Linux distro watch: UberStudent

UberStudent has been built from the ground-up to be both educate its users and to deliver the tools necessary to succeed in tertiary education

What differentiates UberStudent from other Linux distribution designed for tertiary education is that it delivers "pedagogical cohesion" says Stephen Ewen.

"Standard Linux desktops are barebones," partly due to the legacy of having to fit on a single CD, says Ewen, "and in a lot of ways assume you already know Linux, or else have weeks or even months to climb a learning curve to learn how to customise it for a particular task set."

By contrast the Linux distribution that Ewen is at the helm of – the education-focused UberStudent – "responds by providing a complete, out-of-the-box system not just for doing every day home computing tasks, as does a standard desktop, but for learning, doing, and teaching the core academic skills required to excel in higher education, regardless of the academic major.”

"Those core areas are research and writing, studying, and self-management. As students learn the core programs in UberStudent, they learn the skills and habits required for academic success," Ewen adds

At a glance

Distribution: UberStudent
Maintainer: Stephen Ewen
Latest version: 3.0 'Plato' (released June 2013) Website:

The system comes preinstalled with the software most tertiary students are likely to need. But more than that, it's designed to step users through the system, educating them about how to use the OS productively in a higher education system.

For example the first time a user opens LibreOffice, they are prompted to run a tutorial that makes sure they don't run into interoperability issues in a still Microsoft Office-dominated area.

"Another example: Students just starting out in college may not even know about note-taking or bibliographic software – they typically don't!" Ewen says.

"In a standard Linux desktop, one can search in, say, the Ubuntu Software Center, for 'notes' and come up with about two dozen or so entries. Users can feel confident that the pre-installed program KeepNote in UberStudent is an excellent, well-thought-out choice, plus they can open an example semester of academic work organized in KeepNote from the UberStudent menu, to get a really good idea of how to go about productively using the program."

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UberStudent is derived from Ubuntu, though Ewen says he is considering shifting to directly using Debian as a base in the future. Although system packages are sourced from Ubuntu's repositories, Ewen has also set up his own repositories that contain "everything that differentiates UberStudent from upstream Ubuntu". The UberStudent repositories currently contain several hundred packages, and this number is set to grow.

"This is the same strategy that distros such as Linux Mint have taken," Ewen says.

"The vast majority of Linux distros based upon Ubuntu that one can find at, say, DistroWatch, don't have their own repos, but simply re-mix entries from the Ubuntu repository, and some may add some PPAs [Personal Package Archives] from Ubuntu's Launchpad.

"UberStudent contains no PPAs, but in addition to using its own repository and the upstream Ubuntu repositories, relies on the official Dropbox, Skype, and Oracle (for VirtualBox) repositories to provide those three programs."

The first version of UberStudent, based on Ubuntu 10.04, was released in July 2010 and received a warm reception, with press coverage-driven Web traffic occasionally taking down the distro's online presence. Interest waned somewhat due to the large gap between 1.0 and 2.0, Ewen says, but version 3.0 – Plato – was released in June this year and has been well-received, taking top spot on DistroWatch's ranking of education-focused distros.

"Version 3.0 takes UberStudent to the level it has needed to go to, technically, with everything that makes it UberStudent packaged and in the UberStudent repository, so updates and any needed bug fixes are very quick," Ewen says.

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UberStudent: Origins

The distribution is a product of Ewen's own experience of tertiary education, and the struggle that he had to find the tools he needed as a student. The process was time-consuming, “and the result was ultimately piecemeal not to mention remarkably expensive since I had not yet made a transition to Linux,” Ewen said.

And the process was not always smooth: "I'll never forget having to reformat my entire 55-page thesis just days before it was due, because MS Word working with EndNote had somehow put some funky formatting in to it that even Microsoft support could not figure out. I ended up pasting the whole thing into Notepad, and reformatting and re-citing everything."

After graduation Ewen made a complete transition to Linux. "Meanwhile, I worked with academically struggling students in higher ed," Ewen says.

"I found that the academic frustrations of many students were partly rooted in the fact that secondary and higher education institutions just don't tend to explicitly teach students how to do computing for specifically academics, or if they do it at all, do a very poor job of it, devoting time to things like how to set one-inch margins in MS Word for MLA formatting, how to use a search engine and navigate the online library catalogue, some basic information literacy, and the like.

"Those are all fine things, but if you really think about it, those are skills that students should be fluent in by the time they even enter secondary school."

Ewen says the experience of college student Abbie Schubert, who blamed a Dell-sold laptop preloaded with Ubuntu for wreaking havoc with her education, had an impact on him too.

"Most Linux geeks scoffed, but I could see and understand her experience from her perspective, because I worked with students like her every day."

"I began UberStudent to do something about all that," he says, "to create a platform for learning, doing, and teaching academic success at the advanced secondary and higher educational level.

"Not only was no one in the Linux world doing that, but no one with any platform was doing it – there was no unified, ready-to-go platform that students could just install and start using, and in that very process, learn the core tasks and habits required to really excel in their studies, and not only that, transition to being a highly computer fluent individual, due to the nature of FOSS and how UberStudent does not needlessly obscure system functions as Windows, Mac, and yes, even a lot of other Linux distributions do."

