or whatever system you choose). Although, perhaps "you better go learn git right now or you will fail this course" is not a bad thing for students to hear at certain points of their education.
  • Students may try to get tech support for git from you, or get upset when you tell them to go elsewhere (such as stackoverflow) for that.
  • You must set up a repository for them to use. However, your school's IT department would probably be able to help with this, and even the worst case scenario of "set up a free account on BitBucker or github" is not that bad.
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    I generally agree with your statements, though I'd object to suggesting students to use external services outside of the realm of control, and legal range, of both students and the university such as DropBox, BitBucket or Github (especially if they are the only way to do things). – O. R. Mapper Oct 12 '14 at 15:30
  • In particular, a free account at GitHub makes all the project publicly accessible. This will not necessarily be OK all of the time. – E.P. Oct 14 '14 at 10:33
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    @E.P. The free student accounts give you 5 private repositories on GitHub. – emmalgale Oct 14 '14 at 13:14
  • Bitbucket gives free accounts to academic users. They might not be as popular as Github, but I've found it works great. I used it for my thesis. Github's expire after two years, so there's a chance the students might have already used it up. Also, I'd be very surprised if the university didn't have a VCS available, either one for the whole course or repos the students can set up individually. – DaoWen Oct 15 '14 at 15:15

Possibly what you could do is give your students an educated fair warning. Show them how to make backups!. Knowing how to backup data, especially for system administration, is an invaluable skill, and can save people countless hours of time and frustration. My teacher expects us to make backups of our files regularly because of the possibility of data loss, and since she told us how to do it (if you don't want to do tarball, or zip backups, you can use cloud services such as Amazon or Dropbox to save files), there's no excuse to have lost anything. A CS student should be competent enough to not have this happen!. Frankly, any CS student should be aware of, and familiar with

  1. How to make a backup of important files in Linux or Unix using tar -cvf [file_name] [folder_name]
  2. How to extract using tar -xvf
  3. How to make backups in windows using either Windows © tools, or simply making zip files of important folders.
  4. How to use online services such as dropbox.
  5. How to write shell scripts to perform regular backups either in Bash, or if using Windows, .bat files.

If you provide them with this knowledge, which should only take about an hour, or even provide a handout or a web post about this issue, and inform them that data loss is common, and steps need to be taken to prevent this, then they are completely liable for any irregular data loss that occurs. Also, you are in the clear a a teacher, and have given your student an invaluable lesson on data management and possibly Linux/Unix/Windows skills they didn't have prior to meeting you. Of course these are just suggestions. I do wish someone would have taught me how to make a simple tarball backup script on day one. Would have saved me much grief. Happy teaching! :)

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    It's not the job of the teacher to teach students how to tie their shoes, wipe their noses, or make backups. Any time spent on this is time subtracted from education. – Ben Crowell Oct 11 '14 at 20:24
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    Well, I doubt with that attitude you would be a very good teacher Ben. Some students would benefit from knowing how to make backups. That's all I was saying. I don't think your resonse is very constructive, and frankly I think you may just be bitter. It IS tthe teachers job to enlighten his/her students and helping them learn how to make backups would be an enriching experience and solve the problem the poster was having. It is an insurance policy that helps him and his students. – Joshua Michael Calafell Oct 11 '14 at 20:35
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    If you are a golf coach and your students are encountering golf shoes for the very first time then it is part of your job to teach them how to tie their golf shoes. – Greenstone Walker Oct 15 '14 at 6:00

It may simply be that Ben has unluckily come across more students with academic integrity issues than many of us. A sensible compromise is to say to the class that certain 'excuses' for non-submission of work are not really going to hold water, and others would require some actual evidence, or a properly formed description of what has gone wrong.

Regardless of your outlook, things do go wrong, I have been involved in many cases of USB drives failing and even the most reliable forensic and data recovery tools being unable to recover the data. This is more-so if a drive suffers from certain types of electrical damage. However, I agree that CS students should at least have some good practice under their belt in terms of data management, backup and continuity.

However, are they really adults yet? Of course not! All the statements about them being adults and now they need to learn to be adults. Listen to yourselves, please - they will be a few years in post before they become more adult and start to take real responsibility for their actions. I train new employees on a monthly basis and the main thing is to allow them to shadow someone with sound technical skills and integrity, they need to 'learn' to become professionals and as such build the skills we expect of a professional practitioner (our domain is IT Security) - they certainly are not all ready when they arrive from University to make sound business (or in many cases technical) decisions.

There is nothing wrong with showing them good data management techniques and actually I would argue that as a practitioner of over 20 years service, its is imperative to show them the principles of data management. One solution does not fit all, some IT security organisations would rather their employees do not use the services of Dropbox (for various security and non-dislosure reasons), however as a basic backup facility and data repository, it is ideal for students. We train all of our staff in data management, so why would you not educate students?

