Category Archives: Electronics

Practice Tips for Avoiding Electronic Discovery Sanctions

The proliferation of electronic data has become a well-documented global challenge to businesses.  The sheer volume of electronic data – e-mails, voice-mails, videos, internet searches, social media, backup tapes, clouds, smart-phone generated data, online journals (“web logs” or “blogs”), instant messaging, etc. – makes management of this data complex, but when you add to that complexity the fact that bytes of information are continually being updated, edited, and changed by different people, effectively controlling compliance risks can become overwhelming.
Failing to manage and maintain electronic data for litigation readiness may not only make it difficult for your company to present its best evidence in court, it can also subject your company to severe sanctions. Court-reported sanctions for electronic discovery abuses cover a broad spectrum, including damaging adverse-inference jury instructions, dismissal of claims, waiver of privilege, and monetary penalties ranging from $250 to more than $8 million. Although the standards courts use to evaluate motions for sanctions for failing to preserve electronic data vary greatly — from mere negligence in some jurisdictions to bad faith in others — your company will be in a good position to defeat a motion for sanctions by showing documented efforts to manage and preserve appropriate electronic data.

Best Practice Tips

  1. Start now: Do not wait for a lawsuit before managing your data. In addition to being prepared for any future lawsuit, management of electronic data may help your company prevent a trade-secret leak or the disclosure of confidential information.
  2. Familiarize yourself: Educate yourself about your company’s electronic data systems, including capabilities and limitations. At a minimum, you must know (a) how many different forms of electronic data exist and where they are; (b) who has access to the data; (c) how long the data is stored; (d) when and how the data is deleted; (e) what the back-up systems are; (f) what employees store, if anything, on personal devices; and (g) what metadata you have.
  3. Know the legal requirements: If you do not know what the legal requirements are for your industry, state, or country with regard to the preservation of electronic data, take steps to learn and understand them now. The legal requirements are continually evolving, so be sure your knowledge remains current. If you operate in a variety of states or countries, there may be conflicting jurisdictional obligations that your company will have to address.
  4. Select a custodian or custodians to oversee the data management system: Establish a protocol that identifies who is responsible for overseeing the electronic management system or systems, on a day-to-day basis as well as in response to a litigation hold. Ensure that the custodian or custodians are doing their job properly.
  5. Adopt electronic data management and storage policies: Every company should adopt policies that are simple, clear, and consistent with applicable laws. Include information pertaining to litigation holds in the policy. If employees fail to adhere to the policy, either intentionally or unintentionally, take immediate and consistent action. Policies that are not enforced will not be looked on favorably by the courts. Established policies can not only help your company avoid potential sanctions, they can put you in a position to easily access data that might be exculpatory, or at least supportive of the company in defense of a claim.
  6. Less is more: Your company should develop and enforce a record retention policy outlining what types of data should be kept and for how long. Just because you can store the information does not mean you should. Overburdened storage systems complicate retrieval of data.
  7. Ensure that your litigation hold procedures are in place and working: A litigation hold process must be quickly and easily triggered if it is to prevent the destruction of data and documents. Moreover, make sure that the process works — run mock litigation hold tests to ensure, for example, that auto-deletion systems can be suspended.
  8. Be consistent with training, updating, and auditing: Your electronic data management systems require continual maintenance to ensure that they are up to date. Similarly, be sure your employees are trained and kept abreast of changes in the system. Continually audit the system to ensure that it is able to incorporate new data and technology.

The costs and risks associated with electronic data management are best addressed before a dispute ever arises. Regularly and wisely spending a few dollars and hours can help eliminate the risk of discovery sanctions and decrease the potential for time-consuming discovery demands.

8 Expert Online Marketing Tips for Small Businesses

Today, businesses have more ways — and places — than ever to market themselves. But deciding on a marketing method, particularly when you are a small or even a mid-sized business with a small budget and limited resources, can be difficult. While social media marketing is generally free, it can be time-consuming; and the same goes for blogging. But traditional print advertising, as well as digital advertising, can be expensive.

 

So which marketing channels are best for SMBs? Dozens of small business owners and marketing professionals share the following list of top marketing strategies for SMBs.

  1. Blog. “One of the best marketing strategies for a small business is blogging,” says Maren Hogan, chief marketing brain at Red Branch Media.

Inside: Making the CIO/CMO relationship work, Ford’s shift to bimodal IT & much more!

“By providing your prospects and clients with informative, non-salesy content that you can house on your blog, promote socially and offer to other networks to supplement their strategy, you and your team can quickly establish yourselves as experts in a desired field,” Hogan says.

[Related: 6 Mobile Marketing Trends to Leverage in 2014]

It can also positively impact your SEO.

“By blogging at least twice a week, you significantly increase your website’s ability to be found on search engines,” adds Mike Lieberman, chief marketing scientist and president, Square 2 Marketing. “The more you blog, the more traffic your site will get from Google, Yahoo and Bing… [because] you are adding fresh content to your site [assuming your blog resides on your company website],” he says. And “if each of your blog posts includes a call to action, you might even generate some leads from your blog.”

Business owners and managers should also consider guest blogging.

“Guest blogging is one of the best marketing tools I’ve ever found,” says Susan Payton, president, Egg Marketing & Communications. “By contributing to relevant blogs with useful content, you can expand your reach and show off your knowledge.” Moreover, you can typically link to your website via your author bio, “making it easy for people to visit your site.”

  1. Leverage social media. “If your small business isn’t using social media, it’s time to start,” says Mike Volpe, CMO, HubSpot, which specializes in inbound marketing. “Social media produces almost double the marketing leads of trade shows, telemarketing or direct mail.”

Because social media can be (or seem) overwhelming, “choose one social media platform that your customers, prospects, and industry leaders engage with the most — be it Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ — and start building a presence there,” Volpe says. “Once you’ve set up an account, start connecting sharing your original content, joining discussions and engaging with the community. Keep your social efforts frequent, but above all, relevant and helpful to your audience.”

[Related: 7 Ways to Create a Successful Integrated Marketing Campaign]

  1. Create a Facebook business page and use Facebook advertising. “Facebook is one of the most important marketing tools for any business to use, especially a small business,” says Tori Hoffman, the social media strategist at Potratz, an automotive advertising agency.

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“Americans spend one out of every seven minutes on social media, providing a huge opportunity for small business owners to build a relationship with fans by sharing relevant content and interacting by commenting and liking fans’ comments,” Hoffman says. “The more a user interacts with a page, the more likely their friends are to see it, increasing awareness.”

Also consider Facebook advertising.

“We have been having great success for our mobile marketing clients with Facebook advertising,” says Bob Bentz, president of ATS Mobile, a mobile marketing agency. “The ads appear right in the news feed so it’s really impossible to miss. It is especially effective with local clients, because there is virtually no waste as with traditional media,” he says.

“A local restaurant, for instance, can promote just to the zip codes where it draws from. It can even target specific age groups and sex,” Bentz says. “Best of all, you can target those customers during the time that they are most likely to buy; for instance, you can display your ads just before and during the lunch and dinner hours.” And if your Facebook campaign isn’t getting the desired results, “there’s no long-term commitment. You can cancel at any time.”

  1. Post to Pinterest and Instagram. If you are selling a highly visual product or service, say you are in the bridal or food business, you should be regularly posting images on Pinterest and/or Instagram. Posting is free and both platforms have large followings, particularly among women.

