Training materials

Sun 12 October 2008

I've had the opportunity recently to review some training materials as part of my job. VTC offers a lot of streaming video tutorials on various software. I decided to search for Ubuntu and one series showed up. Charles Griffen authored and published these video tutorials, and they're available from a wide array of sources. Amazon retails a DVD version for $99.95.

To inform the broader Ubuntu community and to learn from the mistakes of others, I've decided to publish a critique of Charles Griffin's Ubuntu Tutorials:

Information

The content itself is basically a brief overview of the default Ubuntu Desktop components, spread out over five and a half hours. The audience appears to be expected to be comfortable with Windows and computers in general as he walks them through burning and verifying a LiveCD. In addition to the basic overview of the GNOME desktop software, he covers briefly how to use the command line, WINE/Crossover/Cedega, and Automatix.

The tutorials are based on Ubuntu 6.10. This is very old and unsupported software, and the videos haven't been updated to reflect any changes in behavior or software. If revisiting the video every six months takes too much time, 6.06 LTS might have been a better choice for the longevity of material.

He spends five minutes on legal restrictions on media formats, but doesn't communicate solutions or even the fundamentals of the problem of patents. For example, DVD playback isn't illegal, if you've negotiated a patent license, or if someone has negotiated one on your behalf, like Dell does for their customers. Canonical even offers such things for sale, if you wish to protect yourself from liability.

The videos completely neglect the Wiki and Launchpad as an avenue for support, instead suggesting the purchase of official support from Canonical or community support from forums. While speaking about the community, he neglects the foundational Code of Conduct that lay out the etiquette expected among developers and the community.

He advocates the use of EasyUbuntu and Automatix in his video. By the time these videos were published, Automatix was known by developers, including Technical Board member Matt Zimmerman, to be fatally flawed. After Matthew Garrett published a document reviewing the flaws, I feel it's irresponsible to continue publishing a recommendation of Automatix.

Narration

Charles's voice is smooth and comes across well over the recording. The pacing is quick enough that the potential boredom of the subject isn't multiplied by numbing slowness. He is well rehearsed and professional. Much of this seems to come from his work on LinuxReality, a podcast oriented towards new Linux users (now defunct).

Most of these tutorials come with subtitles. This is great for accessibility, but there are several errors, some of which are substantial. The file browser is universally misspelled "Nodilus" (it is "Nautilus"). More importantly, the command line tutorial makes a specific point about forward slash versus backslash, while the subtitles get it precisely backwards!

The diction is annoying. He uses the word "one" to refer to you, the viewer, a lot. Your English teacher in high school might have marked you down for informality, but nobody takes their advice seriously, and neither should you. Otherwise, the tutorials remain relatively free of jargon and accessible to the audience. Where important jargon is used, it is explained adequately.

Presentation

The video itself is based entirely off of screen capture streams, even when a diagram or two would be far more illuminating. The VTC website offers Quicktime or Flash playback, which may annoy advocates of open codecs. Admittedly, it is a bit of a challenge today to host video that is universally playable today. (HTML5 offers hope, but that's a subject for another time).

The VM image used for recording is in need of upkeep -- update-manager is prompting for updates in the notification area, and the volume is muted or broken. Busted audio might not be so bad except the tutorial covers some audio applications... without working audio.

The video isn't high quality. The recording was done at maybe 5 or 10 frames per second, and the resolution is too small to adequately display some applications, making the whole experience look cramped. Still, it's high enough quality that most text is readable, a problem I've encountered personally when running Desktop OS's at TV quality resolution. The low resolution does have the advantage that it can play from a DVD to a regular television and still be readable.

Conclusion

These tutorials are outdated, but convey a wealth of information about what to cover and how. Personally, I was a bit disappointed that the tutorials didn't teach me anything new about the Ubuntu Desktop, even about programs I haven't used much. (Does anyone use Evolution seriously?)

I get the impression that making such a set of tutorials takes more effort in planning, recording, and editing than a single person can muster. I may seem harsh in writing this critique, so let me be clear: Griffin makes a valiant solo effort, but the rapid pace of Ubuntu and Linux in general is depreciating the quality of his instruction. The Screencast Team brings a lot of expertise and knowledge to the table, and if they decide to do an "Ubuntu Introduction" project in the future, I hope they'll consider how to improve upon the works of others, and find ways to cope with the high rate of change!

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