A new way to collaborate: DropBox

logoI have a long-time collaborator who lives in Georgia (I’m in Pennsylvania). I’ve had good luck collaborating with him via email, but it is a pain. As soon as one of us edits a file he sends it to the other person as an email attachment. We haven’t had any “forked” files, but we do always have to take turns editing and we have to be good about remembering to send files immediately after they are modified.

Now we’re applying for a grant with a third person who lives in Virginia. Collaborating with three people in three different states is sure to be even more of a challenge. (It was a challenge even passing the grant proposal around.)

If we weren’t mathematicians, then Google Docs or the forthcoming Office Web might be good options for collaborative writing. But we write everything in LaTeX, so these options don’t make sense. I tried MonkeyTex, a site like Google Docs but which compiles LaTeX documents and produces pdf documents. It is a really cool idea, but I didn’t want to give up my trusty desktop apps: TexShop and BibDesk. (Plus, MonkeyTex seemed like a small operation and I didn’t know if I should trust them with my files—even big shots like Google and Facebook have had downtime issues recently.)

This week I think I found the perfect solution: DropBox. DropBox is touted as an online backup system or an online storage space, but it is so much more. Basically it works like this. You sign up for an account with 2 GB of FREE online storage and it creates a folder on your computer (an actual folder, not a link to a folder in the clouds somewhere). Then any time you add, delete, or change a file in this folder, it automatically syncs it with the cloud.

That’s cool, right? We’re just getting started. If you have several computers, you can put a DropBox folder on those too, and all the folders on all of your computers remain in sync—even if you have one Mac, one PC, and one Linux computer. Files can also be accessed via the DropBox website or with your iPhone/iPod Touch.

Again, this is what I like: when you are working on your computer—adding, deleting, modifying, and LaTeX-ing these files—you won’t be able to tell that anything is happening. They are ordinary local files behaving as usual. But DropBox is syncing them behind the scenes.

Now how does this help collaboration? You can share folders within your DropBox folder. What that means is that each person who is sharing a folder will have the identical folder in their DropBox folder. So any changes made by one person will appear in the folder of every other person! Brilliant! Just what I wanted.

As an added bonus, DropBox stores past versions of files. If one of your collaborators messes up a file, you can go online and look at the history of the file and revert back an earlier version.

One downside is that there are no safeguards to prevent two users from editing a file at the same time. But if two different copies of the same file are saved, then two versions will appear in the shared folder. The users would have to work on merging the documents by hand.

I’m planning to use DropBox in my teaching too. Next semester I’ll be teaching topology. I teach it using the “Moore method.” The students are given a skeleton of a textbook (in LaTeX) and they must prove all of the theorems, work out all of the examples, and type them into the class textbook. There is a rotating “secretary” position and a rotating group of “editors.” Sharing the files has always been a hassle. The first time we passed around a disk with the files, the next time each person emailed the file to the next person on the list, and the last time I set up a class Gmail account. The logistical issues were a pain to deal with. This time I will have each student get a DropBox account, and we will have one shared folder with the textbook in it—that’s going to be so much easier!

If you are interested in trying DropBox, follow this link. Doing so would give me credit for “referring” you. Both you and I will get 250 MB of additional storage (up to 3 GB). If you would rather not do that, go directly to the DropBox website.


  1. Cathy says:

    I have just signed up – thanks for telling us about that Dave.

  2. Cathy says:

    Btw, that Moore method that you use sounds quite interesting, too. Have you been using this for long? Do you only use it for topology? Do you think it can be successfully used with younger and/or more mathematically immature students? (You see, I am a senior high school teacher, and I am always interested in new ways to teach mathematics, but I wonder how appropriate they would be with younger students.)

    1. Hi Cathy,
      R. L. Moore was a famous topologist and this was the way he taught his classes (all of his classes, I think). This method of teaching goes by many names—the Moore Method, inquiry based learning, and the workshop method, to name a few. I have only ever taught topology this way, but I know that other people have taught other courses this way. One of my retired colleagues (Nancy Baxter Hastings) wrote two books “Workshop Calculus” and “Workshop Precalculus” which used similar techniques. Her calculus book is now out of print, and I’m not sure about her precalculus book.
      Maybe as I prepare for my topology next semester I’ll write a blog post about how I do it, things learned, etc.

