A Teacher's Nightmare
Imagine you've spent your spring vacation developing a new programme for your class which includes a browser-based component. You burn it to disk and proudly take it to your school's tech support people for uploading to the college server. They stare at you blankly. "Upload? CGI bin? FTP access?" You finally work your way through the system and get your site uploaded, shuddering at the thought that every time you want to change or add something, you'll have to go through this again. Class time rolls around and with great anticipation you unveil the website to your students, only to find that the school server is down, or that someone has moved or erased your directory. Aaaagh!!
If you've been in that situation, you've probably also found that you're by no means alone. Poor or non-existent tech support seems to be the norm in most institutions, and many other teachers share the same frustrations. So, how can you get around this? One approach is to work your way into the tech support system in your college and become more knowledgeable about their server systems. Unfortunately, while that may help you in the long run, it also means acquiring a level of knowledge you don't necessarily want to have. Plus you'll find yourself becoming the resident expert that everyone calls when they have problems, yet you'll still be at the mercy of the fumblings of other tech staff.
Another option is to burn your work onto a class set of CD-ROMs and take these to classes. However, this is time consuming, it doesn't allow for updates, and it means students can only work when they have a disk to access.
A more satisfactory solution is to set up your own domain name and website. Once an option that only the geekier would attempt, now it is relatively easy to purchase a domain name and get yourself online. For a minimal outlay (under $20 a year for most domain names, and as little as $5 a month for a web hosting service) you can free yourself from the frustrations of dealing with your institution's creaky infrastructure.
Purchasing a domain name
There are dozens of companies that offer domain name services. Try a Google search for "buy domain name" and you'll find plenty of choices. Once you've selected a company, you'll need to find an available domain name. Simple names are best, especially if your students are going to be typing URLs into their browsers. Avoid long addresses, or complex mixes of letters, numbers, and symbols. Most people prefer a .com address because of their universal nature. This popularity makes it difficult, however, to find an available name. Usually when you perform a search for a domain name, you'll be offered a choice of all available suffixes. Be careful, as some are more expensive than others. Once you've found a name, to complete your purchase you'll need a credit card.
Choosing a hosting service
As well as a domain name, you'll also need to find a web hosting service for your website. (Note: Many hosting services also offer domain name services. This is a worthwhile option because it makes set up easier as there is no need to transfer the domain name.) Again, a quick Google search for "web hosting services" will offer plenty of choices. In choosing a service, look for one that offers:
- Attractive pricing (as mentioned, you should be able to find competitive options at around $5 a month).
- Adequate storage, speed, and bandwidth. Compare how much memory is available for the price, and how much bandwidth (the amount of data users can download) is offered. If your site is simple, this may not be a concern, but if you're planning on streaming video or sound files, you'll need to make allowances for this.
- Support. Check what is offered in the way of fast email response and online user manuals and forums.
- Email options. Look at how many email accounts you can set up, and if they offer both browser and POP mail capability.
- Other features. What else do they offer? PHP scripting and MySQL databases, CGI scripts, mailing lists, and spam and virus protection are some of the most common requirements.
Probably the easiest way is to ask around and find what hosting services other people recommend. (FYI, jalt-publications.org is hosted by linksky.com, and jalt.org by dathorn.com, though many companies offer similar packages.)
With your own domain name and hosting service in place, you'll now find yourself free of many of the headaches of institutional servers. Server failures are rare, and backups are usually done automatically. You'll be able to upload files from anywhere, and take advantage of the extra email services and mailing lists for your students. As you build your skills, you can add PHP scripting and databases to your site to create dynamic web pages. Best of all, you'll be independent, and all for about the price of one bento a month!
Next month, Paul Daniels will look at running your own server and virtual hosting.