When BitTorrent Sync is the Right EdTech Tool

BitTorrent Sync: Peer-to-peer file sharing. Like Dropbox without the middleman in the cloud.

You can think of BitTorrent Sync as “Dropbox without the Cloud”. Not to be confused with the underlying technology of BitTorrent, this is a way of keeping a folder and files sync’d across multiple computers, but unlike Dropbox, your files are never stored on a remote cloud server. Instead, files are shared directly between the two (or more) computers using the BitTorrent decentralized file sharing protocol. The benefit of this is that files are shared much faster and more securely, as your data never passes through a 3rd party corporate server. The downside is that whichever computers are hosting the files need to be open and online so others can share those files.

I have been aware of BitTorrent Sync for a while now, but it always seemed a little silly to me — I couldn’t imagine a situation in which it would add value to the way I work. The beauty of Dropbox and GDrive is that you can connect to their cloud servers to upload and download files whenever it’s convenient for you, and you don’t need to coordinate when you share files with your colleagues– that’s the truly revolutionary feature about the cloud.

BitTorrent Sync always seemed like a step backwards to the bad old days where, if you wanted to share a large file, you had to keep your computer open and online until your friend could successfully download it. I remember sharing MP3 songs one-by-one over AOL Instant Messenger, and not being able to log off until my friend got the whole album.

However, BitTorrent Sync is a huge improvement over those days, and could be a great solution in very specific circumstances. It’s faster to sync files with BitTorrent Sync (and gets even faster the more people you’re working with). That’s inherent to the unique way BitTorrent works.

This article identifies some situations in which BitTorrent Sync could be the right tool for the edtech job.

If Everyone’s Online Anyway

Especially in classrooms and office settings, it’s very likely that you and your collaborators have your computers open and running at the same time. BitTorrent Sync could add value to offices and learning spaces where you all need to have access to the same large files at the same time.

Especially if you do multimedia projects with students, sharing large video, audio, and presentation files can be extremely taxing on your wireless network. You could create a BitTorrent Sync folder to let students post their final assignments to, as well as encouraging them to use it with their own project groups to keep large project files sync’d.

Your school could even host an internal Sync server that functions like a “private cloud”, staying on all the time (like the cloud) and syncing files between devices like Dropbox, but without the cloud storage/service bills.

An added benefit of this approach is that collaborators are not calling out to external servers, keeping all of your network traffic internal to your school or office network, so it may even reduce your overall Internet bill.

If Privacy is Critical

If you are working with sensitive materials like personally identifiable data, photos of students, or copyrighted intellectual property, you may want to minimize the risk of data “leaking out” to a 3rd party corporation. If you or your school just don’t like the idea of relying on for-profit entities for critical infrastructure like file sharing, this is an open source way for you to keep your tools internal to your institution and own the means of production. Even if you just don’t like the idea of automatically backing up your personal photos to the cloud (just ask Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton about this one), BitTorrent Sync is one way to keep your personal data personal.

If the School Needs to Maintain Copies of Key Files

One genuine challenge of the consumerization of IT is that files have gone from being stored on institution-provided systems to now being spread across individuals’ personal cloud accounts. This causes problems when people leave an institution, taking their valuable files with them and making it hard to create a “paper trail” of what happened. For the teacher who wants to preserve students’ projects as exemplars for the next year, to the student requesting a re-evaluation of a previous grade, to the department calibrating competency rubrics against student work products, these scenarios depend on the institution keeping access to the files used in teaching and learning. BitTorrent Sync makes it possible for individuals to effortlessly share files with the institution so everyone can leave with their own copy of the file intact.

For Quickly Transferring Multimedia to Devices

BitTorrent Sync could be a great way to sync photos, music, and movies between your desktop computer and your phone or tablet. If you don’t like using iTunes or paying for a cloud music service like Spotify, you can always just store music files on your device and listen to them on the go.

If it’s the Right Tool for the Job

The point of this article is not to argue that BitTorrent Sync is better than cloud tools, but to point out when it’s a good alternative. I will continue to use Google Drive and other cloud tools because those solve a variety of problems for me, but BitTorrent Sync let me transfer a huge presentation file from my personal laptop to my work laptop in a few seconds flat. I’d urge you to give it spin, and add it to your edtech arsenal– who knows when it might prove to be the right tool for an edtech challenge you face.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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