      1. Cathy says:

        Dave, How would you manage the assessment for such a course? Do you just use traditional exams or do you try to track who has contributed what to the course notes?

    2. David Freeman says:

      Back in the 70’s Guilford College’s Math Dept taught all of its Topology courses using the Moore Method, although they called it the Texas Method. My son graduated from Guilford 6 years ago and he had some of the same teachers clearly still using this technique. It’s a great way to get a taste for research early.

      Some people were concerned that Guilford’s technique would leave their Math graduates at a disadvantage since they may not learn traditional theorems and proofs (I took 5 semesters of topology without a text), but I believe the extreme experience of actually proposing the questions and then answering them ourselves was a fantastic preparation for real world research and graduate school.

      The Moore Method, as I experienced it, is not for unmotivated students. For self-driven, inquisitive students it can be truly exciting and possibly life changing.

      If your high school has a math club, the Moore Method could be an interesting intro to research.

      1. Cathy says:

        Do you think that it is possible to cover the same amount of material in a Moore Method course? I mean, the old definition-theorem-proof method is pretty boring, but it does manage to cover a lot of stuff in a short space of time. (I query how much the students retain in the longer term, however…)

      2. David Freeman says:

        In response to “I query how much the students retain in the longer term, however…”: My endorsement of the Moore Method may be a tad eccentric. I was an art student when I took my first college math which happened to be Topology taught by J.R. Boyd at Guilford using the Texas Method. By the middle of the semester I realized that I got the same creative release from Math as from Art and I switched to a double major of Math and Physics and ended up with a career as a Research Geophysicist. So, you could say the Moore Method changed my life.

        That background aside, all I retained from my Topology classes was problem solving ability and confidence. I don’t remember theorems or proofs but what I did retain were the most valuable elements of my college education.

        So, your concern is justified. The Moore Method may not be for everyone but for the right students it may be the best gift you could possibly give them.

      3. Cathy,
        I assess the students in a variety of ways. I grade homework that they turn in, give exams, and keep track of how presents what at the board (class participation is very important). I also have the class give me feedback on themselves and their classmates. Since a lot of the collaboration is done outside the classroom it is useful to know who is helping and who is just coming along for the ride. (For example, sometimes a student who is quiet in class is a leader outside of class.)
        There is no doubt that we don’t get “as far” in the class as we would in a lecture class. But this is a terminal course here, so that doesn’t matter to much. More importantly, I think they learn a lot about how to think creatively, work independently, learn without having the answers given to them.

  3. Jeremy H says:

    I’ve been using DropBox for a while now, including for collaboration. It’s a wonderful tool.

    Just be sure to turn off the tray tooltips, or else every time someone recompiles, you’ll get a popup.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. That’s a good tip. I use a Mac so that probably won’t be an issue for me. It is set up to give notifications using Growl, so I may run into the same problem, but my collaborator has already made a few changes and I haven’t seen anything like that.

  4. Brent Yorgey says:

    Why not use a real version control system, like subversion or darcs or git? There’s a bit of a learning curve, of course, but this is *exactly* what these systems are designed for.

    1. I think you’re right—something like that would be ideal. I’m moderately computer savvy, but I’m not sure I’m up for (or have the correct set-up for) setting something like that up. I’ll put it on my to-do list to investigate it. Thanks.

  5. Julia says:

    Hi Dave,

    If you are looking for a business collaboration tool, you should really give LeapFILE Folders a try. Dropbox is a great tool for personal use and sync between computers, however the features are limited when it comes to multiple users collaboration.

    LeapFILE Folders integrates directly on your desktop file explorer, you can create and share folders with others, edit, access, and drag and drop files into the folder just like any other folder. However you will also be able to see previous versions, lock a file to indicate to others that you are working on the file, and even receive real time updates and notification to see who is working on what, and what changes have been made.

    Our limited public beta is now available, you can learn more on http://www.leapfile.com by clicking on our beta program. Or email me and let me know if there are any other questions! Would love to get your feedback on what you think about our new product! =)

    Thanks Dave!

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