Background to the LibreOffice series

Ken Fallon of Hacker Public Radio (where my audio series airs) asked me to do a show on the background and workflow of my LibreOffice series, and that seems like a fun idea, so here goes.

My Background

For me, the prime motivation is figuring out how things work and then explaining them to others. I started fairly young as a voracious reader (still am), and I devoured books by Isaac Asimov. These included his science fiction novels (I still re-read them every few years), but also his many more numerous non-fiction books. He tells how he responded to the Sputnik launch by deciding to do everything he could to improve science education. What I really liked was his ability to take any topic and explain it in a way that made sense, and I rather hope that some of then rubbed off on me. I leave it to you to decide how well I manage that, though.

In any case I think it set me on a certain path. I recall working in Finance early in my career and having people say I really should be as teacher. And in due course that is what I set out to do. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, and then became an Assistant Professor of Economics at Concordia University. I mostly enjoyed teaching, though the paperwork is something I am glad to rid of. And it did seem like I had a certain talent for it. But while I was pursuing my career as an Economics professor the Internet and the computing revolution were happening, and I got involved in it at my school. My initial focus was on how I could use this technology to improve my teaching (and more importantly, to improve my students’ learning), but I have to say the technology itself kind of sucked me in. I’m sure any geek will understand.

One of the great benefits of my career in teaching is learning how to learn. And a key lesson is that the only way to really learn a subject is to prepare to teach it to someone else. I can even recall being given a class to teach in a subject I did not in the least understand beforehand, but I worked hard and it became a regular part of my load. There is a certain art to learning how to teach something, where you need to break it down and anticipate where the student will have problems. And no matter how detailed you think you have been in giving instructions or explanations, students will still find a way to misunderstand.

I was successful in using computer technology to improve what I did. I taught an Applied Statistics class in the Business Program where I moved the entire class to the computer lab and did everything on computers, for instance. I also developed Web Sites for all of my classes, and saw one of them get picked up by the World Classroom (Economic Geography). And I got ahead of all of my colleagues in doing this, so one day the Academic Dean asked me to take on the role of Faculty Development Officer to focus on helping my colleagues use computer technology. And this eventually lead to me moving into the IT Department and taking on all of the training, including staff.

I still taught classes, though, and I was asked to develop a 6 week seminar in computer technology for our degree completion program. This was aimed at adults with about half of the bachelors degree completed who had stopped to deal with job, family, or other issues, and who now needed to finish their degrees. We required them to demonstrate computer proficiency, and some did by taking a test. But my seminar was the alternative. If they took it and passed, that satisfied the requirement. And the heart of my seminar was Microsoft Office 97 (at the time, this was state-of-the-art <g>), and Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access each got a 3-hour session, with required projects to be handed in using them. This is where I began to formally put together just how you should use each program. I got very good reactions from the students that showed that for most of them this was valuable information they could put to good use. Many of them had put off taking the seminar as long as they could, but after taking it, they complained that they hadn’t had this information earlier to help them with their schoolwork.

Later I got asked to do training for other groups, using different software, like WordPerfect office, and that is when I discovered that all of these programs worked about the same way. If someone wanted me to do training I wold just ask them to give me the software, and in a day or two I could adapt my training materials to the particular software they used. It really meant looking to find which menu hid the feature that I already knew would have to be there. And then I got a request from a teacher in a Lutheran parochial school which did not have much money. She wanted to know about alternatives because Microsoft Office was beyond their budget. And I had just purchased a copy of Star Office to check it out, and while this was a commercial product at the time, it was 1) developed specifically to support schools; and 2) very generously licensed. As I recall for about $500 we could site-license it for the entire school, students, staff, and faculty, and everyone could also install it on their home computer for no additional charge.

Of course, Star Office was later purchased by Sun Microsystems and turned into the open source program OpenOffice.org, and then when Sun was bought by Oracle, it forked and became LibreOffice. And while I use Microsoft Office at work, I use LibreOffice at home, and as a supported of free software I promote it, including doing tutorials on Hacker Public Radio.