“You can drive major traffic to your website via Pinterest, and no platform uses hashtags to build audiences like Instagram,” says Eric Elkins, CEO and chief strategist at WideFoc.us, a real time social media company.

“For goods and services specifically targeting women ages 18 to 65, [we] recommend companies utilize Pinterest,” says Ria Romano, partner, RPR Public Relations. “Since women are inherently more visual than men when it comes to shopping online — it’s not just a cliché — a picture really does speak 1000 words,” she says. Indeed, “for every dollar a female consumer spends on our clients’ products and services they find on Facebook, the same shopper will spend $3 on the same product or service on Pinterest.”

“My favorite place to sell my handmade jewelry is Instagram,” says Mindy McCarthy, owner of MinMac. “It’s the queen of virtual markets. Potential customers can scroll through your collection of pictures and see who they’re supporting,” she says. “They make a connection with you as a person, not just a business owner. It’s very rare that I post a piece of jewelry that doesn’t sell within minutes.”

  1. Leverage email marketing and email reminders. “Email marketing is great for engaging customers, but you’re really limiting its potential if you keep it in a silo,” says Ron Cates, director, Digital Marketing Education, Constant Contact. So be sure to integrate your email marketing campaigns “with your other marketing campaigns for maximum impact,” and vice versa, he says. For example, “if you’re running a Facebook contest, increase the number of people participating by notifying your email subscriber list of engaged customers,” he says. “If you’re running a time-limited deal or special offer, send a reminder via email.

 

“The impact of email is undeniable,” Cates states. “We’ve seen from our customers that upwards of 25 percent of all sales of coupons and deals can be attributed to reminder emails.”

  1. Try PPC (Pay-per-Click) advertising/Google AdWords. “SMBs need to be as targeted with their marketing efforts and dollars as possible, especially if their product/service is location specific — and PPC ads are one way to do so,” says David Waterman, account director, Digital Marketing, The Search Agency, a search marketing and optimization firm.

“PPC ads can be a cost efficient way to dip your toe into the online marketing world and use your marketing dollars to specifically target the regions and terms that relate most to your business,” Waterman says. “Some media/marketing companies even offer automated bidding solutions that allow the SMB PPC novice to gain the same level of targeting and exposure without the heavy lifting.”

“An efficient Google AdWords campaign, where you are sure you know how the platform works, can be a huge quarry of leads for small businesses,” adds Kyle Peterson of Clement | Peterson, a tech PR and marketing firm. “Start with uber-targeted keywords, paying close attention to keyword match types, negative keywords and search query results to eliminate irrelevant visitors, like people looking for jobs,” he says.

“Then, enable some form of conversion tracking so you know that new visitors are scoping out your business and not immediately bouncing,” he says. “Scaling up the spend is the easy part. Making sure you aren’t wasting money on irrelevant clicks is where the biggest AdWords challenge lies.”

[Related: 14 Ways to Use Twitter to Market Your Business]

In addition, or instead of Google AdWords, Waterman recommends small and midsized business owners check out Bing PPC advertising.

  1. Conduct webinars. “Use webinars to build your list and generate leads,” says Nicole Skuba, a partner at marketing firm Blue Tree Digital. “Webcast experts say some webinars see a 70 percent rebound effect comprising those who viewed the live broadcast as well as new individuals,” she says. “Webinars are also more interactive and keep the attention of leads or potential clients.”

Just make sure your webinar is content rich, with relevant content (that is content relevant to the target audience), well organized and hosted by someone with experience conducting or running a webinar.

  1. Don’t forget about press releases. “Competition for visibility is intense,” says Abby Hammer, product manager, Vocus, which owns PR Web. “Press releases help small and midsized businesses amplify their content across hundreds of global and local channels, allowing them to achieve the same exposure as much larger brands,” she says.

“By including press releases as part of an integrated marketing strategy, small businesses are able to get their content directly in front of consumers and connect with journalists and bloggers — interactions that can result in lasting impressions,” Hammer says.

In addition, the cost of posting a press release via a wire service is relatively inexpensive, typically $200 to $300, with releases being picked up by the major search engines and thousands of websites. And small businesses have a number of wire services to choose from, including PR Newswire and PR Web.

How to Choose an eBook Reader

  • Know what eBook readers are. An eBook reader is a device for browsing electronic files representing books. An eBook reader typically has a low-resolution but low-glare black-and-white screen, often not backlit, the size of a paperback book page. Compared to a general-purpose computer or smartphone which is often backlit, an eBook reader will be thin and light and have a long battery life. eBook readers typically read one or more of several proprietary “eBook” file formats. Some eBook readers are also capable of reading documents in other forms, such as open-standard “ePub” eBooks, plain text files, PDFs, Word documents, and so forth, and some will also allow you to take notes, sync with other devices, etc. eBook readers don’t have the “feel” of books, which some enjoy. But they have a few advantages such as being lightweight and portable, and being able to hold a lot more than a single paperback ever could. This makes them ideal for taking away on vacation, for reading in a favorite outdoor nook, or for reading on-the-go.
  • A dedicated eBook reader may be the most convenient way to read eBook files, but it is not the only way. PC and smartphone software is available free of charge to read ePub [1] and various proprietary eBook formats such as those for Nook[2] and Kindle[3]. It would be good for infrequent use, for back lighting, for a big screen which props itself up (on a computer, perfect for complicated material that requires glancing forward and back repeatedly), or for sampling the eBook concept before buying a reader device.
  • An eBook reader can make a great gift for someone who is both a technology enthusiast and a reader of long books. Because there are many specialized kinds, make sure the recipient can easily return it if it turns out not to suit his or her needs.
  • Not all eBook readers can handle the same formats. In addition to certain seller-specific proprietary formats, many readers support HTML, plain text, and JPG but not all support the open standard ePub.[4] This is an important distinction if you want to check out ebooks from your library, or to read the vast library of copyright-free (in the United States at least) ebooks at Project Gutenberg with nicer formatting than plain text files can provide.[5]
  • Be aware that some eBook readers handle PDFs better than others; this is important if you intend to use PDFs a lot.[6]
  • Some of the most common dedicated eBook readers include Barnes and Noble Nook, Kobo eReader, Amazon Kindle, Sony eReader, etc., with each electronic reader having its own features, feel, and capacity. Non-dedicated eBook readers (that is, items that are used for other purposes as well) include your computer, smartphone (with relevant apps installed), and the iPad.

