Petter Reinholdtsen

Debian Edu interview: George Bredberg
9th July 2012

The Debian Edu / Skolelinux project have users all over the globe, but until recently we have not known about any users in Norway's neighbour country Sweden. This changed when George Bredberg showed up in March this year on the mailing list, asking interesting questions about how to adjust and scale the just released Debian Edu Wheezy setup to his liking. He granted me an interview, and I am happy to share his answers with you here.

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

I'm a 44 year old country guy that have been working 12 years at the same school as 50% IT-manager and 50% Teacher. My educational background is fil.kand in history and religious beliefs, an exam as a "folkhighschool" teacher, that is, for teaching grownups. In Norwegian I believe it's called "Vuxenupplaring". I also have a master in "Technology and social change". So I'm not really a tech guy, I just like to study how humans and technology interact and that is my perspective when working with IT.

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

I have followed the Skolelinux project for quite some time by now. Earlier I tested out the K12-LTSP project, which we used for some time, but I really like the idea of having a distribution aimed to be a complete solution for schools with necessary tools integrated. When K12-LTSP abandoned that idea some years ago, I started to look more seriously into Skolelinux instead.

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

The big point of Skolelinux to me is that it is a complete distribution, ready to install. It has LDAP-support, MS Windows integration tools and so forth already configured, saving an administrator a lot of time and headache. We were using another Linux based thin-client system called Thinlinc, that has served us very well. But that Skolelinux is based on VNC and LTSP, to me, is better when it comes to the kind of multimedia used in schools. That is showing videos from Youtube or educational TV. It is also easier to mix thin clients with workstations, since the user settings will be the same. In our VNC-based solution you had to "beat around the bush" by setting up a second, hidden, home-directory for user settings for the workstations, because they will be different from the ones used on the thin clients. Skolelinux support for diskless workstations are very convenient since a school today often need to use a class room projector showing videos in full screen. That is easily done with a small integrated media computer running as a diskless workstation. You have only two installs to update and configure. One for the thin clients and one for the workstations. Also saving a lot of time. Our old system was also based on Redhat and CentOS. They are both very nice distributions, but they are sometimes painfully slow when it comes to updating multimedia support and multimedia programs (even such as Gimp), leaving us with a bit "oldish" applications. Debian is quicker to update.

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

Debian is a bit too quick when it comes to updating. As an example we use old HP terminals as thinclients, and two times already this year (2012) the updates you get from the repositories has stopped sound from working with them. It's a kernel/ALSA issue. So you have to be more careful properly testing the updates before you run them in a production environment. This has never happened with CentOS.

I also would like to be able to set my own domain-settings at install time. In Skolelinux they are kind of hard coded into the distribution, when it comes to LDAP and at least samba integration. That is more a cosmetic/translation issue, and not a real problem. Running MS Windows applications within the Skolelinux environment needs to be better supported. That is, running them seamlessly via RDP, and support for single-sign on. That will make the transition to free software easier, because you can keep the applications you really need. No support will make it impossible if you work in a school where some applications can't be open source. As for us we really need to run Adobe InDesign in our journalist classes. We run a journalist education, and is one of the very few non university ones that is ok:d by Svenska journalistförbundet (Swedish journalist association). Our education gives the pupils the right of membership there, once they are done. This is important if you want to get a job.

Adobe InDesign is the program most commonly used in newspapers and magazines. We used Quark Express before, but they seem to loose there market to Adobe. The only "equivalent" to InDesign in the opensource world is Scribus, and its not advanced enough. At least not according to the teacher. I think it would be possible to use it, because they are not supposed to learn a program, they are supposed to learn how to edit and compile a newspaper. But politically at our school we are not there yet. And Scribus lacks a lot of things you find i InDesign.

We used even a windows program for sound editing when it comes to the radio-journalist part. The year to come we are going to try Audacity. That software has the same kind of limitations compared to Adobe Audition, but that teacher is a bit more open minded. We have tried Ardour also, but that instead is more like a music studio program, not intended for the kind of editing taking place in a radio studio. Its way to complex and the GUI is to scattered when you only want to cut, make pass-overs, add extra channels and normalise. Those things you can do in Audacity, but its not as easy as in Audition. You have to do more things manually with envelopes, and that is a bit old fashion and timewasting. Its also harder to cut and move sound from one channel to another, which is a thing that you do frequently because you often find yourself needing to rearrange parts of the sound file.

So, I am not sure we will succeed in replacing even Audition, but we will try. The problem is the students have certain expectations when they start an education towards a profession. So the programs has to look and feel professional. Good thing with radio, there are many programs out there, that radio studios use, so its not as standardised as Newspaper editing. That means, it does not really matter what program they learn, because once they start working they still have to learn the program the studio uses, so instead focus has to be to learn the editing part without to much focus on a specific software.

Which free software do you use daily?

Myself I'm running Linux Mint, or Ubuntu these days. I use almost only open source software, and preferably Linux based. When it comes to most used applications its OpenOffice, and Firefox (of course ;) )

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

To get schools to use free software there has to be good open source software that are windows based, to ease the transition. But it's also very important that the multimedia support is working flawlessly. The problems with Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and whatever will create problems when it comes to both teachers and students. Economy are also important for schools, so using thin clients, as long as they have good multimedia support, is a very good idea. It's also important that the open source software works even for the administration. It's hard to convince the teachers to stick with open source, if the principal has to run Windows. It also creates a problem if some classes has to use Windows for there tasks, since that will create a difference in "status" between classes, so a good support for running windows applications via the thin client (Linux) desktop is essential. At least at our school, where we have mixed level of educations, from high-school to journalist-school.

Update 2012-07-09 08:30: Paul Wise tipped me on IRC about three useful sources related to Free Software for radio stations: the LWN article Radio station management with Airtime, Airtime which claim to be a Free open source radio automation software and Rivendell which claim to be complete radio broadcast automation solution. All of them seem useful to the aspiring radio producer.

Tags: debian edu, english, intervju.

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