BTW, I have since moved on from teaching. No money in it.<g>

Workflow and Process

The starting point for me is research. Of course the LibreOffice Documentation Site is important (there are very detailed guides for each of the components), as is the Document Foundation Wiki. There is the Ask LibreOffice site.  There is also an excellent mailing list called Users. And I also look for articles on the Web. One person I pay close attention to is Bruce Byfield, who is really an expert on LibreOffice, and who is working on a book right now that will focus on Styles and Templates. He writes for a number of publications, so the best way to find his stuff is to follow him on Google+, or do a search on “Bruce Byfield LibreOffice” to get plenty of articles. I will of course be buying his book as soon as it comes out. When I find something that catches my eye, I usually save it in Evernote, which I happen to like enough to get a Pro account. And I want to mention a very detailed and excellent series of articles in Full Circle Magazine written by Elmer Perry. Full Circle is a free electronic magazine you can download. I have written for them before, and was initially considering doing something on LibreOffice, but Elmer’s series is pretty darned good and I don’t know that I could add enough to make it worthwhile.

One of the things I learned from teaching is the importance of being systematic and logical, in particular by writing down the things I need to cover. If I were to just “wing it” everything would be disorganized and out-of-order, even if I know my stuff. By writing everything down first, I can easily fix those “Wait, I forgot a step back there” items that would otherwise mess up my presentation. So step one for me is to always write out, with screen shots, each tutorial, which is then posted to this Web site. This can take me anywhere from a few hours to most of the day. In doing this I am trying to make sure I get everything exactly correct. Frequently I experiment with options to understand exactly what they do. While I rely on the documentation a good deal, in some ways it falls short of what I want to do in explaining things, and that means a lot of experimentation. Only when I have the written version in final form do I move on to recording the audio.

My recording is fairly straightforward. I know Ken always says that audio quality is not the first concern for Hacker Public Radio, but I did invest in a Blue Snowball USB microphone which I know cost me less than US$100. Other than that, I use Audacity on my Kubuntu box to do the recording, and that works fine for me. I will generally boost the volume slightly after I record, but I don’t do any other processing, and so far the audio quality seems to be fine. I export to FLAC at the highest quality setting so that I can give HPR the best starting point. Then I add the tags, work on the Show notes, and FTP the files to the HPR server.

I hope this is of some interest to Ken and the others who seem to be following my series.

LibreOffice at Ohio LinuxFest 2013

I am very excited about an opportunity to teach LibreOffice at Ohio LinuxFest in September. OLF has done something really great, and that is to create a track aimed specifically to new users of Linux, called the Meet the Penguin track, and I have been selected to be a part of it. The idea is to demonstrate to new users just what free software can do. As you know if you have used LibreOffice or have followed my series of posts (and/or the Hacker Public Radio podcasts), LibreOffice is a full-featured office productivity solution that matches in general what Microsoft Office can do. I think if more people were aware of the capabilities this suite has, they would be happy to use it and get off the treadmill of expensive upgrades (now turning into expensive annual subscriptions) that Microsoft Office demands of its users.

If you would like to be a part of the fun, just register for Ohio LinuxFest at http://www.ohiolinux.org/registration. Enthusiast registration is free if you pre-register ($5 at the door for walk-ins), so it is quite affordable. I hope to see many of you there!

LyX – The Document Processor

This is a program I have not yet used, but it looks interesting. I had heard of it before but not looked into it, then a correspondent brought it up today. LyX is a free, program licensed under the GPL V2, and is available on all major platforms. Based on a quick look, it seems particularly suited to writing academic papers, and preparing them to be printed.

My correspondent, Morten Juhl-Johansen Zőlde-Fejér has produced a primer on this which you can read at http://writtenandread.net/lyx/. It looks interesting, check it out.

Don’t Teach Programs!