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Know what to look for in an eBook reader. There are numerous things that you need to consider when choosing an eBook reader. One important thing to keep in mind is that choosing an eBook reader is fairly much like choosing many other electronic gadgets and even cars in on key respect – it all depends on what you want to do with it, and there is no one right eBook reader for every person, and different features can make all the difference to your choice.[7] Since the features count for everything, the following features are currently the ones to pay attention to:

  • Memory: How many eBooks or other documents does the eBook reader have the capacity for? Can this memory capacity be increased?
  • Format type: Can the eBook reader handle a variety of file types or only one type (see previous step)? Is this ability (or lack of it) reflected in the price?
  • Connectivity: Does the eBook reader have 3G and WiFi connectivity? Most of the recent ones should by now.
  • Screen friendliness: Here you need to be concerned about viewability, color, size, and reflectiveness (glare).
    • Viewability: Is it easy to read? Which eBook readers seem most like the pages of a book? Some have more of this feel than others.
    • Color: Black and white or color? Both have advantages and drawbacks. Black and white is easy on the eye for novels and sun reading (see “Viewability” below), while books and other items such as magazines or comics which need color to transfer their beauty and photos (such as art books, cookbooks, graphic novels, etc.), won’t appear so well on plain black and white eBook readers and should be experienced in color.
    • Size: Compare the eBook reader screen with the screen of non-dedicated eBook readers such as an iPad or your laptop to see which you prefer, and if you’re happy to downsize your screen reading experience.
    • Reflectiveness: One of the advantages of black and white eBook readers (using E-ink technology) is that they can be read in full sun without reflecting, glaring, or loss of image, unlike a laptop, color eBook, or an iPad. If you’re planning on reading outdoors a lot, keep this consideration at the forefront.
  • Weight and comfort: Each person’s impression of weight and feel is rightly different but there are some things to assess:
    • Does it weigh less than your usual paperback? It should.
    • Is it easy to carry and hold? You don’t want something that’s bulky, awkward, or hard to hold. In particular, be sure to hold the eBook reader in the store to check its weight and to ascertain whether the weight is comfortable for you personally.
    • You might spend hundreds of hours with your electronic book reader, and it is important that relationship on a physical level is comfortable. For example, one eBook reader might have buttons and screen that are easy to use for paging through content, but after five minutes you notice some eye strain. That product wouldn’t work for you because you are going to need to be able to look at it for long periods without eye strain or headaches.
  • Battery life: What’s the battery life promised by the blurb? You don’t want an eBook reader that runs out after an hour of sitting on your hammock at the beach. You could have taken a paper novel along in that case! Can the battery be replaced by you or do you need to send the eReader to a technician for replacement?
  • Ease of downloading: Is it easy to download eBooks? Do you have to connect to the computer or can it be done without a computer as the intermediary? This can be important when choosing an eBook reader as a gift for an older person who isn’t that keen on “fiddling” with technology.[8]
  • Share ability: The ability to transfer eBooks to another eBook reader is important, especially if you need to remove purchased books from an old eBook reader to a new one; if you can’t do this, you may lose the purchase when the eBook reader dies. Does the eBook reader allow sharing with friends or not?
  • Other features: What other features does the eBook reader have? For example, does it allow you to add notes? How easy is the process? Some readers have keyboards that work well. Others are difficult to use and can distract you from your reading. How easy is it to “page back” and find something? Are there dictionaries and is it possible to upload new ones?

3

Read online product reviews. Although this is a time-consuming activity, it’s the most important part of choosing an expensive product, especially one liable to fast changes and updates. You want to be sure that you’re getting the best value product for its kind at the time, as well as knowing that it will do absolutely everything you want it to do. The best research will be a combination of reading both professional reviews and user-submitted content because this provides a balance of viewpoints. Where technology reviewers might be paid to focus on about certain features, the consumer points of view should help to inject some realism into the worth or otherwise of the eBook reader.

  • Ask others about their eBook experiences. Friends and family members may have insights about what is important to know before buying one. For example, some readers only allow you to read down loadable books, but others provide Internet access so you can also read blogs and websites. Asking people who already have used eBook devices is faster than researching the information and most people are generally interested in ensuring you don’t encounter the same pitfalls that they did!
  • 4

Be careful about the ability to find eBooks and download them to your eBook reader. While it may be tempting to purchase an eBook reader from overseas, double and triple check the compatibility for your home area. The problem may be that you cannot download books for it because you live in a different region from where you purchased the eBook reader and that would leave you with a less-than-bargain priced eBook reader! Moreover, check the method by which your eBook reader allows downloads. Some provide WiFi download compatibility and USB download, others only have USB download. What will be most convenient for you?

  • Look into the breadth of options for getting eBooks that comes with your eBook reader. Some eBook readers enable free reading with a bookstore and loan of items.[9] If that appeals to you, realize that the extent of free reads and loans might be highly dependent on the particular bookstore.
  • Check your local library’s provision of eBooks. Many libraries are now adding eBooks to their lending systems. Talk to your local librarian about eBook reader compatibility issues, especially if you intend on relying a great deal on your library.

5

Check the eBook provider’s breadth of published content access. Some eBook readers are able to access more content than others, and the ideal is to get an eBook reader that has the largest content availability possible, to ensure that you can access eBooks that are relevant to your interests. However, the extent of access is changing rapidly and is becoming less of an issue. What is important is to check that the eBook reader that interests you can access the content that interests you. Ask the retailer for more information if your research hasn’t made this clear.

6

Visit the store to try the eBook reader. Once you’ve done the research, make a list of the features you want (see the suggested things to consider above) and take this list along to the store. You may need to visit a variety of stores to cover each eBook reader you’re keen to trial. Take a bit of time to play with the eBook readers and to ask the assistants questions about them. It’s important to do this manual checking because it gives you the opportunity to hold the item, page through the content, see how the screen appears to you, and to simply get a feel for each type of reader in your own hands.

  • Try to read at least one chapter of a book to see how the reading feels on each reader. As you’re doing so, think about the ease of seeing the text, the ease of turning pages, the ease of finding the information, etc.

7

Don’t rush your decision. It’s a good idea to go home after your trialing expedition and to think through the purchase. You’ve done the research and the testing, now allow a few days for the right one to surface in your thinking. Don’t be swayed by boredom, loneliness, stress, or the urgency of trends; these gadgets are new and therefore subject to a lot of change and if you’re going to fork out a lot of money for one, it needs to be the right one for now.

  • While some eBook readers might have more bells and whistles than others, if you just want the basics at this stage, a cheaper, less fancy version could be a good initial solution, allowing you to upgrade to a fancier eBook reader as new versions are released down the track. Note that in the short time since eBooks have been released, the prices have been dropping dramatically, so waiting does no harm.
  • Consider purchasing a reconditioned or used eBook reader. Older models are often just as functional as those which replaced them and can be found for much lower prices.
  • Be sure to check the warranty information. New products can bring unknown problems with them and it’s reassuring to know you can return it without hassle if something goes wrong, as well as finding out what happens if you lose any eBooks due to technical malfunctions.

E Learning Tips for Student Success

Advancements in technology have literally put higher education at students’ fingertips in the form of distance learning. As more institutions embrace and offer online courses, the number of students tapping into the option is expanding exponentially. And while the online learning concept is straightforward enough, everything from time constraints to lack of oversight to poor motivation tend to get in the way when students sign up for self-directed, online courses.

The 2012 National Survey for Student Engagement singles out students’ time use, programs of study, and co-curricular activities as elements that hamper their ability to engage with online coursework. An absence of collaborative activities can also play a role in a student’s ability to successfully complete distance education commitments. “Online leaders were more challenged in their coursework,” the NSSE reports, “but engaged less often in active and collaborative learning activities.”

Jessica Viecelli-Stimpson, an adjunct faculty member at American International College (AIC) in Springfield, MA, said a lack of instructor guidance could make distance learning particularly difficult for college students. “Students feel a lack of guidance,” said Viecelli-Stimpson, “when there’s no face-to-face time to ask questions or stop at the instructor’s desk on the way out of the classroom.”

