I've been sat in front of the computer cursing, typing, cursing, fuming, scratching my head, cursing, tutting and generally getting annoyed over the past 24hours. Why? Because I'm trying to make Google Apps better -and safer - for the children to use in school.
Since we started using GApps, I've had a vision of having a one stop-page for the pupils to visit to see their latest emails, documents and the school calendar easily and quickly. I thought I had a solution a while back, by using an iGoogle startpage. However, the general iGoogle setup does not work with GApp accounts, and so that was a non starter, but the idea remained in my head.
I've tried using a Google sites page, but it doesn't seem to want to let me embed an overview of email into it - docs and the calendar are no problem, but mail is a no-go!
I've also noticed that you can set a "start page" from within the GApps dashboard that all users will get.
This gives me the iGoogle like page that I am after, but there is [yet another] problem stopping it from being implemented - it can be customised, and some of the page designs, or 'skins' are not suitable for children, along with many of the gadgets that can be added to pages.
What I want, is the start page option, and a way to disable customisation, remove or block unsuitable extras. Surely Google would offer would something like that? Yes? No! There is absolutely no option to oversee, and remove, unsuitable elements from the start page. Major fail from Google, offering a totally unsuitable service for their EDUCATIONAL solution.
I've looked through the Google forums, and this is a hot topic of conversations, so many educators are asking for this - and even business users too who don't want their employees using "racy" (as Google call them) skins.
So, what is the solution? Well, after bemoaning the situation on Twitter, ZoeRoss19 suggested I took a look at something called the Feed Server Client Tool, FSCT, from Google. This promised "to control which gadgets appear in the Google Sites gadget directory for their domain" Just what I wanted!
So, I downloaded the file, and tried to use it. Tried being the perfect word because it was not the easiest of files to use, the instructions for it were appalling, and nothing made sense! I asked @johnmclear - someone who works with code everyday - if it should work on Macs or Windows, and it seems it should do, but work it would not for me.
I gave in late last night, and returned to it today. Eventually I did find a way to get it to begin to work, and it took a lot more than the instructions from Google told me. So below I am listing what I have done SO FAR (I'm not yet sorted) in the hope that it might help others, and maybe someone else can take it onto the next part and complete the solution...
- Download the zipped FSCT file, unzip and place the unzipped FSCT folder into your main documents folder. (On a Mac this is the folder displayed below 'Desktop' in the left menu bar when you open the finder, for Windows, put it into the folder for the user who will be logged in and running it - ie C:\Users\yourname\ )
- Next, open up Terminal on a Mac (you can find this in applications - utilities). For windows you need the command window, so type CMD in the search bar and open it.
- I found that the only way to get the FSCT to work on a Mac, I needed to type sh fsct/fsct and this showed all command instructions. It seems that because the FTSC file is inside a folder called FTSC, then it needs the double term to work. Following this, entering sh fsct/fsct shell prompts you for your GApps username and password, before offering you the fsct> command line *&*
- In windows the command fsct\fsct.bat (note the direction of the slash) worked the same, followed by fsct\fsct shell
However, that is as far as I have got, because I just cannot get the dirPublicGadgets command to work and show me all the gadgets - because I need to know the URL of the few I want to allow through, whilst I blacklist the remaining unsuitable gadgets.
So I wonder, if any from Google is reading, why is it so hard to make this safe for children? A simple button in the GApps dashboard saying 'disable all gadgets' and another saying 'allow only the following gadgets' would be brilliant. Is this too much to ask for? Is keeping children safe not something we should be able to do easily?
Update: (5pm) I've spent part of the afternoon skyping with the awesome @johnclear who has kindly taken a look at the issue (are you reading this Google?) and has found a solution to the problem.
Aside from doing what was mentioned above, you also need to specify the host for the FSCT (now this bit was complicated, and I got lost along the way, but I'm hoping to clarify exactly what needed to be done, and post it here when I understand!)
After logging in to the FSCT service, there is an option to WHITELIST gadgets (allow them to be seen). By setting this option to allow no gadgets, nothing will then be shown in the gadget gallery within a sites page. No gadgets to see - no gadgets to add to a page! If an admin does want to add more gadgets to a page, then they can visit the Google Gadgets pages, and take a look at the URL on the URL bar. Strip out the first part of the code (as shown below), then copy and paste the rest of it into the 'Add gadget by URL' option
Here's an example that John tried out whilst working through the FSCT;
*&* make sure fsct.bat is in your c:\temp\fsct folder seems to overcome the need for the double command
So - what does this mean? At the moment an iGoogle style "start" page is a no go - there is no control and moderation of the resources available, and that is a great big NO for a school. However, using FSCT (athough bloody complicated) provides a solution to create a gadget - free page within Google Sites. Now, I am planning to test putting that Sites page as a start page for pupils when they sign into the service directly from the school website (next job for the holiday). I am hoping that it will then present them with a page looking something like this;
Yes, I need to alter some of the text, but you see that pupils can see their documents instantly, as well as the school calendar, and there is a link top left to their email (I still haven't found a way to make mail appear on screen alongside docs and calendar).
However, this is a workable solution - for the moment!
Update: 20th April: I've finished tinkering with the design of the page, and called it the "PJS Intranet". I've also created a subdomain ( start.porchester.net ) that redirects to the Intranet page, and changed the links on the navbar of the school website to reflect this.
Of course, for anyone NOT authorised to use the porchester.net domain, you will see the sign in page, but be unable to proceed any further. For staff and pupils, they will log in and then see the school calendar and their own documents, as well as a link to their email (although I still can't embed mail into the page), and a link back to the main school website.