One of the things that gets me upset is something that happens in schools every day (it happens in other places as well). It is a type of education malpractice, and you’ll know it when you hear someone say that they teach “Microsoft Office”. And I say that not because there is anything wrong with Microsoft Office. Truth be told, it is a fine suite of office productivity software which I use frequently. But I use a lot of programs, including LibreOffice, OpenOffice.org, Corel WordPerfect Office, and at various times I have used ABI word, Quattro, and probably a half-dozen programs I can’t bring to mind right now. And the truth that most people never hear is:

They all do pretty much the same things.

I have taught people to use a lot of these programs, and I teach them the same things regardless of the program used. I never have a problem because I don’t worry about learning the program, I will instead learn the concepts. For example, if you put me in front of a computer that has a new word processing package on it that I have never used, the first thing I will do is figure out where the Templates are and how to set up my Styles. I know those two concepts are key to using a word processing program. And if I don’t find those two are in the program, I know it is not really a word processing program, it is a text editor. There is nothing wrong with being a text editor, it is a tool for a different purpose. But if you don’t understand what it means to do Word Processing, you might not understand what the difference is other than the lack of font choices.

If you teach specific programs you make people dependent on having a specific program. If you teach the underlying concepts, however, you empower people. That said,people who are properly trained will have to understand that how a given program implements a feature may be different. They may use different terminology. I recently heard a complaint that LibreOffice Writer was no good because this person could not do text boxes. And the problem here is that LibreOffice calls them frames, and in fact they are far more powerful than a mere text box. Different terminology was most of the problem here, but the feature was there.

Now, it is true that in some marginal cases there may be differences, but most of the time any feature most people use in any one program will be in all of the others as well. You just need to be flexible.

But stop teaching specific programs. Education ought to be about empowering people, not tying them down.

Separate Presentation From Content – Office Software

In my previous post I made the point that the Web works best when you separate presentation from content. That is good as far as it goes, but I want to now extend the discussion in another direction, and that is how to use Office software to the maximum advantage. This applies to any Office suite, whether you use Microsoft Office, WordPerfect Office, OpenOffice.org, Libre Office, or indeed any other office productivity suite. I have worked with all the above, have trained people in several of them, and have had experience with how powerful these techniques can be. In fact, I developed an 18-hour course for college students that employed these techniques. The students had mostly been putting off taking this course as long as possible because they did not see the need for this. But the University had made this a requirement, and they would frequently take it near the end of their degree program. But after taking the course, I almost always got the reaction that they were angry that they had not had the course at the beginning of the program because it was so useful. This course covered the basics of using Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access), but I have used this approach in training on other office suites with just as much success.

Now, something that just happened to me illustrates a useful point. I was on a Web page, and clicked on a link to a PDF file. The file opened, I read what I wanted to read, and when I was done, by force of habit, I clicked the close button on the upper right to get rid of the PDF file. After all, I was done with it, right? Arrrggghhh! I just closed my browser and all of the tabs I had opened. This is why the first thing I do with a new browser is set it up to always open the tabs I last had opened. But the point I want to make here is that my browser automatically opened and displayed a PDF file. That used to require calling a separate program, but apparently that is no longer necessary. And I suspect we will see more of this. For instance, Google Docs is starting to bring all of your Office documents into the browser. At some point the technology is going to treat any piece of data/text/whatever as raw material and display it. And when that happens, all of the arguments on how to construct proper Web pages will apply equally to constructing Office documents.

That is not all, though. In my day job I am a Project Manager, and I have a need to manage large numbers of documents. Documentation management becomes a real concern, and I have to say that most of the places I have worked do not do a good job of it. I think Microsoft Sharepoint, if used properly, could be a good step in the right direction. And for those who are in as position to go the Open Source route, Alfresco could be the solution. While I generally prefer Open Source solutions, Sharepoint is really pretty good, and if you work in a Microsoft shop you may find it easier to promote as a solution. In either case, all of the issues of semantic encoding, of finding the document you need from a large haystack of documents, still apply.

