Interview: Thomas Weissel Installing Plasma in Austrian Schools

A lab running Thomas' current rollout of Plasma 4.

With Plasma 5 having reached maturity for widespread use we are starting to see rollouts of it in large environments. Dot News interviewed the admin behind one such rollout in Austrian schools.

Please introduce yourself and your work

Hi, my name is Thomas Weissel. Among many other things I'm a free open source software enthusiast, teacher, web developer and father - not necessarily in that particular order. I studied computer science in Vienna/Austria at the TU Wien and I teach computer science, philosophy and psychology for living. Currently i am working on a secure exam environment for Austrian schools based on Linux and KDE Plasma.

You say you will roll out Plasma into your school. Which users will get it?

About 34 classrooms, 2 consulting rooms, the room for teachers and one computer lab just got upgraded to a custom "distribution" based on Kubuntu and KDE neon. At least 75 teachers are going to work with the system. Most of the 700+ students are not going to touch these computers (because they are locked away) but in their 5th grade every one of them gets a live USB flash-drive in order to work with the very same system in the computer lab. The system has been extended by a lot of custom applications to allow students for example to copy their bootable USB flash-drives with a mouse click or to reset the configuration to the defaults. Next week I'm going to make the basic system "life" bundled with the secure exam environment "life-exam" available online and I hope many other people (schools) are going to use the system in the future.

What hardware do you use?

In most classrooms we still have aged Asus eee PCs. We switched to more powerful Acer laptops with 4-8 GB of memory for new acquisitions. One of our computer labs just got an upgrade to new HP desktop PCs with big Samsung screens. On these computers everything works like charm.

What distro will you use?

KDE neon !

What problems do you anticipate as part of installing Plasma?

We had a slight problem "mirroring" the displays to the projector without losing the configured widgets but this bug is fixed now in plasma 5.9.2 thanks to Marco Martin. Other than that getting rid of problems was the reason why i migrated to Linux in the first place. For one and a half years now we are working with Linux and Plasma 4 in the classrooms and from a system-administrator's point of view the migration was a huge success. Three to five support calls every week because of weird system problems with Windows 7 suddenly were reduced to one or two per week but not a single one was due to a problem with the system itself. We used live USB flash drives in the classrooms and the teachers unplugged them all the time despite a big sticker with a "do not remove" warning. That was the source for those support calls. We fixed that by installing the system to the hard drive last week :-) The only problem i anticipate now is not with Plasma but with the office suite. We had a lot of conversion (layout) problems with docx, pptx, and xlsx. One source of the problem is the extensive use of proprietary fonts like "Calibri". Automatically replacing "Calibri" with "Carlito" (metric-compatible) is a good start but a lot of the problems remain. I installed Word Online and Excel Online as Chrome-Apps to work around this problem. Most Teachers just installed LibreOffice to make sure everything works well but PowerPoint is still a better program than Impress in my opinion. WPS Office Presentation is very good alternative for pptx files (but not free as in free speech).

How did you pick Plasma rather than any other desktop or operating system?

As well as all the small problems with our Windows installations, hours lost in updating Java, Flash, Quicktime, Silverlight and so on, Microsoft turned off the KMS server in Vienna and this introduced new problems with the key management service. Let's make it short -- I wanted to get rid of Windows in the classroom and enforce free and open standards. I have this weird belief that proprietary pseudo-standards like OOXML Transitional and expensive software like Photoshop, MS Office and so on have no reason for existence in public schools. Therefore Gimp, Calligra Suite and LibreOffice took over and the world keeps spinning. I bet on Plasma because I can easily make it work and look like Windows 7 and this was very important for the acceptance of the teachers. I also chose Plasma because I wanted to present the best possible and most customizable desktop to the students. I wanted them to like working with the system and Plasma made that easy. The first hour working with students is all about 3D effects, custom fonts, widgets and custom themes. After half an hour every single student desktop looks completely different and the students start to see it as "their own" system. In the classrooms this is different of course. It is absolutely necessary that everyone leaves the computer in a usable state for the next teacher. That's yet another reason why i picked Plasmashell: The KIOSK system. I reported a lot of issues with the KIOSK system and Plasma developers did an amazing job finding and fixing all the bugs i've found for 5.8. We now have a desktop that is completely locked to make sure nobody accidentally removes or reconfigures important parts of the user interface.

What applications will you run with it?

The whole list is too long for this interview. In the classrooms LibreOffice and Firefox are probably the most used applications. In the computer lab we start programming in Scratch (Byob) - later we code in Kate, edit photos in Gimp, animate in Synfig Studio. The school's OwnCloud server is widely used to sync and access private files.

