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Training Tips for New Linux Users

The VAR Guy

July 7, 2008

10 Min Read
Training Tips for New Linux Users

At my college, I have volunteered to teach faculty, staff, and students the advantages of using Linux. After doing it for a couple of years, I have come up with a few tips that others might find helpful when showing new Linux users the ropes.

Step 1: Know Your Audience:

I can’t stress this one enough. Your presentations and instructions need to be tailored to your audience. If it isn’t, you can loose the interest of your audience or cause them to become lost. Who do you plan on training? I find that most users fall into one of three categories:

The Basic User – This is the type of user who uses their computer for email, word processing, Internet browsing, and some multimedia uses. For example, my mother is this type of user, she sees a computer as a tool; something to be used when needed for productivity or entertainment.

The Power User – This is the type of user who really enjoys being on computers. They see the computer as a hobby. They use computers for all the reasons that Basic Users do but also love to tweak things and try out new things on the computer. They will try things as long as they can understand it quickly and not get too frustrated. If they are a Windows user, you will see them using third party applications to tweak how it looks and how it works. Many of them know what Open Source software is and some of the advantages are. Computers are not a Power User’s life, but they do enjoy being on them and tend to do some customizing with them. Most gamers fall under this category.

The Super User – The biggest difference between a Super User and a Power User is that while Power Users view computers as a hobby, Super Users view them as their life. Their whole career revolves around computers and the use of them. These are the types of people who have heard of Linux, and many of them may have tried to use if if they are not already. These people tend to be software engineers, information technology specialists, and many others.

While the lines of these categories can be blurred and it isn’t perfect it’s a good way to assess who your audience might be. Try to come up with as much information about your audience ahead of time as you can. Try to categorize them as much as you can. Sometimes you may have all three types of users in your audience. If this is the case, I find it’s helpful to explain to your audience that you will keep it simple, and should anyone have any questions, you can escalate your complexity on a case by case basis. This allows you to keep your basic users from getting too lost, and keep your power and super users interested.

Quentin Hartman has written a good article about the Difficulty Divide between users of Linux and users of Windows. This type of thought process can help you identify your audience members.

One other important thing to think about, is the motivations for your audience to be there. In my case, all of my audience members were volunteers. They had no obligation to be at my workshops. In some cases this might not be the case. This can make a difference in how you need to approach your audience. If they have a choice, you can focus more on how they can go about doing things they normally would do, like Internet browsing, media consumption, and productivity. If they are present at your workshop because they have to be, you might take more of a training approach. You can spend less time on things that the user might like to do, and spend more on what they need to do.

Step 2: Pick Your Distribution:

After using Fedora, Madrivia, Debian, Puppy, Damn Small Linux, PCLinuxOS, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, and Ubuntu, I decided that the easiest to train new users on was Ubuntu. You may come up with a different conclusion. The important thing is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. I chose Ubuntu because it is scalable to all different types of users. I knew that my audience was going to be a mix of the three categories and I tried to find a distribution that would work for the most new people. In some cases this decision is made for you. In some corporations or schools, the decision has already been made for their own purposes. This has its advantages and disadvantages for you the instructor. The biggest advantage is that you will not have to spend time researching distributions, you can spend that time developing your ideas on what and how to teach your audience about that distribution. The biggest disadvantage is that you might not get the distribution you feel is the best to start new users with.

When choosing a distribution you can ask yourself these questions: Is this distribution catered to new users? Is is good for our organization/corporation/school? Do I know enough about it to show other users? How advanced to my topics need to be? These questions can help guide you to pick a distribution that fits your audience’s needs.

Step 3: Plan Your Lesson

Some people think that they can just show up, show a few features, and just wing it the whole way through. I can tell you from experience, you can easily fall into this trap. The problem with just teaching on the fly is that you will miss some very important information, and your audience will not receive the important facts they need to know. I found it’s best to have a game plan, but to not have a rigid schedule.

