The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a great acceleration in the adoption of information technology by schools scrambling to keep students able to learn while at home.
The private school of my children took the path of cloud technology, a very reasonable one to scale capacity rapidly, and went for Google’s ecosystem: Google Drive and Google Docs/Sheets form the backbone of their solution.
All is good as long as you have a reliable connectivity, which is the case of Singapore, and the students are able to self-manage their use of non-school-related Google services.
The moment the children need help in resisting the temptation of burning tens of hours per week on YouTube things become more complicated for parents that neither have a solid understanding of the technology nor can spend all their time watching the computer use of their children.
Having a fairly solid IT background I thought I was in a better position that the average parent and could easily implement an automated solution to the problem.
I have a firewall at home and I thought that I could simply block YouTube through it.
Unfortunately blocking YouTube-related domains (m.youtube.com, http://www.youtube-nocookie.com, http://www.youtube.com, youtube.googleapis.com, youtubei.googleapis.com) not only works perfectly to block YouTube, but also works perfectly to prevent Google Drive website from loading.
A quick search confirmed it wasn’t something I did wrong on my side, but the way Google has setup their services.
But you can use the official app to make Google Drive look like a local disk and access the files while blocking YouTube, right?
I did so and felt quite proud of it, but only for a short while. Just until I realized this is not enough to edit documents created with Google’s productivity suite.
The documents in the virtual disk in reality contain only the metadata to open the remote documents with Google’s productivity suite online, not the actual documents: I needed YouTube access again.
Another quick search provided me with a manual workaround for the documents created with Google’s tools, but I find it is fairly impractical:
1) Download locally through the web interface the document created with Google’s productivity suite. This will automatically trigger a conversion to a standard office format for the downloaded copy.
2) Load back the converted file after ensuring you didn’t configure the settings to automatically convert to Google’s format
3) Edit the standard-format document both online (with Google’s tool) and locally (with LibreOffice if you don’t have a license for M365).
Because my son already had >100 documents in Google format and the first 2 steps require access to YouTube every time he forgets to perform them at school I find this route quite inconvenient.
For the time being I am giving up on finding a way to automatically block YouTube while having full access to Google Docs.
From the business point of view I can see why Google would rather not have parents blocking children’s access to YouTube; this is one way they make money with their “free” productivity tools.
I would also have understood the business decision to go with Google’s productivity suite if it was made by a public institute in a country with financial troubles because it’s still much better than leaving the students unable to learn.
But when the school asks for annual tuition fees in the range of of the tens of thousands of dollars picking Google’s productivity suite over Microsoft 365, which is also cloud based, but works by default with industry standard formats, it simply makes no sense from a parent’s point of view.
The school should have invested adequately in tools and personnel to facilitate the remote learning needs of their students at a level matching their premium tuition fees.
If someone knows a fully automatic way to block YouTube while at the same time work seamlessly with Google’s documents please share it in the comments: I’m sure I will not be the only parent happy to know how to do it.