I liked the fact that Joshua took the time to show how to use the tar command (and extracting from a tar file) using Linux. To support this, there is an excellent (if perhaps a rather Unix biased) tutorial at: http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/Teaching/Unix/, which covers the (basic) use of tar, gunzip and to be fair provides a very nice introduction to Unix. Most of this will work on Linux too, with the odd usage exception and of course side-effects may differ. Therefore, even if you lack expertise, it's likely not a good enough excuse not to provide some sort of guidance. That guidance may just be to make use of a suitable resource that provides the skills or knowledge, and that's what a good teacher does - you can't be great at everything (and remain a modest and well-balanced human being).

  • +1 for There is nothing wrong with showing them good data management techniques [...] – Enthusiastic Engineer Oct 12 '14 at 20:47
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    However, are they really adults yet? Of course not! — [citation needed] – JeffE Oct 14 '14 at 9:28
  • However, are they really adults yet? Of course not! they aren't, and they won't as long as you don't treat them as such! All of them know hard drives crash every now and then, and USB sticks get lost, and they should take preventive measurements against it. It is part of your job to teach them how to do it best, though. I may not be qualified to take the best technical decisions, but I know it, and I know when to ask the senior. – Davidmh Oct 14 '14 at 11:53

I do not work in academia, but have faced almost identical problems many times as a business owner.

The underlying problem is that:

  • You do not want to allow people to consistently take advantage of the system
  • But you also don't want to be too harsh with "innocent" people who have found themselves in a tough situation. (we've all fail to achieve an expected goal every now and then due to circumstances outside our control)

I always address this problem using some form of this basic pattern: - Be lenient on first transgression - Be strict on future transgressions - Do not "judge" the quality of excuses.

For example, this is what I might do in your case:

  1. Have a "known" policy of allowing one transgression.
  2. Have an "unknown" policy of affording leniency on the second transgression. (Always afford leniency, but don't tell people that you will do this until they find themselves in hot water. This will help you to not have to fail people who took a "strike 1" when they probably shouldn't have, but then found themselves with a legitimate problem later on)
  3. Afford zero leniency on the third transgression.

What is really nice about this type of policy is that you don't have to be the arbiter of who has a "good" excuse. People always have a good excuse, especially the people who are gaming you and the system. You can consistently execute this policy the same way for all students. It will allow the "innocent" students to always succeed. It will allow the "players" to succeed just as long as they are taking their studies seriously overall. And you will be able to fail incapable students without even having to listen to their reasons for not having done their work because after all, you already gave them two chances and statistically, it is extremely unlikely that they had three legitimate "emergencies" in one semester.

Well speaking as someone who until recently was a student and someone who doesn't like to see all the slackers get off, but on the other hand, I have had technical issues before.

I would say: 1. DropBox, AeroFS, Google Drive, etc. are everyone's friend 2. CrashPlan and Time Machine are also everyone's friend.

With those two, most excuses will be gone. If you introduce them and students are too lazy to use them, then I don't see a lot of need to feel sorry for them.

I had a laptop get stolen once while I was in school, and I lost all of the data on it, mainly because it was all less than a month old so it was not included in my monthly backup (and things like DropBox didn't exist at the time yet).

On the other hand, I had a Macbook with a dying hard drive that randomly corrupt files and/or refuse to boot while I was in the middle of my MBA program. I would re-install Mac OS and it would work for another week or so until it exploded again. With DropBox and Google Drive, it was a simply a nuisance rather than a disaster.

You can also mention to your students that: a. You don't recommend changing or upgrading their computers during the project b. You don't recommend upgrading their OS during the project c. You don't recommending them using a beta OS or changing OS during the project. d. They should be careful what they install on their computers.

i.e. the computer should be a tool to do their work and not something to play with and hack on.

The answers suggesting to use CVS, etc. are a bit silly unless the students are computer science students. Version control tools offer less benefit when dealing with binary files and the learning curve is steeper.

I too ran semester-long projects with mostly freshmen and found it sufficient to "strictly" enforce a lenient late-work policy:

  1. I always accept late-work until a stated buffer time before grades are due
  2. I assign one or more drafts/pre-work (i.e., outlines, notes, actual drafts) of all major assignments for a non-negligible portion of the total assignment grade.
  3. late work is always assessed a daily diminishing penalty starting at the due time, regardless of reason for lateness; I don't have the formula in front of me, but I think it ranges from 15 to 2 points/day

I inform the students at the beginning of the semester that I'm not in the business of gauging the validity of their excuses, and have instead a generous, consistently applied policy which will allow them to recover (through diligence) when life gets in the way.