In many cases, that lack of guidance leads to procrastination on the student’s part and, eventually, dropped or failed courses. “They know that they can get the work done this week, but they’ll put it off until next week and wind up having to cram it all in,” said Viecelli-Stimpson. To offset that lack of face time, she said online instructors must acknowledge the problem, create timetables (and ensure that they are adhered to), and always keep the lines of communication open.

At AIC, for example, Viecelli-Stimpson and other professors check in with students at least once a week to ensure that they are on track for course completion and to address any issues or concerns that pupils may have. She also alerts students about what’s “coming up” and sends them work and materials to review. “This helps keep the pupils interested, engaged, and on track,” said Viecelli-Stimpson, “even though I’m not standing in front of them at a classroom podium.”

Tapping into Technology

Technology can be a great facilitator for instructors that want to keep their online learners on task. Viecelli-Stimpson said AIC professors use tools like Jing screencast software, Snagit screen capture tool, Audacity’s free podcasting platform, and VoiceThread’s online discussion software to augment online courses and engage students in the experience. Podcasts, for example, can be easily downloaded and then played back on a student’s MP3 player at a later date. “That results in a more universal learning experience,” said Viecelli-Stimpson, “and not just one that’s tied to a computer.”

Using screencast software, AIC’s instructors can capture a specific area of their computer screens, save it as an image, and/or create a video from the content. Viecelli-Stimpson uses Snagit to post mini-lectures on YouTube and then points her students there to watch the 5-minute snippets. To get difficult details across to her computer applications students, she’ll use PowerPoint slides or Excel spreadsheets combined with voice recordings (made by using Snagit) that help students work through lectures, key points, and test reviews.

Viecelli-Stimpson said the screencasts – which are well received by students, who often comment on them in their course evaluations – are particularly useful in helping pupils who might otherwise become confused or frustrated by the online course content. “I get a lot of positive feedback about the various features and tools that my distance learners are using,” she said, “and how well these elements help to get the points across.”

Tips for Student Success

ne of the simplest solutions for stemming online dropout and failure rates is to simply have students read their course syllabuses before getting into the actual online activities. As old fashioned as this strategy sounds, David L. Stoloff, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, CT, said reinforcing it in the distance space can go a long way in keeping pupils on track and engaged in their coursework.

“When you start out on the right foot – with a personal welcome from an instructor and directions on how to read the course syllabus – you can ward off many of the engagement issues associated with online learning,” said Stoloff. “They need to understand that the syllabus is a contract and that there’s no shame in dropping a course quickly and getting a refund if the commitment can’t be fulfilled.” Other good strategies include outlining time commitments, explaining expected completion timeframes, and going over course expectations in advance – just like a professor would on the first day of class in a traditional setting.

When it comes to technology tools, Stoloff said online discussion groups – which are typically enabled by a college’s learning management system (LMS) – help create a collaborative, online learning environment. In fact, Stoloff said that in most of his classes discussion group participation makes up 10-20 percent of a student’s total grade. “They’re required to participate regularly,” said Stoloff. “When someone drops off, it’s easy for me to see that he or she isn’t ‘actively’ learning.”

When those drop-offs occur, Stoloff uses the e-mail function within Eastern Connecticut State University’s LMS to contact students, remind them to participate, or suggest a course withdrawal or other action. In some cases, he’ll invite students to visit him in person to discuss the lack of active participation and any problems they may be having with the course. “In most cases,” he said, “the student isn’t participating and/or passing the class because he or she hasn’t put in the effort.”

With 18 percent of undergraduate students predicted to receive 80 percent or more of their education through online courses this year, according to EdTechReview, now is the time for institutions to develop the foundational tools needed to keep pupils engaged, on track, and successful online. “Ignore this step,” Viecelli-Stimpson warned, “and it becomes way too easy for students to sit back and let things go until the end of the semester. By then it’s too late.”

 

The Human Element of Online Learning

Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services for the Center for Online Learning at Saint Leo University, offers these seven tips for creating an engaging online education offering:

  1. Remember that the human element is the most important tool to keeping online learners enrolled and engaged in your program.
  2. Before hiring any new faculty, make sure that person is caring and student-focused.
  3. Faculty members must build relationships with each student and let them know that they really care about the individual’s education and success.
  4. Students must know they are not just a name out in cyberspace, but that they are really human beings who are on the other side of the screen.
  5. Instructional immediacy is paramount. “We require faculty to respond to student inquiries in a maximum of 24-36 hours,” says Johnson.
  6. If a student misses a deadline, instead of blaming the student with an accusatory “Why didn’t you meet this assignment?” a much better approach is to ask, “Are you okay?”
  7. When you build a trusting relationship and invest in the student, he or she is more likely to invest more in the course.

21 tips tricks and shortcuts to help you stay anonymous online

1. SECURE WEBMAIL WITH EXTENSIONS

If you’re using a popular webmail service, such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, and you don’t or can’t make the switch to a more secure service, then consider installing Mailvelope. Mailvelope is a browser extension for Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox that brings OpenPGP encryption to your webmail service. Similar extensions exist, such as SecureGmail, which encrypts and decrypts emails you send through Gmail. Using this extension means the unencrypted text should never reach Google servers. Recipients will need to install the extension in order to decrypt and read the encrypted email.

 

2. INCOGNITO

This is perhaps one of the most basic privacy options that just about anyone can take advantage of. The top four most popular browsers – Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Safari – have a private browsing mode, which can be found in their respective settings menus. With private browsing activated, your browser will not store cookies or internet history on your computer. This has very limited uses and is perhaps really only effective at hiding your browsing history from your significant other, siblings or parents. Private browsing does not securely hide your identity or browsing activities beyond your local machine as your IP address can still be tracked.

 

Photograph: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images

3. DON’T USE SOCIAL MEDIA

The amount of personal data that social networking sites like Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter have harvested from their billions of users is shocking. Head to facebook.com/settings and click ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data’ and you might be surprised to see just how much information is on file. Everything from who you have poked, what events you have or have not attended and when and where you have logged into your account is logged and saved. Similar levels of data harvesting occurs on all major social media sites. This is the price you pay for using a ‘free’ service. The only sure-fire way to avoid giving up this information is to delete your accounts entirely. A word of warning, ‘deactivating’ your account is not the same as deleting it. Deactivating your account is sort of like putting it into hibernation – all your information is stored and can be re-activated if you have second thoughts. Always delete rather than deactivate an account if you wish to completely wipe it.

 

4. BLOCK AND MANAGE TRACKERS

A large amount of websites track and collect the browsing habits of the users that visit them. These trackers are invisible and most people aren’t aware that they’re being tracked. Ghostery is a free browser extension – available on all major web browsers – that will reveal these trackers, also known as web bugs. You can then decide which web bugs you’re comfortable with tracking you and which ones you’d like to block. In total, Ghostery keeps track of over 1,900 companies. Each company has a profile in the Ghostery Knowledge Library, allowing you to better understand who and why someone is keeping tabs on you and what action you would like to take.

 

5. ENCRYPTED EMAIL

Most of the well known and popular email services – Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook – are not particularly privacy-friendly. For full Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encrypted emails, consider signing up to a more secure provider. Hushmail is currently very popular, it provides a private email account with no ads, built-in encryption and unlimited email aliases. A limited free service is offered, with more features available for a monthly subscription fee. However, Hushmail is not above the law and in the past it has been forced to reveal user data to U.S. authorities following a court order. The company also logs user IP addresses. MyKolab is a similar service that has not revealed any user information in the past, however, they are also obliged to provide access to lawful interception requests so this still remains a possibility.

