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Petter Reinholdtsen: Debian Edu interview: Mike Gabriel

Posted: June 2, 2012 / in: Linux / No comments

Back in 2010, Mike Gabriel showed up on the
Debian Edu and Skolelinux
mailing list. He quickly proved to be a valuable developer, and
thanks to his tireless effort we now have Kerberos integrated into the
Debian Edu
Squeeze
version.

Who are you, and how do you spend your days?

My name is Mike Gabriel, I am 38 years old and live near Kiel,
Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. I live together with a wonderful partner
(Angela Fuß) and two own children and two bonus children (contributed
by Angela).

During the day I am part-time employed as a system administrator
and part-time working as an IT consultant. The consultancy work
touches free software topics wherever and whenever possible. During
the nights I am a free software developer. In the gaps I also train in
becoming an osteopath.

Starting in 2010 we (Andreas Buchholz, Angela Fuß, Mike Gabriel)
have set up a free software project in the area of Kiel that aims at
introducing free software into schools. The project’s name is
“IT-Zukunft Schule” (IT future for schools). The project links IT
skills with communication skills.

How did you get in contact with the Skolelinux/Debian Edu
project?

While preparing our own customised Linux distribution for
“IT-Zukunft Schule” we were repeatedly asked if we really wanted to
reinvent the wheel. What schools really need is already available,
people said. From this impulse we started evaluating other Linux
distributions that target being used for school networks.

At the end we short-listed two approaches and compared them: a
commercial Linux distribution developed by a company in Bremen,
Germany, and Skolelinux / Debian Edu. Between 12/2010 and 03/2011 we
went to several events and met people being responsible for marketing
and development of either of the distributions. Skolelinux / Debian
Edu was by far much more convincing compared to the other product that
got short-listed beforehand–across the full spectrum. What was most
attractive for me personally: the perspective of collaboration within
the developmental branch of the Debian Edu project itself.

In parallel with this, we talked to many local and not-so-local
people. People teaching at schools, headmasters, politicians, data
protection experts, other IT professionals.

We came to two conclusions:

First, a technical conclusion: What schools need is available in
bits and pieces here and there, and none of the solutions really fit
by 100%. Any school we have seen has a very individual IT setup
whereas most of each school’s requirements could mapped by a standard
IT solution. The requirement to this IT solution is flexibility and
customisability, so that individual adaptations here and there are
possible. In terms of re-distributing and rolling out such a
standardised IT system for schools (a system that is still to some
degree customisable) there is still a lot of work to do here
locally. Debian Edu / Skolelinux has been our choice as the starting
point.

Second, a holistic conclusion: What schools need does not exist at
all (or we missed it so far). There are several technical solutions
for handling IT at schools that tend to make a good impression. What
has been missing completely here in Germany, though, is the enrolment
of people into using IT and teaching with IT. “IT-Zukunft Schule”
tries to provide an approach for this.

Only some schools have some sort of a media concept which explains,
defines and gives guidance on how to use IT in class. Most schools in
Northern Germany do not have an IT service provider, the school’s IT
equipment is managed by one or (if the school is lucky) two (admin)
teachers, most of the workload these admin teachers get done in there
spare time.

We were surprised that only a very few admin teachers were
networked with colleagues from other schools. Basically, every school
here around has its individual approach of providing IT equipment to
teachers and students and the exchange of ideas has been quasi
non-existent until 2010/2011.

Quite some (non-admin) teachers try to avoid using IT technology in
class as a learning medium completely. Several reasons for this
avoidance do exist.

We discovered that no-one has ever taken a closer look at this
social part of IT management in schools, so far. On our quest journey
for a technical IT solution for schools, we discussed this issue with
several teachers, headmasters, politicians, other IT professionals and
they all confirmed: a holistic approach of considering IT management
at schools, an approach that includes the people in place, will be new
and probably a gain for all.

What do you see as the advantages of Skolelinux/Debian
Edu?

There is a list of advantages: international context, openness to
any kind of contributions, do-ocracy policy, the closeness to Debian,
the different installation scenarios possible (from stand-alone
workstation to complex multi-server sites), the transparency within
project communication, honest communication within the group of
developers, etc.

What do you see as the disadvantages of Skolelinux/Debian
Edu?

Every coin has two sides:

Technically: BTS issue
#311188
, tricky upgradability of a Debian Edu main server, network
client installations on top of a plain vanilla Debian installation
should become possible sometime in the near future, one could think
about splitting the very complex package debian-edu-config into
several portions (to make it easier for new developers to
contribute).

Another issue I see is that we (as Debian Edu developers) should
find out more about the network of people who do the marketing for
Debian Edu / Skolelinux. There is a very active group in Germany
promoting Skolelinux on the bigger Linux Days within Germany. Are
there other groups like that in other countries? How can we bring
these marketing people together (marketing group A with group B and
all of them with the group of Debian Edu developers)? During the last
meeting of the German Skolelinux group, I got the impression of people
there being rather disconnected from the development department of
Debian Edu / Skolelinux.

Which free software do you use daily?

For my daily business, I do not use commercial software at all.

For normal stuff I use Iceweasel/Firefox, Libreoffice.org. For
serious text writing I prefer LaTeX. I use gimp, inkscape, scribus for
more artistic tasks. I run virtual machines in KVM and Virtualbox.

I am one of the upstream developers of X2Go. In 2010 I started the
development of a Python based X2Go Client, called PyHoca-GUI.
PyHoca-GUI has brought forth a Python X2Go Client API that currently
is being integrated in Ubuntu’s software center.

For communications I have my own Kolab server running using Horde
as web-based groupware client. For IRC I love to use irssi, for Jabber
I have several clients that I use, mostly pidgin, though. I am also
the Debian maintainer of Coccinella, a Jabber-based interactive
whiteboard.

My favourite terminal emulator is KDE’s Yakuake.

Which strategy do you believe is the right one to use to
get schools to use free software?

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Enrol people, enrol people,
enrol people.

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