Petter Reinholdtsen

Debian Edu interview: Nigel Barker
9th March 2012

Inspired by the interview series conducted by Raphael, I started a Norwegian interview series with people involved in the Debian Edu / Skolelinux community. This was so popular that I believe it is time to move to a more international audience.

While Debian Edu and Skolelinux originated in France and Norway, and have most users in Europe, there are users all around the globe. One of those far away from me is Nigel Barker, a long time Debian Edu system administrator and contributor. It is thanks to him that Debian Edu is adjusted to work out of the box in Japan. I got him to answer a few questions, and am happy to share the response with you. :)

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

My name is Nigel Barker, and I am British. I am married to Yumiko, and we have three lovely children, aged 15, 14 and 4(!) I am the IT Coordinator at Hiroshima International School, Japan. I am also a teacher, and in fact I spend most of my day teaching Mathematics, Science, IT, and Chemistry. I was originally a Chemistry teacher, but I have always had an interest in computers. Another teacher teaches primary school IT, but apart from that I am the only computer person, so that means I am the network manager, technician and webmaster, also, and I help people with their computer problems. I teach python to beginners in an after-school club. I am way too busy, so I really appreciate the simplicity of Skolelinux.

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

In around 2004 or 5 I discovered the ltsp project, and set up a server in the IT lab. I wanted some way to connect it to our central samba server, which I was also quite poor at configuring. I discovered Edubuntu when it came out, but it didn't really improve my setup. I did various desperate searches for things like "school Linux server" and ended up in a document called "Drift" something or other. Reading there it became clear that Skolelinux was going to solve all my problems in one go. I was very excited, but apprehensive, because my previous attempts to install Debian had ended in failure (I used Mandrake for everything - ltsp, samba, apache, mail, ns...). I downloaded a beta version, had some problems, so subscribed to the Debian Edu list for help. I have remained subscribed ever since, and my school has run a Skolelinux network since Sarge.

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

For me the integrated setup. This is not just the server, or the workstation, or the ltsp. Its all of them, and its all configured ready to go. I read somewhere in the early documentation that it is designed to be setup and managed by the Maths or Science teacher, who doesn't necessarily know much about computers, in a small Norwegian school. That describes me perfectly if you replace Norway with Japan.

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

The desktop is fairly plain. If you compare it with Edubuntu, who have fun themes for children, or with distributions such as Mint, who make the desktop beautiful. They create a good impression on people who don't need to understand how to use any of it, but who might be important to the school. School administrators or directors, for instance, or parents. Even kids. Debian itself usually has ugly default theme settings. It was my dream a few years back that some kind of integration would allow Edubuntu to do the desktop stuff and Debian Edu the servers, but now I realise how impossible that is. A second disadvantage is that if something goes wrong, or you need to customise something, then suddenly the level of expertise required multiplies. For example, backup wasn't working properly in Lenny. It took me ages to learn how to set up my own server to do rsync backups. I am afraid of anything to do with ldap, but perhaps Gosa will help.

Which free software do you use daily?

Nowadays I only use Debian on my personal computers. I have one for studio work (I play guitar and write songs), running AV Linux (customised Debian) a netbook running Squeeze, and a bigger laptop still running Skolelinux Lenny workstation. I have a Tjener in my house, that's very useful for the family photos and music. At school the students only use Skolelinux. (Some teachers and the office still have windows). So that means we only use free software all day every day. Open office, The GIMP, Firefox/Iceweasel, VLC and Audacity are installed on every computer in school, irrespective of OS. We also have Koha on Debian for the library, and Apache, Moodle, b2evolution and Etomite on Debian for the www. The firewall is Untangle.

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

Current trends are in our favour. Open source is big in industry, and ordinary people have heard of it. The spread of Android and the popularity of Apple have helped to weaken the impression that you have to have Microsoft on everything. People complain to me much less about file formats and Word than they did 5 years ago. The Edu aspect is also a selling point. This is all customised for schools. Where is the Windows-edu, or the Mac-edu? But of course the main attraction is budget.The trick is to convince people that the quality is not compromised when you stop paying and use free software instead. That is one reason why I say the desktop experience is a weakness. People are not impressed when their USB drive doesn't work, or their browser doesn't play flash, for example.

Tags: debian edu, english, intervju.

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