Petter Reinholdtsen

Debian Edu interview: Mike Gabriel
2nd June 2012

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, 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.

Tags: debian edu, english, intervju.

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