USB Flash Drives
Easy Data Transfer in Education
by Keith Lightbody
last updated 15 August 2009

Quick Start: The plug and play universal serial bus (USB) flash memory drives are now extremely popular - they are also called USB Flash Disk, UFD, Thumb Drive, Pen Drive, Memory Key, Micro Vault, Pocket Drive, KeyChain, Pico Drive, etc. Flash Drives are a superior alternative to floppy disks or CDs for easy, compact, fast and reliable data transfer. Higher capacity units (e.g. over 512 MB) can offer a more convenient way of carrying files than on a CD. Nearly every new computer sold in recent years has several USB ports (sockets). The USB Flash Drive simply plugs into one of these ports (previously found on the back but now more common on the front). No cables, power supplies, or batteries are required. No need to shut down your computer. Current USB Flash Drives are truly 'plug and play' on Windows Vista, XP and Mac OS X - no additional software is required - the device automatically becomes visible as a new drive (if not showing as a drive see the instructions below for help to fix this problem) and users can unplug at any time (even though OS X may give an error message unless EJECT is selected first). However users on Windows 2000, Mac OS 9 or earlier systems should only unplug after a request to the system. Earlier systems usually require installation of driver software before the USB flash drive can be used on that computer.
[NOTE: these devices are different to the memory cards that slide in and out of digital cameras, MP3 players, PDAs, card readers or similar - for information about the different types of memory cards visit digcam.htm#Storage]

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- lightweight (usually less than 20 grams)
- small ~ 80 mm long x 20 mm wide x 10 mm thick
(similar in size to a human thumb - they fit in a shirt pocket, on a key ring, ...)
- plug directly into any standard USB port (including low powered USB ports)
- automatic recognition on modern operating systems (no drivers required for Windows 2000/XP or Mac OS 9/X, need to install drivers from CD or download drivers from web for earlier OS)
- currently available in storage capacity from 8 MB to 8 GB
- typical USB 1.1 read speeds 1-10 Mbps, write speeds 0.5-2 Mbps (USB 2.0 ~ 10 x faster)
- use power from USB bus (no external power or batteries required)
- ideal for transferring files between laptop or desktop computers
- shock resistant solid state device (no moving parts - only silicon chips)
- usually preformatted in FAT format for cross-platform capability (but slower speeds)
- draw very low power
- USB extension cable (allows easy access to USB ports on rear of PC or USB ports that are crowded by other plugs or the computer casing)
- swivel cap design or retractable USB port (to avoid losing cap)
- pocket clip, attachment cord for wearing around neck, key ring or belt loop clip
- USB 2.0 versions (these may indicate error messages on computers with older USB 1 ports but will often still work)
- docking stations
- security (e.g. password protection feature for file access, encryption)
- support multiple partitions
- LED indicator when in use
- write-protect switch
- bootable versions (when the appropriate OS is installed)
- Flash Drives that support plug in Memory Stick (e.g. Sony Micro Vault) or xD Picture Cards
- companion MP3 players (e.g. SanDisk Cruzer Micro MP3 Companion)

Recent Developments:

* Prices have dropped substantially for larger capacities - 16 GB (or higher) models are now quite common
* Some new models allow users to store both applications and data on their personal USB Flash Drive. Store'n'Go U3 Smart Drives have 2 drive partitions - one for the U3 Launchpad, the other for application software and data.
* One company has developed Click N' Share USB drives that allow connection via USB and wireless. Users simply plug in for normal use but two different Click N' Share users can transfer files wirelessly - no computer is needed!

Classroom Benefits : A suitable capacity USB Flash Disk is
- useful for both teachers and students
- ideal for transferring files of any format from laptop, desktop or network computers
- much easier to carry around than a CD, DVD or lots of floppy disks
- easy to understand (uncap the disk and plug it into the USB port, shows as another drive)
- able to provide fast transfer of information (much faster than floppy disks)
- an alternative to accessing files via a network
- able to cope with much larger file sizes than floppy disks
- ideal if using computers without floppy drives (e.g. Apple laptops and desktops)
- a convenient storage place for daily lesson content, presentations, ...
an alternative way of providing relevant lesson material to students
- allows easy transfer between different computing platforms (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux)
- able to store schoolwork, MP3 music, videos, pictures, ...
- convenient for taking files between library, classroom, home, work, family or friends

- ideal for dynamic data or quantities of data that do not make full use of CD RW
- able to copy class notes from interactive white boards (IWB)
- good for distribution of licensed software for installation on home computers
- handy for sharing a copy of very large presentations (too big for email e.g. Powerpoint)
- helpful for students without a computer at home
- great for dealing with virus (inoperative) home computers
- able to avoid the need for software to be installed on a school network
- ... (please email me additional suggestions)
NOTE: if buying computers for classroom use those with USB ports at the front are very convenient

Buying Tips :
- ensure that the device is robust for student use
- check for swivel cap design or retractable USB port, alternatively ensure the attachment point is on the main body rather than the lid (the plug can become damaged if not protected so desirable if lid and body are linked to avoid loss)
- verify the number of multiple erase cycles (typically 1 million times)
- verify data retention time (typically 10 years)
- choose a device that fits the clearance available around the USB ports on your PCs (the ports are often in pairs with limited space or crowded with many leads - some USB Flash Drives are more bulky than others and will not fit without a USB extension lead)
- careful use and good quality manufacture is critical for reliability,39029473,40063522,00.htm
- ...
- ... (please email me any additional suggestions)