What has the reaction been from your users so far?

Most students just don't care - some are completely hooked because of the endless possibilities you have with Plasma and Linux - others just install Steam and Minecraft on their flash drives and are satisfied. The teachers don't care either. I think most of them didn't even realize that i switched the operating system underneath the user software. The only thing they want is their documents to be rendered correctly. As a person who observes this "format war" for many years now i can tell that this problem is not going away. The only "real" solution to this is to stop using those formats and completely switch to the "open document format". Shouldn't be a problem in a public school but the individual vendor lock-in of the teachers is not to be underestimated. Installing Microsoft fonts and the newest version of LibreOffice and teaching the teachers how to export to PDF helped a lot. The idea is that students and teachers are empowered to use the same software they use in school at home without the need to invest a lot of money in order to do so.

What is the attitude to Free and Open Source Software in Austria generally?

The education authority in Lower Austria recommended a Linux based live USB system as well as the Microsoft solution for secure exam environments. There was the LinuxAdvanced project that provided the idea for LIFE and there is the desktop4education project that aims to replace any complex Windows infrastructure and as far as i know the Free Software Foundation is very active in Vienna. Other than that I'd say that the situation in Austria is not really good. Wienux (a selfmade Linux Distribution) that should replace Windows XP in Vienna's administrations was killed before it even started. Schools get Microsoft licenses for Office and Windows whether they want them or not. There are contracts in place that run for 3 years and usually get extended for additional 3 years and so on. There even is a EU directive to use free and open standards wherever possible in public institutions but no one seems to even know (or care) about this.

How can communities like KDE bridge the gap from the enthusiast world to the mass market?

Plasma 5.9 is a wonderful piece of software. KDE Connect is a feature that wows everybody and even NetworkManager is nowadays a tool Windows-admins look at with envy. With Google searching for a way without Linux for their future OS, Apple that is never going to think different and Microsoft going into the cloud with Windows I don't see a world where everybody is using KDE and Linux. But the mass market suitability is already here. In my opinion the way to get to a wider userbase is through public services and schools. There is absolutely no need to use any other software in schools than free open source software. If our schoolchildren realize that they can do everything with free software they will consider using it later in life when they start their own company. IMHO that's the way to go therefore I'm working on it :-)

Discussion about this and similar projects takes place on the KDE Enterprise mailing list.


by Jos van den Oever (not verified)

Those are some lucky students!

3-5 support calls every week because of weird system problems with Windows 7 suddenly were reduced to 1 or 2 per week but not a single one was due to a problem with the system itself

So a saving on licenses, a saving on support and more autonomy and fun.

by Just Curious (not verified)

It's really nice to see such setup in public school. Generally, I couldn't agree more with this guy.

However, I believe, that "customers' opinion" shall be also described - are the users happy indeed.? 

Anyway, good luck!

by Thomas Weissel (not verified)

I just found this :)  here is my answer.

People never come to me in order to tell me how well things worked today..   they come whenever something stopped working.  therefore i can tell you now that things seem to work very well for them ..  we have some of the old netbooks that sometimes have problems finding the harddisk (those are beeing replaced atm) and thats the only problem we have had in the classrooms so far..  i can hardly believe it myself how well everything works..  

BUT.. there's a big but... at the beginning of the last summersemester there were 2-4 teachers so unhappy with libreoffice because they had several problems with the formatting.. libreoffice replaced exotic fonts and had slight problems with placing images (they sometimes overlap with text) and fancy transitions just don't work in impress..     

they fired with everything they've got at me and the whole project but in the end they needed to realise that most of their problems were homemade and easy to fix..  using a strange harrypotter font caused the same disruptions in word and writer (the font wasn't installed and therefore replaced) that was easy to understand..editing text "inside" an imported *.jpg does not word in "impress" and of course it doesnt work in "powerpoint" too...using the 3d curtains transition on every slide change isn't really professional in the first place..  

so i tought them to use default fonts, get rid of unnecessary clutter, install libreoffice at home for free and/or EXPORT TO PDF :-)


i recently observed a teacher opening a presentation in impress and wondering why his text was in 2 lines instead of one line.. but the thing is.. there are only 10 types of computer users..  those who are used to having problems with computers and always think it's their own fault when they see a problem...  and those who "never make mistakes" and for them it's always a problem with "the system" even if they make obvious mistakes when using it..   so it's really hard to get relevant results. 


all i can tell is that the overall experience must have been much worse when we used to work with windows because its awful quiet around here..   i'm just happy that i do not need a KMS server anymore