Learning Ubuntu made easy


Author: Mayank Sharma

Good documentation has helped keep the two-year-old Ubuntu project among the most popular Linux distributions. To complement the traditional venues for help, such as FAQs, HOWTOs, bulletin boards, and mailing lists, Ubuntu uses interactive forums such as Internet Relay Chat to conduct training classes for new users. Now add UbuntuClips.org to the list of helpful sites. This project, not associated with Ubuntu, combines the best of Linux screencasting tools and video-sharing portals to offer audio/video clips that lead new users through common tasks.

The founders of UbuntuClips.org, Richard Smith and Michael Felczak, serve on the board of the Vancouver Community Network (VCN), a local freenet in Vancouver, Canada. “VCN provides free dial-up access,” Felczak says, “as well as a variety of Internet services such as Web space, mailing lists, etc., for lower income individuals and non-profits. We also provide introductory computer training and refurbish donated computers, which are made available to community organizations and groups.”

To complement these efforts, the organization recently made available Ubuntu CDs as an option for people who receive refurbished computers. UbuntuClips.org was initially conceived as support for these efforts. “In addition to making Ubuntu CDs available, the idea was to make available a second CD that would include a collection of introductory documentation and video clips. We quickly realized that video clip tutorials were also well suited for any freenet with similar activities, or for a community computer lab, or for home users trying out Ubuntu for the first time for that matter,” Felczak says.

The videos are organized under six categories: Desktop, Install, Music, Photos, Terminal, and Web. There’s also an option to browse through the popular videos. Each videos has a dedicated page that includes a brief description of the video and short tips related to the activity depicted therein. Videos are available for download in three formats: OGG, AVI, and MOV.

If you are a new user, you’ll find startup pages such as Considering Ubuntu? and Ubuntu is Installed, Now What? useful. These provide links to a bunch of logically arranged videos to help you make the jump to Ubuntu. To cut down on the size of individual clips, some of them that deal with a relatively time-consuming task, such as downloading, installing, and using EasyUbuntu, have been broken into a couple of parts.

If you don’t want to spend time downloading the high-resolution video, there’s also an option to view a smaller low-resolution version online via YouTube. According to Felczak, “Initially we didn’t have the video clips in YouTube since we found the resolution quite poor and ill suited to screencasts. However, many people emailed us about this, and we’ve now uploaded all of the video clips to the ubuntuclips channel on YouTube. The obvious advantage to this is that it’s possible to preview a clip before you download the high-resolution version. Some of our bandwidth is also offloaded onto YouTube. In some cases, users may not need to download the high-resolution version at all, especially if the video clip is not too complex or complicated.”

But even with routing some traffic to YouTube, a project like this still requires a lot of hosting space and bandwidth. “I’m currently completing a Ph.D. in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where [UbuntuClips cofounder] Richard Smith is an associate professor and director of the Center for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST). Both CPROST and SFU provide hosting and bandwidth and are committed to Free and Open Source Software as a way of giving back to a community that sustains many research and educational aspects of the university,” Felczak says.

A picture is worth …

Felczak is gung-ho about screencasting. “Screencasting is an excellent complement to user documentation, wikis, and support forums. It’s one more venue and option for users trying to learn and solve their problems. A user can look something up in the official documentation, watch a quick screencast, follow up with questions in a user forum, and maybe even contribute experiences to a wiki. Screencasts also recover a missing element that online tutorials and books have until now lacked: the human voice. The learning process is complex, and different people better respond with some senses than others. In a practical sense, it is now possible to ‘follow along’ with your eyes and ears or perhaps with only your ears. You might watch the video clip once and then go through the steps on your own, guided only by the voice with the video window in the background.”

While the site has been online for only a couple of months, it has received a lot of positive feedback and support already. The developers recently added a “clip wanted” area on the site where anyone can post a description of a howto that they would like to see covered. The project is open to receiving any video clip that demonstrates how to complete a common task in Ubuntu. While the site’s videos are primarily for Ubuntu users, several clips like those under the Photos section that show resizing, cropping, and copying images can be helpful to users of other Linux distributions as well.

The project has also received many technical questions about creating screencasts. All of the screencasts that have been created to date were created using xvidcap and ffmpeg. “The process is far from straightforward, as there are multiple components that need to be set up and configured correctly: video and audio capture, video/audio editing and overlay, and file conversion. There are also many tools available, and some of them are easier to use than others,” Felczak says.

Apart from the technical challenges involved in creating a screencast, Felczak says there are social ones as well. “I think that the people who do contribute will generally be of a generous and inclusive sort. Generous because the production process can be challenging and because the peer recognition for creating introductory screencasts may not be as high as other online venues, where the problems may be more complex and challenging. Inclusive because contributors, as the more expert users, have to be interested in helping and welcoming less expert users into the Ubuntu community.”

Both Felczak and Smith at this point are focused on being responsive to the community, feedback, and user needs and interests. “At the core,” Felczak says, “the site is a platform for users helping users. However, the exact way in which this will evolve will depend on trial and error, feedback, and user input.”