 

6. TEMPORARY EMAIL

Disposable Email Addresses (DEAs) are anonymous and temporary. They allow users to quickly create new email addresses as-and-when they’re needed, which can then be disposed of after use. This is particularly useful for avoiding spam when filling in forms on websites that require an email address to proceed. Keeping your real email address away from spammers is crucial to protecting your identity online and DEAs are a great solution. Popular providers of this service include Guerrilla Mail and Mailinator, although there are hundreds out there to choose from. Most DEAs are not particularly secure, so it is not advised to use these services to send sensitive information – rather, use them as a way to avoid giving away your own information in situations where you are obliged to do so.

7. VPN

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are one of the most effective ways to protect your privacy online. A VPN essentially hides your IP address – your unique online identifier – and runs all your online data via a secure and encrypted virtual tunnel, which can keep websites from tracking your online activity or even knowing which country you’re browsing from. These days, there are many VPNs to choose from. Hotspot Shield, TorGuard, CyberGhost and HideMyAss are some of the more popular ones that are currently available. Most of them require a small monthly subscription fee and they don’t all provide the same list of features, so it’s worth shopping around for a VPN that suits you.

 

 

8. TOR

Originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind as a way to protect government communications, Tor is a network of “virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” Tor’s anonymity network allows access to the ‘deep’ or ‘hidden’ web, where websites can be created anonymously and individuals can communicate privately with each other. When using the Tor browser – which can be downloaded for free from torproject.org – it is very difficult for websites or individuals to track your online activity and location. However, while Tor is quite effective at protecting your online anonymity, it can be slow, complicated and restricting. It’s also worth noting that while the network can and has been used for good, it has also been used for illicit purposes, such as selling drugs and distributing images of child abuse.

9. PROXY SERVER

A proxy server is a computer through which your online activity can be processed, essentially acting as an intermediary between your computer and the internet. As such, this can be a great way to maintain your online anonymity as the proxy basically masks your IP address with its own. If the proxy is based in a different country than your own, you can fool websites and trackers into thinking you’re browsing from a completely different continent. There are many ways to use proxies and there are various free and paid services on offer. HideMyAss.com/proxy has a limited free web proxy service that you can start using immediately if you’d like try it out.

10. HTTPS EVERYWHERE

Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) is the encrypted version of HTTP, the technology protocol which determines how web servers and browsers respond to commands and how messages are sent and received. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) HTTPS Everywhere is a neat little extension – available on Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera – that forces websites to use HTTPS, even when they default to the less secure and unencrypted HTTP. By EFF’s own admission it’s still feasible for “some attackers to break HTTPS,” but it’s certainly not a bad idea to install their extension as HTTPS is still far more secure than HTTP and will certainly help to protect your privacy and consequently maintain your anonymity. EFF is a nonprofit organisation that seeks to defend civil liberties in the digital world.

 

11. DESTROY COOKIES

Cookies are little bits of code that are automatically downloaded from a website and stored on your system. Cookies allow websites to quickly and easily remember if you’ve been there before – if you have, the website may then alter certain variables based on the information that has been stored in the cookie in order to give you a more personalised and potentially useful experience. However, some cookies can be very intrusive, logging information such as how long you’ve been visiting a particular website, how many clicks you’ve made and what content you seem to prefer reading. It doesn’t hurt, then, to occasionally wipe your system of any and all cookies. Admittedly this won’t do a huge amount to protect your anonymity, but it will make it harder for websites to learn and understand your viewing habits. You can delete cookies from within your browser, but to make sure you nuke the lot, you can use an app like CCleaner, which is free and powerful.

 

DuckDuckGo: the plucky upstart taking on Google with secure searches

Read more

12. USE ALTERNATIVE SEARCH ENGINES

Like most people, you probably use Google to search for things online. Google is an undeniably accurate, fast and efficient search engine, however, this is largely helped by its personalised search system. This is a feature that uses your past search history, rather than just relying on the terms you’ve typed into the search bar, to present you with results that are more relevant to your personal tastes. To do this, Google keeps track of your search habits in a number of ways, including browser cookies. You can turn off this personalised search by clicking Search Tools > All Results > Verbatim. But if you really want to make sure Google isn’t tracking your searches, consider using a different search engine entirely, such as DuckDuckGo, which promises never to track your searches and “emphasizes protecting searchers’ privacy and avoiding filter bubble of personalized search results.”

13. USE ALTERNATIVE BROWSERS

While Google Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer are popular, they’re not as secure as they have the potential to be. If you would like a more guarded browsing experience that has a more earnest approach to secure web browsing, consider trying out a privacy-focused browser such as Dooble, Comodo Dragon or SRWare Iron. However, do bear in mind that the additional security methods are fairly limited and will do little to protect your overall anonymity on their own, rather, this should be used in conjunction with other measures. Additionally, you can probably get a comparably secure service by disabling third-party cookies and blocking all location data in your regular browser’s settings and installing various privacy and anonymity-focused extensions and plugins such as Ghostery or Mailvelope.

“Dropbox…is very hostile to privacy”

Edward Snowden

14. DITCH DROPBOX

Edward Snowden has called Dropbox – a cloud storage service – ‘hostile to privacy’. That’s pretty damning. If you’re worried about sharing your files through this system, there are a number of good alternatives out there which offer better privacy. Snowden himself recommends Spideroak, which describes itself as a zero-knowledge encrypted data backup, share, sync, access and storage service. You can use a limited version of this as part of their free trial, which can be found on their website. A fully featured subscription is available for $12 a month. However, if you’re just looking to quickly share small or large files anonymously for free, give OnionShare a go. It doesn’t have as many features as Spideroak, but it gets the job done.

15. CHANGE YOUR PHONE

Staying anonymous while using a smartphone can be tricky business. Many apps will want access to all sorts of settings on your device by default, which you may not be aware of and which you will have to manually manage with each new app installation and update. Furthermore, connecting to public networks while on the go is also a great way of potentially exposing your data to nefarious snoopers. While both Apple’s iOS 8 and Android’s Lollipop now have good encryption measures by default, there is another more extreme option in the form of The Blackphone. This is an ‘NSA-proof’ smartphone that claims to provide privacy features for texts, emails, web browsing and phone calls. Reviews so far have been mostly positive but at around £400, it’s not cheap.

 

16. USE A PASSWORD MANAGER

If you’ve got a password that can be easily guessed, cracked or stolen, because you have a bad memory for that sort of thing, then you can say goodbye to your anonymity. This is especially true if you use the same password for everything, or across multiple websites and/or services. A great way to improve your password security is to use a password manager, like LastPass. LastPass saves all of your passwords and only requires you to remember one master password, making multiple different passwords a lot less of a headache to manage, which in turn improves your online security and protects your anonymity.

17. SECURITY FOCUSED OPERATING SYSTEMS

There are security focused email service providers, security focused smartphones and security focused web browsers, but have you considered using a security focused operating system? Whonix is exactly that – an open source OS that focuses on anonymity, privacy and security. Based on the Tor network, Whonix is about as anonymous as an OS can get before it all becomes too inconvenient for normal use. Whonix runs in two parts, “one solely runs Tor and acts as a gateway… The other… is on a completely isolated network. Only connections through Tor are possible.” You can download it for free from whonix.org.

