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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: Uberstudent.com

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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