But sir, the computer ate my homework…and other mystical excuses

Computers have become an essential part of everyday life. We use them at work and at play. The computer is meant to simplify our lives. But, this is not always the case. I am sure everyone has experienced a computer malfunction of some sort, be it a hardware or software glitch. (If you haven’t, consider yourself very lucky!) These unforeseen interruptions can be catastrophic and always come at the worst time. Usually, right before a major deadline.

As a university instructor, I see my fair share of students in tears because they lost an assignment or lab report due to some computer-related misfortune. On one side,
I feel their pain, knowing how I felt in a similar circumstance, but as an instructor I have a duty to enforce all deadlines. It makes for a very difficult situation.

At the beginning of each term I spend time informing students how to avoid these situations. It is extremely important that we be proactive. Here are some simple, common sense tips I share with my students to help prevent the dreaded computer crash or at the very least minimize the collateral damage when your computer crashes:

  1. If you have a desktop computer, invest in an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). A UPS provides emergency battery power to your computer if the main power fails. The UPS protects your computer from unexpected power disruption. Unexpected power disruptions can cause serious damage to the power supply, mainboard, and memory of your computer. Designed only to keep your computer operational for a few minutes, the UPS will give you enough time to properly shut down your computer if you are experiencing a major power outage.
  2. Save your work!!! A good habit to get into is to save your work every 5 to 10 minutes, or whenever you have made a significant change to your document. Think about it this way... which would you rather do? Redo 10 minutes worth of work or a couple of hours worth of work? Don’t rely on autosave features. They don’t always work as expected.
  3. Back up your files!!! You should always backup your important files to some sort of external drive. External drives could be an external hard drive, an USB flash drive, or a “cloud” drive, such as Dropbox or OneDrive. This ensures you always have a copy of your files outside of your computer, just in case your computer suffers some sort of physical hardware damage. Remember, your backups are only good if you keep them up to date. You should get into the habit of backing up any important files immediately after modifying them. Consider doing a weekly (or nightly) backup of all your files. Software is readily available to help automate this task. I even alternate my daily backups. For example, I back my files up to a folder on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, and in another folder I backup my files on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. This way I have two versions of files, just in case I need to go back a day.
  4. Install anti-virus software!!!  Many computer crashes and/or file corruption is caused by computer “virus” software. A computer virus is a type of malicious software that when executed replicates by reproducing itself or infecting other computer programs or files by modifying or deleting them. It’s so easy to get infected with a computer virus. You may stumble on to a malicious web page or borrow a disc from someone and before you know it, your computer is infected with a virus. Anti-virus software can alert you to a potential virus, delete the virus or render the virus harmless by quarantining it. Computer operating systems, such as Windows 10, have anti-virus software (Windows Defender) built into the system. Some operating systems require installing a third-party anti-virus software. A quick search on the web yield many free anti-virus software programs. Just keep in mind, that free-antivirus software may have limited capabilities. For example, some may detect the presence of a computer virus, but cannot remove it from your computer. For complete protection, you may want to consider purchasing an anti-virus program. Anti-virus software is only effective provided you keep your virus definitions up to date. There are hundreds of thousands of computer viruses out there, and every day more and more viruses are added to the list of potential threats. This is why most anti-virus software developers update their software daily with the new virus definitions. Remember, to update the definitions of most anti-virus software, the computer must be turned on and connected to the Internet. If you are someone who does not leave their computer on for long periods of time, then get into a weekly routine of updating your anti-virus software and doing a full anti-virus scan of your computer.

  5. House cleaning!!! Just as our bedrooms can become cluttered and messy, so can your computer’s hard drive. It’s good to do a little house cleaning of your computer’s hard drive once in a while. Too many programs and files can compromise the performance of your computer and slow it down. Orphan files can sometimes corrupt the integrity of the hard drive. If there are programs you are no longer using, uninstall them from the hard drive. If you are using a Windows computer, use Disk Clean-up to remove any junk or temporary files. If you have files that you do not access on a regular basis, but do not want to delete, consider storing them on an external hard drive. When surfing the web, your web browser stores temporary web documents, such as HTML pages and images. These temporary web documents are called the “cache” and help speed up your browsing experience. The cache can take up a considerable amount of space on the hard drive. Periodic clearing the browser cache files can help clear up space on your hard drive.

    We may never be able to prevent a computer from crashing, but if you follow the above hints, at least you will be prepared if your computer does crash. A little preventative maintenance goes a long way.

    Happy Computing!