"It personally irks me to no end, for example, that Windows by default hides even file extensions from users," he adds.

"Whether the point of such obfuscation is deliberate or not, the end result is that it keeps people ignorant, dependent users of their products, which they carry in to professional life after graduation. And it certainly would help explain Abbie Schubert's experiences. She had learned helplessness."

Ewen says that he knew that many decision-makers in higher-education "just don't typically have FOSS, and even less so Linux, on their radar, unless it's to circulate Abbie Schubert's story among themselves".

"Part of the reason for that is simply because a lot of the higher ed decision-makers are a lot less technically sophisticated than one might hope, plus they are typically inundated with software marketing from well-heeled vendors; so, it is relatively easy for them to find a big name, work out and submit a proposal, ultimately have a check cut to some vendor, and then go on to the next thing, not even aware that reduced student learning may the unseen costs.

"Don't get me wrong: these decision-makers are typically good-hearted and are sincerely very interested in student learning, but alternatives just may not yet be on their radar. A point of UberStudent is to put a highly compelling, out-of-the-box alternative for academic computing on their radar, which is something no other Linux distro really does."

Applications that ship with the distro are packed with examples and readymade templates for students.

"In a Windows or Mac desktop, default templates are geared for business. In a normal Linux desktop distro, you're on your own to figure out templates even exist, and then how to install them," Ewen says.

The distro also has a focus on providing applications that are also available on other platforms: "People don't foremost use an operating system for its own sake, but because it runs desired programs. If Linux runs those programs stably, then paying for Windows or Mac becomes less desirable. Vendor lock-in is undesirable for Linux-only programs, just as it is anywhere else. To increase Linux adoption, make Linux less relevant."

Behind the scenes

The distro is driven primarily by Ewen, but leading up to 3.0 he worked with a number of upstream software authors to fix bugs before the release.

"I am an educator first and a developer second, so I have been learning development as I go," Ewen says. He credits this as a key factor that differentiates the distro from other Linux-based offerings that target education markets.

He says some alternative distros have tended to "take a bunch of applications from the 'education' and/or 'science' category and throw them in to the Education, Science, and Games menus."

"UberStudent's design is one of pedagogical cohesion," Ewen adds.

"I am only half-kidding when I say that, whatever Linux distro people currently use or develop for, UberStudent is more important. This is because I think the single most important key to increasing FOSS and Linux adoption in all sectors everywhere is to increase it in specifically the higher education sector – not in the computer science departments, but in the computer labs that students from across the campus use every day.

"The reason is simple: Because it is when people are young and being educated that lifelong habits are most formed. What students use while in school, they will very strongly tend to use wherever they go after they graduate. Microsoft knows this, which is why their software is comparatively very inexpensive for educational institutions over businesses." ("Get 'em while their learnin' and we got 'em while their earnin'," he adds)

Free software in higher education

"I find it something of a tragedy that the very institutions that we as a society depend upon to educate our citizens have so allowed themselves to be susceptible to high-powered marketing by closed-source software vendors," UberStudent's Stephen Ewen says.

"That is software that, by its built-in design, is intended to keep users in a perpetual cycle of dependence and what I call learned ignorance – what Abbie Schubert was afflicted with. While it is true that users of proprietary software will learn which buttons to push, that is not the sort of computer literacy, and more so, computer fluency, that 21st century knowledge workers will really need, and increasingly every serious job is also a seriously tech job."

Ewen sees signs of progress on this front in a number of Asian countries where free and open source software is more widespread in education.

As with other free software, the freedom of UberStudent is not limited to the ability to obtain and share it without paying a licence fee: Its users can examine how it works and even modify or improve it.

"When source is not obscured, students more naturally move beyond knowing which buttons to push, to knowing the how and why, which exactly is the enormous difference between computer literacy and computer fluency," Ewen says.

"Closed-source software promotes user dependence on the software owner who keeps users dependent by producing learned ignorance among the software's users. This is an essential and built-in 'feature' of all closed-source software, and the tragedy is that it finds such a happy home in the very institutions designed to educate citizens."

Looking forward

Ewen intends the release of the next version of UberStudent – 4.0 – to be accompanied by a "huge promotional push" to get the distro into the hands of even more students and educators. He's also putting together an advisory board that can help steer the direction the distribution takes in the future.

The distro creator is looking at ways to deliver more integrated interfaces for research and writing in UberStudent 4.0. For example, drawing inspiration from academic word processing suite Nota Bene or extending a KeepNote-style application to interface with Zotero, which can be used to organise research sources, and the Freeplane mind-mapping tool.

"The DocEar project looks somewhat promising, too, but there are some limitations in it that would have to be overcome, and I ultimately think it is very important to get away from any dependency on LibreOffice," Ewen says.

"Also slated for 4.0 is a software center for UberStudent that is entirely Web-based, and of course slanted toward making software for education easy to find and install. Plans are to package a lot of software that has never yet been packaged in to the Debian file format. A lot of that will require packagers who are considerably more experienced than me."

He also wants to expand UberStudent's documentation and add the project's source code to Github.