December 22, 2002

Commentary: Teaching Newbies GNU/Linux

- By Tom Chance -
In a recent ask Slashdot thread, chrisd asked Slashdot readers how
they thought he should present Free Software (FS) on TV, i.e. how one should
present FS to "newbies." As is typical of a Slashdot commentators' debate,
there was little agreement on the approach that should be taken, with lots of
interesting arguments, counter-arguments, and comments coming in from entirely
different angles (indeed that is the real value of a Slashdot debate). Some
thought one should sit a newbie down in front of the command line and teach
them to use grep and compile a kernel, whilst others thought one
should show them exciting multimedia applications and try to hide the command
line entirely with GUI tools supplied by the latest newbie distribution. What
was most interesting was that almost all of the commentators described
exactly what they found interesting, and how they would want to have a
system showed off to them.

This focus on oneself seems to underly a big problem in the FS community in
terms of its approach to newbies. When teaching somebody (which is what we
are doing, even in pure advocacy, without telling them how to use a system), it
is easy to assume the person holds a certain set of ideas and values which
you do, which are critical to an understanding of the subject. It is also easy
to assume that people think in the same way as you, or that because you can
do something intuitively, others will too. It is not that people are
deliberately elitist and rude, though there is unfortunately an awful lot of that
around, but that people simply don't take a moment to think about how they
approach others that are not like them.

The FS community is really very closed; it is predominantly a male hacker
community, and so its culture and politics can seem very alien to many newbies,
especially when one considers that many haven't the slightest idea that
"hacker" and "cracker" aren't the same thing, let alone that being called a "good
hacker" is a high honour. People always bring their culture and politics
into what they say and write, whether deliberately or inadvertently, and this is
leading to a lot of rudeness and a lot of very confused newbies. For
example, if I were to ask a question, and get told "RTFM" (Read The Fucking Manual),
I would a) know the person meant, b) realise they weren't being rude, but
that I was being stupid, and c) know how to make that statement useful, by
finding the appropriate manual and being able to use the information. A newbie
may lack all of these skills, so a statement that is quite acceptable to a
hacker becomes unhelpful rudeness when used on a newbie.

A newbie is also likely to lack a concete knowledge of what FS even is, let
alone the implications of the GPL and the reasons to dislike the DMCA/EUCD. I
know many seem to think these subjects are separate from each other, but
they are not. One cannot have FS without a binding license to protect it, and
one cannot have FS if there are laws that actively discriminate against it. As
much as people would like to be apolitical, one has to be a political animal,
especially in the FS world. And many people are, as reflected in FS
community hangouts like Slashdot and Kuro5hin. So to ease the newbie into the FS
world, it is important to explain the culture and politics: explain what FS is,
explain what a hacker is (and what it means to be a hacker), explain how the
GPL works - do all this, and you will not only be more likely to convert them
to the FS/hacker ethic, but you will also help them enter the community and
ask for technical help.

This focus by hackers on hackers was also found to be the cause of many a
useability problem in a recent study entitled "Usability and Open Source Software". In
this, its authors David Nichols and Michael Twidale found that very few FS
projects ever think about how others will approach their work; all too often, a
program will be designed for its author - a result of the "scratching an itch"
motivation that drives a lot of FS development. Even if they do consider
useability, the default settings are rarely given sufficient consideration. The
result is that programs are unapproachable. This problem is compounded when
newbies ask people for help, and the people they ask cannot see the problem
because they understand the program perfectly. If somebody asks you how
to save a document, it is easy to say "look for the save option in the file
menu". But to somebody who doesn't know what a "file menu" is, this makes no
sense, something I learnt the hard way when working as an IT trainer.

This example hints at another problem we face: every computer user is an
individual, with different types and amounts of knowledge, different goals (in
terms of what they want to do with their computer), and different attitudes
towards learning. If you try to teach a group of people from a book without
ever adjusting yourself to your students, you'll fail miserably, and make them
miserable in the process. This is because they all want different things, a
principle you would have thought the FS community, with its wonderful obsession
with customisation, would implicitly understand and therefore act on. But
somehow, when approaching other people, we seem to forget that they, like us,
have distinctice tastes and goals. We also seem to forget that they all know
different things, so while the statement "look in the file menu" will make
sense to some, to others it will be a foreign language.

So how can we approach newbies, if they are all so different? We cannot be
relatavists here, because practical constraints demand an objective idea of
how to approach them all as a mass (unless one is willing to make a web site
that customises itself according to the answers in a questionnaire, which would
probably only confuse newbies even more). This takes us back to the Slashdot
debate - what is the best approach to all "newbies", if we may bunch such a
disparate group of people together under one term. It must be objective, but
it must cater for the differences among people. To me, this means that one
should tailor the approach in two ways:

1) One should never assume an unreasonable amount of knowledge. If it is a
Web Site or book, start from the absolute basics, like "what is a partition"
and "what is a filesystem", because the newbie who knows such things can
always skip through. Once one understands the underlying concepts, approaching a
topic is far easier and far more rewarding.

2) One should provide opportunities for the newbie to participate in his/her
education. There's nothing more boring than having somebody teach you - you
want to learn, and learning is a verb, it is something you do, not
something that happens to you. So one should aim to teach a newbie, but
only to equip them with the tools to then teach themselves wherever possible.
For example, don't teach a newbie how to use every command line tool - teach
them how to use the command line, and then a few programs with which they can
learn the rest (ls & cd for the basics, man,
apropos and which to let them find their own tools). Then
provide them with optional material which they can learn from if they so
wish (so a list of really cool tools, like grep and pipes).


The result is an approach to learning which emphasises the newbie, not the
knowledge. In other words, the important thing is not that the newbie takes on
a whole lot of knowledge about FS and GNU/Linux, but that the newbie finds
it interesting and learns how to learn more. So an argument like
"command line vs. gui tools" is invalid, because it fails to address the
individuals concerned. Some might like the command line, some might like the GUI, and
some might love/hate both. Give them the mental tools and the material to
learn both, help them learn both, and let them make up their own minds. Remember
that they are not you, and that they are in fact lots of
Is; remember that they all know, like and want different things, and
remember that they want to participate in their education just as you
have. If we can all remember this, then newbies should start finding FS and
the FS community far more approachable.

Tom Chance is an admin for NewToLinux.org.uk.


This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2002, under the GNU Free
Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long
as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.

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