File Sharing in the Classroom: PirateBox and LibraryBox



Last semester I had the advantage of teaching in the new Communications and Digital Media classroom here at Saint Joe’s. It’s a fabulous space, that just on architecture and design changes the learning environment. (Key technology: moveable tables and chairs.) But the classroom was in part over designed, or at least in some areas, using high end software that was less than user friendly. Case in point: Tidebreak.

The idea behind Tidebreak is that any computer in the room can share their files with any other computer in the room, large or small. And even more “snazy” the instructor can “copy” the screen of any computer in the room and display it at the front of the room. So when students are working on projects in groups it is easy to demonstrate one groups work for the whole class. (There are a lot of other features in Tidebreak but these are the major use scenarios.) The problem is the tech is clunky, not easy to set up, and even less easy to use. For me it often got in the way of accomplishing what I wanted, spending time figuring out how to use it, rather than having it fade into the background. Due to the expense of tidebreak, and its less than ease of use, we decided to not renew the license. But I still want a way to replicate some of the functionality in that classroom. Primarily I want a way to share large files easily between computers. Not just from instructor to students but also between students, a large shared drive in the classroom for students to deposit and retrieve files. A use Dropbox a great deal in the classroom to share small files with students, but this isn’t as effective if you need large files. For example if you are working on image or sound manipulation and want to share a bunch of files with students, size quickly becomes an issue. Also Dropbox still replicates the faculty centered knowledge model, distribution takes place from me to the other students. True students could also share files from their own Dropbox accounts, but that quickly gets cumbersome.

The Solution

Enter PirateBox and LibraryBox. (Click the links for more in depth descriptions.) I must admit I have a bias towards lower tech hardware solutions over higher tech software solutions. Not that this line is entirely clear, but I would rather control the hardware and have something in place than rent a software license to do something. Piratebox and LibraryBox are essentially local hardware solutions to filesharing. They each create their own independent local wireless networks for file sharing, think very local shared drive. That is, in each case you have to be physically close to the “box,” and connected to it via wireless. Once connected you can download and share files. This type of setup allows you to upload files to the box (wirelessly) then all of the students can download them easily. Poof low-tech, cheap (more on this later), solution to file sharing. And since this is a lowtech solution I am not so concerned about it breaking (and more importantly not paying a yearly license fee). True I could go the shared drive route, have the University set up a shared drive on the network that students can access and share files. This would probably work for small files, although it would also carry the cost of central authority at the university level where you have to get permissions correctly enabled blah, blah, blah …

So this summer I set up a PirateBox and a LibraryBox played with both with the intention to use at least one (maybe both) this coming summer. After installing both and playing around with them I think I am going to start though by using PirateBox, although LibraryBox is much easier to use. Why?

PirateBox vs LibraryBox

Both systems operate on essentially the same architecture. In fact LibraryBox is a fork of PirateBox by Jason Griffey. The crucial difference though is LibraryBox maintains central control, with the main administrator having the ability to control the files being shared. It works better as a system for one person to upload a bunch of files and allow an infinite number of local downloads. That is it isn’t really configured to allow multiple users to upload files (anonymously) and share them anonymously. This can be a good thing though, I imagine in many use cases someone would install a LibraryBox and want to make sure it is used as a local means to share only approved files. This indeed strikes me as the central motivation behind forking PirateBox. make a version for libraries that allow the local hosting and distribution of files, say in a Library, or more creatively perhaps as part of a digital installation like in a history exhibit or art installation, or again in a classroom or lab for sharing files with students. Without central control the library (or whomever is hosting) will run into the copyright problem (people uploading files which infringe on copyright) or egads …the porn problem. So from an institutional perspective this central control makes sense.

And it should be noted that a serious advantage of LibraryBox is the installation. Although both PirateBox and LibraryBox are set up via the same methods I found LibraryBox markedly easier to install. Jason’s instructions are really thorough and he was really responsive to questions (nothing like customer service even though I ain’t paying for a thing). He even wrote up an extra FAQ after I asked him about PirateBox vs LibraryBox. The install was really clean, no errors, super simple. The only “difficult” part is just waiting for the install to take place (this step takes a bit, in my case 20 minutes). Indeed the only problem I had was in wiping the router and setting it back to factory default so I could try PirateBox (that was tricky, involved putting router in safe mode …lots of terminal work …blah, blah, not so easy, wouldn’t recommend).

PirateBox on the other hand was a little trickier, for whatever reason the documentation was not as clear. Indeed at some point I couldn’t figure something out and looked back at the steps I followed to install LibraryBox to set it up. Eventually I got it working, and I don’t know if this is significant or not but it took more like 40 minutes to install, using the same hardware as I did for LibraryBox, twice as long (don’t know if that is significant or not).

But still I am going to go with PirateBox. Why? Because at least for my use PirateBox embodies more of the hacker, decentralized ethos we are trying to convey to our students. I don’t want them to necessarily ask for permission from me to share and exchange files in the classroom. The anonymity and design features of PirateBox are closer to what I want my students to practice and think about.

What I Used

I used a TP-Link TL-MR3040 which cost me $35. You can actually do it for cheaper but the MR3040 is smaller and can run off a battery so it is far more portable. But if you don’t need portability you can do it for cheaper, just make sure you get one of the approved routers for the LibraryBox or for the PirateBox. The only other thing you need is a flash drive. I got a small 16GB one, but if you envision sharing really large files it might be worth going for one with more storage capacity. My next step is to design and print a case for it, to give it a cool look. And if you don’t want to build your own you could always just buy a LibraryBox, I don’t know if you can just buy a PirateBox. All in all for less than $50 you can create a robust local file sharing system either anonymous and centralized, or anonymous and decentralized.

Check back in after the semester to see what how this went, and what my experience with it is.