 

18. ANONYMOUS CURRENCY

Darkcoin is an open source digital cryptographic currency based on the Bitcoin software code. It is intended to be a more private version of Bitcoin (which typically prides itself on its transparency) and it claims to be the world’s first anonymous cryptocurrency. Finding merchants that accept Darkcoin can be tough (Darkcoin has its own merchant directory which you can browse here http://tinyurl.com/qzo398u) but when you do, your financial transactions are well hidden and, in theory, entirely anonymous.

 

19. VIRTUAL MACHINES

Using a virtual machine is a great way to work on sensitive files (or to open dubious ones) without the fear of online snooping or potentially infecting your main system. A virtual machine is essentially a second ‘virtual’ computer that you host within your main operating system as an application. So let’s say you want to download a JPG from an email attachment, but you’re worried that it’s infected with a keylogger or some other form of virus that could jeopardize your anonymity. Firstly, if you suspect this to be the case, you shouldn’t download it at all. But one method to more safely examine the file if you absolutely must is to use virtualization software, such as VirtualBox, to install a virtual machine onto your system. It’s best to use a secure OS for this, so something Linux based isn’t a bad idea. You can then download the file on the virtual machine before turning the internet on your virtual machine off and opening the JPG. Once you’re done with the file, you can delete it along with your virtual system, leaving no traces behind and no potential security issues.

20. AVOID JAVASCRIPT

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JavaScript is used all over the web and can provide detailed information about your system to any website that uses it. This is almost always used completely harmlessly and is often used to improve your browsing experience or funnel more personalised and relevant adverts your way. However, some of this personal or system information can and has been leaked in the past. Disabling JavaScript completely is not really a viable solution as a large amount of websites require you to accept JavaScript in order for them to display correctly. However, you can install an extension into your browser that will allow you to blacklist or whitelist JavaScript activity, giving you more control over how and where your information is being used. NoScript and ScriptSafe are both popular choices and very easy to use.

21. DESTROY ALL TECHNOLOGY AND LIVE IN A CAVE

Ultimately, the only way to truly stay anonymous online is to never go online in the first place. If you’ve already used the internet, delete any and all accounts you’ve ever created, turn your computer off and smash it to pieces. You will still leave a digital footprint of some sort in your wake, but hopefully it’s not particularly significant. If you’re using this extreme method, you should also smash up your smart phone, your tablet and your smart TV (they’re listening to us now). Now that you have purged all connected technology from your life, you may wish to live in self-imposed exile, perhaps in a cave, so that you are not tempted to re-enter the online world. Don’t tell anyone about this and you will successfully have acquired complete anonymity. Probably.

Tips for Using Electronic Media

Electronic MediaThe electronic media, now so integrated into our teens’ lives, has a profound influence on them. Parents cannot always control what their teens view. Since we cannot shelter them from all this exposure and information, we must teach them how to deal with the electronic revolution that is a part of their lives. We need to help them analyze and evaluate the messages they receive so that they can utilize mass media and the new technologies in positive ways.

What makes this so difficult for parents is how quickly new technology develops. It seems that every day a new means of communicating or accessing the internet become available. It can feel daunting to even try to keep up. And controlling your child’s media intake is often a thankless job. You are met with resistance at every turn, especially from your teen. Why even try? Because you will not be able to guide your child unless you expose yourself to the new technology, if not before them, then alongside them. We must tune in to their culture and to do so, we need to take time, gather information, and maintain strong resolve and determination. It is often not easy.

Parental involvement is a key to safe and balanced use. It is not what the media brings to the teen but what the teen brings to the media. Children whose parents are supportive, caring, involved, and set limits in a nurturing way are better able to handle the media. When young, children prefer to spend more time with parents who are willing to explore these technologies in a non-hurried and accepting way. When older, these teens will be more likely to listen to parents’ limits, concerns and opinions, and take those into account as they make decisions.

Steps to Follow in Making Decisions about the Media and Your Teen

  • Postpone – the longer you can hold off exposing your child/teen to violent and sexually suggestive material, the better off he will be.
  • Pick and Choose – evaluate each situation individually, for example each movie – some R-rated movies or video games are less offensive than others. Remember that teens are working on being independent, so give them freedom of choice whenever possible.
  • Set limits – introduce a little structure with regard to media. Moderation is a good policy. Tell your teen that people should not live by TV/media alone – they also have homework, hobbies, sports, friends, family. Call for a quiet hour in the house with no electronic media. An effective strategy to avoid conflict with your teen is to work with him to decide what are appropriate choices. Together you can set some guidelines: when, how much, which shows, movies, CD’s, videos, computer games, and which sites and how much access to the internet.
  • When possible, participate with your child – watch TV with her and listen to her music (especially if you think it may have some objectionable content), have him guide you through use of the internet, what sites he is visiting, and get to know who she is meeting online and visit with her.
  • Discuss what you are both experiencing in relation to the program content of the media. Seize every opportunity to discuss what you see and hear with your child. Talk about violence, the bad language, the images you find offensive. Without being dogmatic or heavy-handed, voice your opinion so that your values are clear. Ask her what she thinks and provide her with time to respond; listen non-judgmentally to her thoughts and perspectives.
  • Rent video games and sit with him while he plays. Check out magazines that review games and look at ratings on the package. Negotiate with your teen about which ones he can have.
  • Check movie reviews and ratings.
  • Give your teen some privacy and tell her you trust her to abide by the rules you have developed.

 
Television
There are many benefits to television in our children’s lives. It can be a learning tool, helping teens gain an appreciation of the world and people, and enabling our teens to relate to their peers about popular programs, which addresses our teen’s need to feel a sense of identity and membership within their contemporary popular culture.

On the flip side, there are many negatives to television. They may watch too much TV, in which the depiction of life and people portrayed is unrealistic, women are exploited or shown with no depth or abilities, sex is ubiquitous and there are no consequences for it, smoking and drinking are portrayed as cool, and often times there are quick and superficial fixes to life’s problems.

How can you help your young teen to get the best that television has to offer while minimizing the harmful effects?

  • Help him plan which shows he will watch – this can reinforce the idea that TV, like other activities, should have a purpose.
  • When possible, watch with your teen – it can be an opportunity to discuss difficult topics. Give your opinion and allow her to have her say.
  • Consider restricting TV to weekends – it is a way to teach that it is possible to relax and have fun without TV.
  • Watch advertisements with your teen – help him learn how to judge the ads, hone media literacy skills and become a critical consumer.

 
Popular Music
As opposed to the 60’s and 70’s music message which was rebellion but with peace, equality, and ethnic equity, some of today’s messages seem to be rebellion with anger: the use of words whose purpose seems to be to shock or even horrify, advocacy of violence; racist themes, and being demeaning of women. The artists/rock stars are frequently negative role models.

Even with this reality, there are some benefits to the music of today’s teens: they may decide they want a career in music or they may develop a lifelong love and interest in music. So how can we help our teens to analyze the negative subliminal messages that are conveyed in the music they listen to?