Sample Costs : Costs below are for USB 2.0 Flash Drives - currency is $ Australian, price includes 10% GST
Typical cost has now reduced to ~10 cents per megabyte although there is a relatively higher cost for the smaller capacities (i.e. 1 GB ~$25-50, 4 GB ~$60-100). Note that smaller capacities (256 or 512 MB) are no longer made by some manufacturers or stocked by all suppliers. Additional information is avilable at a number of sites e.g.
One Australian site that still stocks a good range online is Despite the cost a key feature of the Flash Disks is their compact size and convenience when compared to a floppy disk, Zip disk or CD. Schools can negotiate significant discounts for large volume orders. Note that a higher speed USB 2.0 Flash Disk is more expensive than an equivalent capacity USB 1.1 unit.

Management Issues :
* a strategy is required for virus checking
* the small flash drives are easy to misplace or leave behind - consider key ring models, straps or other strategies (difficult to write the owners name on such small items however a good solution is to get each student to plug in their flashdrive on the computer and rename it with either their own name or their network username - cuts down the amount of teacher time that goes into tracking down the owner of the device when it is handed in and also increases their chances of getting it back), left loose in a pocket they can fall out when a student bends over, they can also easily end up in the dirty clothes basket followed by the washing machine)
* teacher needs to monitor appropriate use (network security, viruses and games are common issues) but the benefits far outweigh the negatives!
Group Policy Object (GPO) can be used to lock students out if there are problems with flash drives full of illegal songs or games (e.g. Warcraft 3) that are being run from the Thumb drive - the exe files can be 'killed' using GPO settings - however it is important to ensure that any procedures to prevent the minority of students stuffing up do not stop all the other teachers and students from getting maximum educational benefit from this great tool
consider avoiding security options for protection of data (no need to assist students with forgotten passwords)
* greater transfer speeds can be obtained if you format the drive to a single platform
(but it then may not show up on other platforms)
* ID marking can reduce the risk of theft (laser engraving is one option with a low risk of damage as there is no physical contact with the flash drive)
*the USB Drive will normally appear automatically as a new drive
check1 - if not showing test by plugging your USB Flash drive on a different USB port (front or back)
check2 -
try a friends USB Flash drive drive - sometimes theirs may work even if your model does not
on Windows computers with many existing drive or network mappings it may not show automatically)
fix -
right click on My Computer, choose Manage, wait, choose Disk Management - the removable drive will typically be visible below any hard drives (e.g. C) and CD/DVD drives (e.g. D), next step is to click on the removable drive, choose Change Drive Letter or Paths..., select Change, choose a new unused drive letter (e.g. X) and confirm - your USB drive will then usually appear automatically.

If still not visible other possible reasons could include Service Pack 2 support for write protection of external drives (may require changes to StorageDevicePolicies), the drive may be hidden (check if NoDrives value exists in registry or download software such as TweakUI to make hidden drives visible again) or a user profile problem (e.g. corrupt ntuser.dat file - do not rebuild until after you have backed up data from individual folders such as Local Settings, Favorites, My Documents, etc).

* computer systems that are 'locked down' so that students can not modify settings may not identify particular USB flash drives (there is some variation between models despite attempts at standards) - it may be necessary to reserve a particular drive letter (I generally use X, Y or Z as many people already have A-G mapped) or to allow students sufficient privileges to configure the flash drive for file access - alternatively a bulk purchase arrangement or inclusion of flash drives on student booklists may help limit the number of different models
* flash drives may make it easier for students to plagiarize work
* for data use wait until the computer is operating before inserting the flash drive in the USB port (during start up it is possible the computer may 'hang' if attempting to boot from a flash drive that does not support this option)
* ...
* ... (please email me additional suggestions)

Helpful Resources: *** recommended resources (more stars is better)

**** How Stuff Works - flash memory
**** Comprehensive information on USB flash drives
*** How Stuff Works - removable storage, solid state
More pictures of Flash Drives
* Pen Drive

*** Deleted your data? Formatted the disk? Unable to see your files?

Site Credits:
This site is to help the 80% of people who just want learning, information and communication technology to be easy to use and reliable. I believe the increased ease of use of flash drives provide an incredible opportunity for teachers and students to make greater use of digital resources. Feedback or suggestions from Bev Blackwell, Bryn Jones, Keith Palmer, Dai Du, Steve Pipes, Joe Sieracki, Dale Poole, Berkeley Fitzhardinge, David Jeremy, Marcus Jackson, Tom Jackson, Rogelio Pier, Lynley Mckernan, Kevin Warner and Professor Martin Weissman has been included on this site. Please take the trouble to offer ideas or suggestions - you will be acknowledged and others can benefit. This site is intended to be free of bias and receives no commercial gain from any party. First published in January 2003. Currently up to 50 people a week visit this site. Statistics on usage of this site are provided by Google Analytics and Chillitech web stats (previously gathered by ozlog software but this service was cut by iinet after the Ozemail takeover).

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