The net effect is that the draft phase of the assignment is the only one where they can completely lose their work before I, at least, have a backup copy. At this early point the consequences of a data loss aren't failure of the assignment (unless they neglect the importance of the draft phase, for which I have no sympathy.)

In practice, I've found that the policy has the desired effects:

  • My non-slacker students who have occasional life or technical issues have been able to recover with minimal final-grade impact
  • I don't have to waste mental overhead on feeling unfair, debating whether I'm being lied to or manipulated, or worrying about being biased in my adjudication of excuses
  • The slackers we intend to punish with a strict due-date policy are still astonishingly capable of using the generous policy to hang themselves
  • Students almost never completely write off an assignment (or the course), because the diminishing penalty preserves enough value that it always makes sense to do the work (isn't that the real goal?)
  • I get to feel like my students learn the more valuable life lesson of how-to-dig-myself-out-of-holes-of-my-own-making-through-working-hard-to-catch-up as opposed to the alternative lessons of how-to-burn-with-perceived-injustice or how-to-shrug-and-never-complete-the-work-because-it-will-no-longer-be-accepted.

I realize it takes a philosophical shift to let go of the notion that we need to reject late work. I also realize this answer is basically just a variation on the current most-popular no-special-policy answer, but the implementation differs enough that I thought it might help you approach the problem from other angles.

A story a few years back: My ssd failed on me, and in the same week a certain individual with a certain file hosting service was arrested, with the file servers being shut down. Luckily, I had only recently moved to the cloud and still had an external hd with a two-week old backup on it.

My teacher gave a bit of leeway, warned me about using dubious hosters and gave me a week extension period. I'd advise a strict position, except when their backup service is legitimately compromised. This could even happen to a major service.

I guess a more legitimate file hoster wouldn't have had this problem, but it's still ultimately out of your control. I now use a combination of an external hard disk (or two, depending) with Google Drive and OneDrive for easy file transfers to my phone & tablet, as well as an additional backup.

  • This is in no way an answer to the question, "What is a good policy to apply to students that lose digital work?" – ff524 Oct 13 '14 at 6:53
  • @ff524 What about the middle paragraph? The rest may be a bit too much fluff, but I stand by the fact that an answer is present. – Sebastian Oct 13 '14 at 8:31
  • did you edit that in a minute or two after first posting? I don't remember seeing that when I commented. If you edit your post, I'll be able to reverse my downvote. – ff524 Oct 13 '14 at 8:34
  • @ff524 Yeah, I realised I had forgotten something important, so I quickly amended that. – Sebastian Oct 13 '14 at 13:59

Use Git!! Why? Both your and my question have the same answer: "You must award failing grades for failure to submit assignments." Git is so pragmatic, its usage will solve your dilemma and provide students will practical experience with a ubiquitous technology!

Git is a source code management platform that functions as a repository for safe-keeping of all code revisions. In doing so git enables independent collaborative efforts to be merged safely into branches, each of which carries along with it a required message and an exact differential of the code between commits.

Sure, diligent frequents to the great outdoors like your computer science students working offline in the wilderness will inevitably eventually have their laptop eaten by a bear, their digital work for class mere free radicals in the wild.

While close inspection of one's abrasions and tattered garbs can reveal much about wild ursa and truth, an emotionally-detached audit of your classroom's Git repository can actually do a much more practical job. Honest efforts committed throughout the course will shine brighter than his sunburned scratch marks -- and an empty repository will surely ease your apprehensions regarding lending no leniency at all.

Using Git is an amazing part of the software development process. In fact, utilizing git as the central repository for digital work allows for brilliant collaborative efforts among the student body. Perhaps a test would be the random distribution of APIs among the students and the assignment to write code to implement it. You my consider not divulging the function of the assembled code until the next day, when you can put it together, together!

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    This is entertaining, but hardly an answer to the question "what do I do with the students who lost it?" – Davidmh Oct 14 '14 at 12:00
  • @Davidmh You are absolutely correct! I have modified my response accordingly. – ProductionValues Oct 15 '14 at 20:27

One of digital media professors laid down the rules (this was back in 2004 or so) under which he would accept the "my files were lost". You needed to have three different back ups, in three different locations. For example, physically at your residence, physically on campus on a portable drive, and online on the campus storage, all of which magically lost the files at the same time. Note that campus storage, like many modern-day cloud backups, in theory could recover files deleted (though doubtful they'd spend the time for a student's lost paper).

Since the chance of all backups being lost simultaneously is for all intents and purposes zero, he was able to all at once

  1. Make his policy of not accepting "my digital files disappeared" as an excuse.
  2. Encourage better than good backup strategies.
  3. Give a reasonable exception to policy (reduces complaining) while knowing full well no one would make use of it.

protected by ff524 Oct 13 '14 at 6:56

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