  • Listen to the music your teens listen to, watch music videos, comment about your reactions or concerns without being judgmental if he likes the music. Talk about any bad language and images you find offensive
  • Set some rules about purchasing recordings or downloading music.
  • Make a distinction with your teen between an entertainer’s music/art and his personal life. Help your teen to understand that he can appreciate the artist’s talent without idealizing or even endorsing all aspects of the person’s life, behavior, choices and apparent values. Use the opportunity to discuss your stand on alcohol, drugs, sex, violence, whatever comes up with an entertainer’s lifestyle.
  • Music videos on their own do not lead to risky behavior. The variable for a healthy lifestyle for our teens seems to be how close the teens are to their families, not solely what they watch.

 
Computers and Safety in Cyberspace
As with all the new media, there are many plusses: computers have changed the way children and teens learn and has given them access to all the world’s information. Research has become more fun and exciting; they can connect with peers across the globe; and they can share ideas and find people with common interests.

But of course there are also the negatives, the biggest ones being the worry about who our teens are meeting in cyberspace and about what sites they are visiting. There is also the concern about how much time our teens are spending online, to the detriment of other aspects of their lives. There are concerns about social networking – it can consume our teens’ lives and be their primary way of connecting with other people rather than face-to-face interactions.

What can you do to keep your teens safe and help them find a balance in their lives with computer use and other activities?

  • Remember: teens still need our guidance as they enter cyberspace, so we need to educate ourselves and stay involved with them.
  • Enlist your teen as a tour guide as you surf the net with him – ask him to take you to the sites he visits.
  • Set some ground rules for being online: which sites, for how long, when.
  • Keep computers out of your children’s bedrooms. It is better to have them be in public spaces in your home.
  • You need to establish rules for hand-held internet devices and cell phones. For example, they must be turned in to the parent at night or put on the charger in the kitchen.
  • Suggest some sites he may want to visit.
  • Get to know who he is meeting on-line. Visit with him. Make sure he knows not to give out personal information (name, address, phone)
  • Give him some privacy and tell him you trust him to abide by your rules, then leave him alone. If you find he is not ready for such freedom, set stricter rules and keep a tighter rein until you feel he can manage the responsibility and can be trusted.
  • Know how to use the parental control devices that come with on-line services.
  • Prepare your child to deal with anyone online who makes her uncomfortable – “What you are telling me is against AOL’s rules and I am going to report you.” Let her know she should let you know if something frightening happens online.

5 Tips for Effective Digital Note Taking

Being a full time student, working two part time jobs, being married, and doing some writing and development on the side proves to be daunting. With my discovery of GTD a few years back I was like everyone else; enamored with the idea of getting things off their mind to then produce better and more effectively. I instantly grabbed onto the practice of “ubiquitous capture” by taking notes so I wouldn’t let as many things fall through the cracks.

At first I just used a junky old notebook and a crappy Bic pen. I slowly improved my tools as any good, geeky GTD student would. But it wasn’t until I switched over to a full digital work-flow that I started to see real benefits with the use of my system. I am in a very technical field at work and technical major at school; computers and devices are around me all day long. It only made sense to capture and process thoughts and actions digitally as it was faster and more “iron-clad” for me.

Here are 5 tips on on digital note taking as well some of the pitfalls to look out for.

Make sure to stay engaged

There is absolutely nothing more annoying that someone click-clacking their way away on a keyboard or iPhone when you are trying to have a conversation with them, regardless if they are actually taking notes or not.

If you are a very fast typer, maybe around 50+ WPM it is a good practice to listen to what someone is saying then jot down a sentence or two to summarize it. Or, if you are in a meeting you could always say, “one second while I get this down so I don’t forget.” The idea is to capture what you need without constantly looking at your screen or phone and not paying attention.

Edit and consolidate

One of the biggest things that I noticed from taking extensive school notes was that a lot of the stuff was pure garbage. I would say that out of typing through a whole 55 minute lecture, I had about a couple of pages of text that was extremely out of order and mostly indecipherable. After taking a look through each class’s notes I soon realized that I have about a half a page of bullet points that were really important and all the rest was considered details and reference.

Now, I wouldn’t say delete everything that isn’t the main points of what you captured, but I would say to consolidate your notes. One good way of doing this is to summarize your notes from a meeting and then take the original junk that you typed down and save it in a “repository” of some kind just in case there was a minor detail you actually did need later.

Make them available from anywhere

I am a very mobile person and because of that I need a way to input notes and access them from anywhere I have an Internet connection or device. My tools of choice that make this happen include Springpad, Evernote, and Simplenote. I won’t go into which one I think is better; the important thing is that you can reach them from anywhere and all of them are decently reliable and extremely useful.

 

Put a voice to your notes

Something that I have found to be game-changing when it comes to capturing information is recording a lecture or meeting while taking notes. There are several ways that you can do this, but what I have adopted is the Livescribe pen and paper so I can write naturally, record audio with my writing, and still have digital notes that can (somewhat) easily be transformed to text. You can of course use tools like OneNote for Windows and Circus Ponies NoteBook for Mac to record and type at the same time.

Have you ever had a note you took during a meeting that didn’t make a lick of sense? I know I have. Yet, when recording audio and locking it up to your notes you can refer back to what was being said around the moment you were capturing it. This helps clarify and make your notes come “alive”. Of course, you definitely want to tell your colleagues that you are recording them before hand, that is unless you are looking for someone to sue you.

Choose a tool and stick to it

The biggest tip, and this goes with everything that is related to personal productivity systems; find a tool you love, one that works well for you, and stick to it. I am Captain Fiddly when it comes to list making, project tracking, note-taking, and productivity software. About a year and a half ago I gave up on googling “best note-taking tools” and “best online GTD systems” and just stuck with what I had and what worked well enough for me.

If you have a productivity system itch like I do, pick something simple like Simplenote or if you want a little more power, Evernote or Springpad and devote 30 days to that tool. I guarantee after 30 days that “itch” will go away and you can concentrate more on getting things done rather than finding the best new note tool that doesn’t exist.

Ten Tips for Donating a Computer

As companies, nonprofits, charities, libraries, and individuals find reasons to upgrade their computers, the problem of how to safely discard used equipment continues to grow.

There are many reasons to donate or recycle your used equipment:

  • 75 percent of the fossil fuels and energy used by a computer are actually consumed during manufacturing. Extending the computer’s lifespan through reuse means more return on that initial environmental cost.
  • Every computer dumped into a landfill represents a missed opportunity to provide technology and tools to individuals and organizations across the digital divide.
  • Even if a computer cannot be reused, recycling ensures that valuable raw materials are recovered from used computers and that any waste is disposed of in an environmentally sound fashion.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Plug in to eCycling program, only 15 to 20 percent of computers and other electronic devices are being recycled in the United States (latest statistics are from 2007).

TechSoup has a long history of working with Microsoft, the U.S. EPA, the Electronics Takeback Coalition, and other organizations to improve the environment and bridge the digital divide by helping consumers properly donate or recycle computer equipment. We also have expertise in computer equipment refurbishing through our Refurbished Computer Initiative (RCI). It provides reliable, warrantied desktop and laptop computers to U.S. nonprofits and charities at the lowest possible cost.

Below are some tips for passing along your used but still useful equipment.

1. Determine if Your Old Computer Can Be Reused

If your computer is less than five years old, chances are it can be put to good use by someone else. Usually, the lifespan of a computer is seven to eight years. Extending the computer’s lifespan through reuse provides the highest environmental benefit of all electronics disposal alternatives.

