March 22, 2006

Switching art students to GNU/Linux

Author: Gurdy Leete

I'm an art professor, and last semester I embarked on an exciting new adventure by erasing Mac OS X from nearly all of the Macintoshes in our digital media lab and installing Ubuntu in its place.

I began seriously planning this change last school year, when I realized how fully the current feature sets of free software programs could satisfy the technical needs of the students in my classes. I decided that the time had come to teach our undergraduate art students about free software programs such as the GIMP, Scribus, and Quanta Plus, instead of proprietary programs such as Photoshop, QuarkXpress, and Dreamweaver.

Choosing the distribution and applications

My first step was to choose a GNU/Linux distribution. I needed something that would work well with a classroom full of students subjecting it to daily real-world challenges.

I found's list of distributions for the PowerPC architecture a useful starting point. After a little research I chose Ubuntu, because I found it easy to install and update on my computers at home, and because it came with a large community of Ubuntu PowerPC users who could offer support on the Ubuntu online discussion forums.

The next step was to determine which applications I'd use. For digital painting and image editing tools to replace Photoshop and Painter, the GIMP was the obvious choice. Krita is gaining some interesting painting capabilities, and next year I think I'll teach that too.

For a vector graphics design program to replace FreeHand, the choices included Skencil, Inkscape, Sodipodi, and's Draw. I chose Inkscape because I especially liked its user interface and features such as Tile Clones. As a side benefit, Inkscape's Help menu offers tutorials that are concise, useful, and inspiring.

For a page layout program to substitute for QuarkXpress, I considered Scribus and Passepartout. Scribus seemed to be in a much more mature stage of development, so it seemed to be the better choice. At the time I overlooked Cenon, and I haven't investigated it much since, but Scribus has worked well.

To replace Dreamweaver, I reviewed Bluefish, Nvu, and Screem, but I chose Quanta Plus because I liked its user interface and its project management features.

For designing typefaces in place of programs such as Fontographer or FontLab Studio,
FontForge seemed to be the only available choice. It's a terrific tool which was inspired by Fontographer.

The students' reactions

The students' reactions to all this was inspiring. They felt empowered by the quality of the software and their ability to upgrade, share, and customize it freely. They also appreciated the immense array of additional GNU/Linux multimedia software available to them. And I found it inspiring how many of the students took enthusiastic advantage of other applications, not only by installing software via Synaptic from the Ubuntu repositories of more than 16,000 packages, but in some case by compiling source code from elsewhere.

Near the beginning of each course, I designated a session for an Installfest, and was pleased to see how many students brought in their computers to install free software. I also ordered dozens of free Ubuntu disks from for the students to give to their friends, and was happy to see how quickly they disappeared. Beginning students found it helpful to have the software at no cost on their personal computers, so they could easily access it after class. Advanced students felt that the move to free software gave them new capabilities and more freedom.

When students asked if they were learning the industry standard applications that they felt they might need to get a job, I pointed out that in our department fourth-year students spend a semester developing their portfolios using the technologies of their choice, and that once they've learned the free software packages, gaining expertise with their proprietary counterparts won't be difficult in their semester of portfolio development, if they wish. The first group of my "switched to GNU/Linux" students starts their semester of portfolio development now, and I expect they'll do extremely well.

I found that Photoshop and the other proprietary software packages we had been using for years generally had more polished interfaces and more advanced features than the free software we chose. But the free software had more than enough of the core capabilities we needed in my classes, and also often featured desirable capabilities missing in the proprietary software.

The switch saved thousands of dollars in software upgrades. As a result I was able to dramatically lower the lab fee for each class, and require instead that the students purchase additional textbooks. These textbooks enriched the class experience, yet the overall cost to each student was significantly less, which they appreciated.

Technical challenges

We faced a few technical challenges, but I was relieved that we were able to find solutions and workarounds to them all easily. The technical support we received on the Ubuntu forums was great.

Installing the software was easy, using the Ubuntu installer and Ubuntu's Synaptic package manager. Connecting each computer to the campus network was also easy, using the GNOME Network Settings tool.

I wondered what I would use to replace AppleTalk for sharing files between computers, and briefly wondered if I should try to get AppleTalk running under Ubuntu, but then realized that FTP or SSH would work fine. Using Synaptic it was easy to install Konqueror along with the OpenSSH client and server. Konqueror served as a nice GUI for file transfer via SSH, simply by typing in fish:// and the network address in Konqueror's Location field.

During the first few weeks of class the network connection on some computers would sometimes inexplicably die. We worked around this by deactivating the computer's Ethernet connection in the Network Settings window, closing the window, and then reopening the window and reactivating the connection, but it was annoying. Then the Breezy Badger edition of Ubuntu was released, which we easily installed over a weekend after first backing up the student's data directories. At the same time, someone suggested that we turn our classroom's hub off and then on to restart it, in case the hub was locking up. I'm not sure which action was the cure, but after that we never had a network problem again.

At first, the CD/DVD eject button on the Mac keyboards didn't work, and instead we had to use other methods to eject a CD or DVD, but that inconvenience also disappeared when we installed Breezy Badger.

To get our old Wacom tablets to work in the GIMP, we had to manually edit each computer's xorg.conf file and then change the settings in the GIMP's "Configure Extended Input" dialog box after choosing File->Preferences->Input Devices, but that task was fairly well documented on the Ubuntu forums. After that, the graphics tablets worked beautifully, and my students enjoyed the good support for pressure-sensitivity.

Checking the USB Scanners on Linux list, I found that our scanner wasn't supported. I had left Mac OS X on a spare computer, so we simply left our scanner hooked up to that computer, scanned all our images there, and then transferred the files via FTP. We can buy a good new scanner for under $100, so next year we'll buy a scanner that's both Linux and Mac OS X compatible.

By checking we found our USB inkjet printers were well-supported by Linux drivers. We hooked them up to the USB port of any computer from which we wanted to print, and generally they worked without any problems.

Our monochrome and color laser printers connect to our network via AppleTalk, so to print from them, we transferred our files to our Mac OS X computer and printed from there. Next year, I'll research a method of connecting them directly to our Ubuntu computers, but this approach worked fine.

Future plans and recommendations

The switch to free software has been a big success here in the Department of Art and Design at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. This semester I plan to take the switch further in my video classes by replacing Avid DV Express, Final Cut Express HD, Soundtrack, and iDVD with Kino, Cinelerra, Rosegarden, and DVDstyler.

Next year, I plan to replace Maya with Blender, and perhaps substitute some combination of Synfig, OpenLaszlo, or Ktoon for Flash.

If you're contemplating a similar switch, I encourage you to move ahead. Think about which distribution best matches your needs, and select your applications carefully.

If you need to share the computers with classes that aren't using GNU/Linux, you can undoubtedly install GNU/Linux on your computers in a dual-boot configuration with Windows or Mac OS X. With Ubuntu on the Mac I found that to be easy.


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