August 15, 2006

Ubuntu turns to NUN to help new users

Author: Mayank Sharma

Ubuntu Linux might be an easy distribution to use, but some new users quickly run into things that bewilder them. Commands like sudo, apt-get, and terminal make newbies scurry around for help from forum boards, mailing lists, and IRC. To help such newcomers, Ubuntu has put together a community team that ensures new users are handled with care. The New Users Network, or NUN, is a group of experienced Ubuntu enthusiasts who help new Ubuntu users come to grips with the operating system.

Volunteer NUN mentors spend time on Ubuntu forums, mailing lists, and IRC channels looking for new user queries. The mentors have agreed to follow the NUN guidelines, which caution against the use of popular responses to newbie questions, such as RTFM, JFGI, and UTFS. Instead, they try to answer the queries in an easy-to-follow fashion, and point to online resources wherever possible, such as a wiki that explains things in details.

"At first the NUN was nothing more than an IRC channel (#ubuntu-nun on the freenode network) that we could bring a user from #kubuntu or #ubuntu into, for one-on-one work that couldn't be done in the busier support channels. Since then, it has become a popular haven for geeks and new users alike," says Rich Johnson, a NUN mentor.

But what really makes this team laudable is its aim to foster intelligent and knowledgeable users. Throwing commands isn't encouraged, unless that's all the user wants. The NUN guidelines call for mentors to exercise caution while pointing users to resources such as ubuntuguide.org that simply list the commands to get a task done, without much explanation.

This means that mentors get a lot of queries from system administrators and other experienced users, wanting to understand the whys and hows of Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular. "We even receive questions some of us can't answer," Johnson says. When that happens, they simply look for "someone a little more experienced in the area."

What area of Ubuntu gets the most queries? "Multimedia. How do I play videos? How do I play MP3s? How do I burn DVDs or CDs? Java? Flash? Those are the big ones."

The classroom

In addition to reactive answers to users' questions, the NUN mentors are taking proactive steps in the form of guided tutorials, biweekly on the first and third weekend of each month, in the #ubuntu-classroom channel, for users of different expertise levels, from beginner to advanced. Eleven classes have been announced so far, with topics that help newbies work smarter by introducing topics such as the command-line interface and compiling and installing packages, as well as those that help experienced users understand things like GPG encryption, the Linux kernel, and system administration.

Currently, instructors submit lesson plans a week prior to each class, in order to allow the NUN mentors "to make sure the instructors actually know the topic and can teach. Class content was actually decided upon by the most common questions and topics in the main support channels, as well as the off-topic channels on IRC."

On class weekends, sessions will be repeated at different times, in order to get as many people involved as possible, Johnson says. "We really don't want to break down classes into sections if possible. One smooth, single topic session is ideal, as we don't want to inflict any confusion." On non-class weekends, the classroom channel will also be used to pull new users out of the busier channels for one-on-one training.

The first class, introducing users to IRC, was held on August 5, and was attended by 90 people. "The CLI session, showcasing the basics of IRSSI, went well, and we received some outstanding questions and tips from people who stayed around for the Q&A session as well," Johnson says. Johnson himself, a Kubuntu user, instructed the KDE side of the session, showcasing the Konversation IRC client, illustrating with dozens of images to help people as he went through the class.

After the class Johnson was excited. "It was impressive to see the turnout! We received a lot of compliments on our first session, and we are looking forward to future sessions. There will be a log and minutes-type breakdown of the class produced shortly for everyone to review. I am looking at taking the Konversation portion that I did and possibly turning it into a screencast."

Johnson suggest mentors keep an eye out for smart queries from users on the channels. Those users may eventually become future instructors, since instructors can be anyone who "wants to help Ubuntu" and knows his way around a topic.

I asked Johnson how a mentor and an instructor are rewarded, since they are spending so much time training new users. "We get rewarded every time a new user says 'thank you,' and to know they are using their Ubuntu system correctly and enjoying it as well. Nothing is more gratifying than having people say 'thank you for helping me.'"

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