2. Consider Donating Newer Equipment to a Refurbisher

You may be tempted to donate equipment directly to a favorite local school or charity. However, keep in mind that most organizations have very specific technology needs. A donated computer might not be a good fit. Refurbishers are better equipped to repair and upgrade older computers. They will ensure that equipment works well and runs legal software copies and that any e-waste is disposed of properly. They will pass on ready-to-use equipment to those who need it, often at little or no cost to the recipient.

Refurbishers work with newer equipment that can run current software programs. Therefore, if your computer is more than five years old, it’s better to send it to a recycler.

Find refurbishers that accept donated IT equipment via the directory of Microsoft Registered Refurbishers. Most Microsoft Registered Refurbishers also accept Macintosh products. If you are planning a large donation of more than 50 computers, please consider donating to TechSoup’s Refurbished Computer Initiative.

3. Recycle Older and Broken Hardware

Any equipment that is not working or is more than five years old should go to end-of-life recycling, meaning responsible destruction. A computer recycler is a business or organization that salvages useful computer parts before breaking down what’s left, safely removing hazardous materials in the process. Note that some recyclers will charge a fee to accept old computer equipment, especially monitors.

For listings of recycling drop-off locations in your area, visit:

  • Earth911
  • Dell-Goodwill Reconnect

4. Choose a Responsible Recycler

You’ve probably seen or heard horror stories about dangerous and irresponsible electronics recycling. However, there are certification programs for recyclers that can help you feel good about the recycler you choose.

Both the Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) and the e-Stewards® programs require recyclers to demonstrate that they meet specific standards for safe and responsible electronics recycling. They include environmental safety, worker health, and data security standards. You can learn more about certification programs at the EPA’s Certification Programs for Electronics Recyclers page.

5. Contact the Refurbisher or Recycler Before Donating

Call the organization or check its website to ensure that it accepts the type of computer you plan to give away. Some refurbishing organizations, for example, will refuse anything older than a Pentium III. Many recycling and refurbishing organizations also have specific locations where equipment can be donated, while others have delivery instructions they expect donors to follow.

6. Remember the Software, Documentation, and Accessories

If you can, include the keyboard, mouse, printer, modem, packaged software, and any other accessories you have used with the computer. They can almost always be utilized by schools, nonprofits, charities, and most organizations only accept complete systems.

Also pass along the original disks, media, Certificate of Authenticity sticker, user manual, and other documentation that came with the equipment. Keeping the Certificate of Authenticity sticker (usually on the computer) intact is generally the most important thing to remember. This allows refurbishers to inexpensively re-license and reload Microsoft Windows and Office software on the donated machines.

7. If You Clear Your Computer of Personal Information Yourself, Use Disk-Cleaning Software

The best way to protect against any unauthorized use of personal information is to use a disk-cleaning tool that obliterates all data on the hard drive. “Personal information” includes your Internet browser’s cache, cookies, history; your email contacts and messages; your documents; your recycle or trash folder; and all nontransferable software.

Below are examples of recommended disk-cleaning utilities.

Commercial Windows Disk-Cleaning Software:

  • Blancco Data Erasure Software
  • WipeDrive

Free Windows Disk-Cleaning Software:

  • Active@ Kill Disk Hard Drive Eraser
  • Darik’s Boot and Nuke

Macintosh Disk-Cleaning Software:

  • Disk Utility (built-in in Mac OS X, under “Security Options”)
  • WipeDrive for Mac

8. Keep a List of What You Donated for Your Records

Remember that tax season will always return — and you are likely eligible for a deduction if you donate to a nonprofit refurbisher or recycler. Most school or nonprofit refurbishers and recyclers can provide a tax receipt upon request. Business donors can deduct the un-depreciated value of the computer, and individuals can deduct the current market value of a computer. To determine the fair market value of a computer, use an evaluator tool like GadgetValue. For more information on tax laws related to computer donation, see Section 170 of the Federal Income Tax Code.

9. Find Additional Information on Electronics Recycling

For more information on the urgent need to recycle discarded IT equipment properly, see the Electronics Takeback Coalition’s overview of the problems created by computer dumping and the EPA’s eCycling Frequently Asked Questions.

10. Find Additional Information on Refurbishing

  • Visit TechSoup’s Hardware Forum for more information on refurbishing or to post a question.
  • If you are interested in donating your office computers, visit the RCI page.
  • If you would like to donate your personal computer, visit our Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher page.

To Catch a Thief Tips and Tools to Protect Your Computer Investment

A recent New York Times article discussed how Back to My Mac was used to help apprehend two burglary suspects after an Apple employee’s laptop was stolen.The owner used Back to My Mac, a subscription service, to access her own computer remotely and used the built-in camera to take a picture of the suspects. Her roommate recognized the computer users, and the police made an arrest.

Back to My Mac wasn’t designed to be an anti-theft device, but applications known as Remote Laptop Security exist specifically to aid in the recovery of stolen laptops. Computrace’s LoJack for Laptops is one example. The CyberAngel is another. GadgetTrak provides anti-theft protection for both PC and Macintosh laptops as well as mobile devices like cell phones. Most RLS applications require the stolen equipment to connect to the Internet in order to be tracked; however BackStopp can track a laptop computer using GSM (Global System for Mobile Computing) or RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology and delete pre-selected files as soon as the stolen laptop is turned on. If there’s a built in camera, BackStopp will also take a picture of the user.

Another deterent, the STOP Security Plate places a plate with a unique barcode on the surface of a computer. If removed, the plate leaves an indelible message on the surface of the computer informing the world that it is stolen merchandise. At the very least engrave a contact name and phone number onto the laptop, so that it can be returned if found.

The best way to safeguard your laptop is to ensure it does not get stolen in the first place. Invest in one or more of the preventative measures now available. Though more difficult to steal, placing a laptop computer in a docking station does not offer a true theft deterrent. More effective are security cables with keyed or combination locks by companies likeKensington or PC Guardian. Additionally, the Targus Security Anchor Base Plate is designed to work with the cables, attaching to a desk or other furniture to further secure your notebook computer. Cables and docking stations will only slow down a determined thief. If possible keep laptops locked in an office or safe when not being used.

Think about what you are using to carry your laptop. A standard laptop case is an invitation to theft; thankfully there are tons of cool ways to transport your laptop while keeping thieves unaware. Many messenger bags include a padded laptop sleeve and backpacks with laptop storage are a nice alternative to the standard laptop case. Ogio offers an attractive selection of these that are appropriate for both men and women. Appropriately named eBags provides a handy laptop bag finder search tool and presents a number of options from which to choose.

If your laptop falls into the wrong hands, make it tough for an unauthorized user to gain access to your laptop’s content. Power on passwords with a combination of letters, numbers and characters are a great first line of defense. In “Power Passwords,” author Dennis Kennedy advocates pass phrases—a password consisting of an easily remembered but hard to guess sentence or verse containing letters, characters and numbers. Use the free online Password Strength Checker to test out your pass phrase.

Data encryption scrambles your data thus making it impossible to read without the key and should be standard procedure for mobile computing users. LaptopLock is freeware that protects data by encryption. After a number of failed access attempts it will delete files and/or hide them from unauthorized users. FYI: Playing it Safe with Encryption provides additional data encryption options.

Laptop theft is big business. A Consumer Reports employee and blogger recently posted his own experience with skilled laptop thieves in Brussels, Belgium. This ABC News article also discusses the trend. LTRC further addresses mobile security in the article FYI: Security on the Go.