Going back to my academic days at that university, as I was the Office expert I was given the task of putting together the catalog. What that meant was combining a large number of documents, each from a different department, into something that could be considered a unified whole. And these departments did not make the job easy. No two of them used the same convention for laying out their information. and as I recall none of them used the proper semantic tagging at all. Everything was done using font changes, the space bar, inconsistent lists, and if any of them used tabs at all they did it the wrong way. So my first major task was to go through all of these submissions and use semantic tagging. In word processing programs this is done by using what are called styles, and maybe you can see the relationship between styles and style sheets. They are really the same idea, just applied in different domains.

So the proper way to use a word processing program (and again, this applies to Word, WordPerfect, Write, AbiWord, or any other program out there) is to apply a style to each element, just the way you apply a tag in a Web page. The title of your document should be given a style like Header 1, a major section sub-head should be Header 2, and so on. Now, the word processing programs may take you in the wrong direction  at first because they will have an appearance already assigned, or will ask you to specify an appearance when you use the style. Resist the urge! The point in creating your document should be to get the semantic encoding done correctly. Once that is done, you can assign an appearance to each element, and achieve a unified look-and-feel to your document, or even to a whole group of documents.

I will illustrate this with an example from my academic days. In the early days of using personal computers, they were adopted by universities as a tool for their students and faculty. In one large university, they were adopted for use in Freshman Composition classes. In the U.S. at least, these classes are pretty much universal, as the faculty want to make sure that all students can write papers at a minimal (at the very least) level of competency. At this particular university, they had different sections of the course, some of which used Macintosh computers, and the others using DOS computers running WordPerfect. When they did a comparative study of the writing of these two groups, they found something very interesting. The DOS/WordPerfect group were consistently writing better papers with superior content. This was a surprise, and they looked for any possible correlation that might explain it. But the two groups of students seemed to have comparable grades coming out of high school, they had comparable test scores on the standardized tests used for admission, and in general on all measurements the could think of the two groups were in effect identical, except that one group used Macintosh and the other DOS/WordPerfect.

They finally decided that the most likely explanation lay in what each platform allowed you to do. Macintosh computers were the first to have Graphical User Interface. They came with a variety of font tools, graphics tools, and were in general the first personal computers with a graphic design capability. That is one reason why Macintosh got such a big head start with graphic designers and maintains that to this day. DOS computers running WordPerfect were quite different. In the mid-to-late 1980s, they ran on monochrome screens, and basically you were presented with a black screen with a blinking cursor. In later versions, for early color monitors, the screen became blue instead of black, but otherwise the same: a blank screen with a blinking cursor. The only thing you could do with these computers was write. On a Macintosh, though, you were presented right away with font choices, with graphics choices, page layout considerations, etc. The conclusion of the researchers was that having all of these choices available to the students distracted them from the main point, which was to write good compositions.

Nor is this only applicable to word processing. Another area where this crops up is with presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint, Impress, etc.). Most presentation programs will start you with a choice among graphical templates and similar distractions. Again, resist the urge! To make a good presentation, your first concern should be to logically organize your information. When I am creating a presentation I frequently start with an outline. Many programs will let you take an outline and turn it into a presentation with a few mouse clicks. When you have done so, you can then apply any template you like to give the presentation the graphic look you want.

One other advantage of properly using semantic tagging, which is similar to what we found in looking at Web pages, is that it becomes a real time saver. For instance, suppose you had a long document with a number of sections. Each time you came to a section you could set the appearance of your section header by clicking on the font you want, what size it should be, whether or not it should be indented, and so on. Or you could do it properly by just declaring the element to be a particular header (say Header 2), and then setting the appearance for all Header 2′s in your document. Furthermore, if you need to make a change, for whatever reason, you don’t need to go page by page through the document looking for all of the places that need to be changed. You just change the characteristics of the Header 2 style once and the whole document updates.

So for all of the reasons given, using proper semantic encoding and separating the presentation from the content is just as important in Office software applications as it is in building Web pages. In fact, it is a fundamental principle of good information architecture.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!