File Formats

We’ve been inundated lately with students walking in to our office bearing flash drives. Usually, they’re accompanied by a staff member.

“We need help opening a file.”

“What kind of file is it?”

“It’s an English paper.”

“Right. But what program did you use to create it?”

“I did it at home.”

At this point, it’s easier to just look at the drive. Usually, the student knows whether it was done on a Mac or in Windows. Beyond that, they have no idea what program they used, and are generally annoyed that they can’t just double-click the file and open it on a school computer. So we stick the flash drive into a computer in the office. About 80% of the time, we can open the document. But in the process, we’ve spent about 10 minutes doing it. This is tying up two staff members, and it’s killing the productivity of the student, who only has a 40-minute class period.

We used to have to worry a lot about file formats. See, when you save a document, the program you’re using saves it in a format that it can recognize. So the text of the English paper is saved, but so is all the formatting — the fonts, margins, text styles, graphics, and other elements that make the document look the way it does. When you open that document in the future, all of that formatting is restored.

The problem is that most programs don’t understand one another’s files. If I create a document in Pages, Microsoft Word probably isn’t going to be able to open it. That’s because they’re stored in different formats, and the two programs don’t understand one another’s methods for storing the data. Microsoft, in particular, makes this problem much worse. Different versions of the same program won’t necessarily read each other’s files. So Word 2003 can’t open a Word 2007 document. Plus, Microsoft’s Office programs and their Works suite are incompatible with one another. So even if I use the latest version of the “Microsoft” word processor, I can’t necessarily open my document on another computer, because they have two word processors that don’t play well with one another.

There are converters available to solve many of these problems, and we use them wherever we can. But the best case scenario is to take steps ahead of time to minimize file format problems. Herewith, then, are my suggestions for solving this problem:

  • Know what program you’re using. Don’t just double-click on the big “W” and start typing. Know what the program is, and which version it is. That will help a lot.
  • If you don’t have to move the file around, don’t. I’m amazed by the number of students who need to open a completed paper at school just so they can print it. If you need a hard copy, print it at home where you wrote it, and save everyone a lot of time.
  • If you really need to work on a document using multiple programs, save it in a format that they all understand. If it’s a word processing document, saving in Rich Text Format will ensure that you can open the file just about anywhere. If you know that school has Word 2003, and you have Word 2007, you can also save it as a 2003 document at home, and rest assured that it’ll open fine at school. Spreadsheets are harder. You can save in the default CSV format, and you’ll be able to open the file anywhere. Doing this, though will lose all of your formulas, graphs, and formatting.
  • Don’t assume that every computer in the world has the same software you do. Maybe you shelled out the $1000 for Adobe CS or AutoCad. That doesn’t mean everyone did. If you’re using specialized software, you need to plan ahead. Just in case you’re wondering, no, we do not have Google Sketchup installed.
  • If you’re using Windows Movie Maker, don’t forget to actually create the movie. That little MSWMM project file is worthless if you take it to another computer.
  • If you just need to print on another computer, create a PDF file. You can use one of the many free PDF tools (we use PDF Creator). Once you have a PDF file, you can open it (but not change it) on just about any computer. While you still may have trouble with fonts, at least you’ll be able to open the file.
  • If you use Google Docs, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can access your documents from any Internet-connected computer. You don’t have to worry about file incompatibilities. And you also don’t have to worry about losing the flash drive, or managing multiple versions of the same document.

I don’t know where we’re teaching this. Hopefully, it’s part of the office productivity stuff we’re doing in 5th grade and 6th grade and 7th grade. Maybe the students are forgetting. Maybe we’re not spending enough time on it. Maybe it’s just one of those things that has to bite you before you learn from it. But we need to do a better job.

Photo credit:  sbluerock on Flickr.

2 thoughts on “File Formats

  1. As I’m sure you’re aware, utilizing Google Docs will take care of most of the word processing issues (access, compatibility, etc.). Does your district have Google Apps accounts for the students. If so, can you “force” the faculty to mandate its use?

  2. I have a folder with four pictures (GIF, TIF, JPG, PNG) with file extensions turned off. All four icons are exactly the same with the exact same name. I show this to my students during the first week of class when we are talking about file management.

    By default Windows has the file extensions turned OFF. I show everyone how to turn file extensions ON. That file extension is the key to identifying the type of file. I have a list of the most common extensions with their respective applications.

    If someone has a file that’s a problem, the first place I point them is It converts anything to anything and it’s easy enough for any student to use.

    BTW – WLMP is the new MSWMM. As more computers have Vista and 7, you’ll see more Windows Live MovieMaker Projects.

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