The first time I ever had a new users’ workshop, I had been allotted an hour to show the benefits of Ubuntu. I planned for 50 minutes of lecture and 10 minutes of question time. This was almost disastrous. Chances are, if you have a diverse group of people, you are not going to know every possible use a user is going to have for their operation system. They will have questions, and a lot of them. Plan on a lot of time being needed for questions. This can mean that you lecture and take questions afterward, or allow for questions while you are presenting. I found that a 2/3rds rule is pretty effective. Plan on providing 2/3rds of your time in content, and questions will fill the other third. This will obviously be different depending on your audience situation (did I mention step 1 was important?). If you are on a one-on-one basis, it follows that you will have more of a conversation with your audience rather than a lecture hall with 30-40 people, where you might provide more of a lecture experience.

No matter what your format, you should have a set list of topics you wish to cover. Make sure you go over those topics, but allow for your audience to have some control over what you present. This will allow them to ask for information you might not have thought about giving, and allows for you to give them information they might not have thought about asking for. Some good topics to choose from include, but are not limited to: GUI differences, User accounts, Internet browsing, media consumption, productivity, and connectivity.

Step 4: Presentation

Because you are teaching to an audience all public speaking rules apply. Dress appropriately. You want your audience to take you seriously. The more professional you look, the more professional your presentation will be. You need to know your material. Practice it. Make sure everything will work before you do it. Nothing is worse than trying to show how something is done, and having to troubleshoot on the fly. Will you be projecting your presentation on a screen? Do you have enough battery if you don’t have a power outlet? Will you have Internet access in the location you are presenting in? These are things that may seem trivial, but can become a nuisance very quickly if they are not taken care of.

Short demonstrations work the best. For things that take a long time between steps, or for things that take a while to load, it may be a good idea to do the cooking show idea. If you have a piece of software that takes a few seconds to load (like OpenOffice on my slow laptop), you can have them already loaded and ready to go on another virtual desktop. This way you can demo two things at once. Multiple virtual desktops, and the application of choice.

Be friendly. Whether you’re trying to win people over to the enlightened world of FOSS, or in charge of training new users, you are not going to get anywhere if your audience thinks you are acting elitist or rude. A smile and “please and thank you’s” go a long way.

Ask Questions. While your audience is sure to ask you things, you by all means can ask questions of them. One example I use is: “GNU/Linux is an open source operating system. Who here knows what open source means?” If you get lots of hands or bored looks, chances are your audience doesn’t need an explanation. Blank stares probably means a short definition might be in order.

Know your limits. You are not going to do anyone any good if you are trying to impart knowledge to others if you don’t have the knowledge yourself. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, be honest. Most likely they will understand that you can’t know everything and as long as you show a willingness to point them in the right direction, they will be happy. At the end of every session I ever did, I passed out little sheets of paper with URLs for help and other resources. My two favorites are the Ubuntu Forums and the Open Source Alternatives websites.

Step 5: Be Willing to Help

This last step is what will make or break your new users’ experiences. You should be there to help them get over the first few hurdles. They will be unfamiliar with this new environment and will turn to the one person who showed them this new world. It’s up to you to shepherd them for a while until they can stand on their own two feet. If you can, try to teach them how to find their own help. This will help you lessen your help load a lot later on (you catch a fish, you feed them a meal… You teach them to fish, they eat for a lifetime). Be patient. If you were once a person on another OS, remember what it was like for you, and then pretend it was 10 times harder. That’s probably what a novice feels like. If you always grew up with Linux, try learning Windows. That’s what your audience feels like.

Tips:

  • Be polite

  • Speak clearly

  • Have Patience

  • Practice

  • Put yourself in their shoes

  • KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

If you noticed, most of these tips involved very few technical tips, and included lots of personal skills. That’s because content is trumped by the presentation and personality of the trainer.

Hopefully these ideas help someone. If you have other tips, technical or not, please leave a comment with your tips and suggestions.

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