How-to: Six Easy Steps to Creating a PDF for Off-line Studying of WGU E-texts using Ubuntu Linux


I was recently presented with the challenge of figuring out how to convert content from an online text book that I use at Western Governors University (WGU) so that my sister could study when she didn't have access to Internet access in rural Indiana.

Below, you will see my process using Ubuntu Linux.

The Tools

I use Ubuntu Linux for my day-to-day computing, so this tutorial focuses on that tool-set. The general idea could be adapted to Windows or Mac based on the tools they provide or that can be downloaded from shareware sites. I am running various versions of Ubuntu on several desktop computers and a laptop. For my every-day desktop machine, I use an HP tower that has 4 GB of RAM and a single 3.2 GHz Pentium processor. I currently run Ubuntu 10.10 on it. I have the Linux version of Adobe Acrobat reader installed (along with lots of other PDF software that is open-source). I run Mozilla Firefox 11 and the Adobe Flash Player 11 plugin.

If you are running Windows or Mac, please note that you can follow this tutorial in Linux if you run it from a LiveCD or USB thumb drive without needing to change your operating system. You could also use something like Oracle's VirtualBox to install Linux into a virtual machine and run it in a window on your Windows/Mac desktop. This tutorial does not cover those topics, but you can find many easy-to-follow tutorials about them on the Web.

The Process in Linux

Step One: Make sure all software is installed

All of the software should be installed except possibly the PDF printing driver. For Ubuntu users of the most recent (12.04) version, this comes already set up with the base configuration. For Ubuntu 10.10, I had to install the cups-pdf package. Installing it is as easy as opening a terminal window and issuing the command:

sudo apt-get install cups-pdf

This creates a new printer that should be available for all of your desktop programs. Please note that some programs, like OpenOffice/LibreOffice have their own PDF export tools. Here's what you should see in your list of printers.

printers installed in Ubuntu

Step Two: Click on the Print icon in the text reader

I don't know if all text books at WGU use the same text reader, but my Organizational Behavior and other courses that use the CourseSmart interface currently (7/5/2012) have a print icon at the top of the page.

the print button


Step Three: Select the pages to print

Once we click on the print icon, an overlay dialog comes up and asks us what the start page and quantity of contiguous pages we want to print are. You can choose from 1 to 10 pages in the drop down. After you select the pages, hit "Print."

print pages selection dialog

Step Four: Select the PDF printer

Once you hit "Print," you will see that the screen goes gray and a little notification pops up.

downloading pages notification

At the same time, you should notice that the print dialog has popped up.

select the PDF printer

Just select the PDF printer from the list of printers. Just leave the print range blank. Hit Print, and the conversion process starts.

Step Five: Wait...and wait some more

It took my print job about 15 minutes to finish. If you are on a faster computer it might take less time. I don't know what took so long. Maybe it was the Flash plugin or maybe it was the complexity of the print job, but I assume it was the former, because I haven't had to wait that long for other applications to print to PDF before.

Just to make sure it was still printing, I pulled up a terminal window and issued the top command.

top command output

You can see the print job at the top of the list of processes running. The name of the process is gs, which is GhostScript, the Linux program being used to create the PDF file. Notice how it is using right around 100% of the processor power from one of the two hyperthreads available in my processor.

Step Six: Go find your PDF and rename it

The PDF printer will put my PDF files into a folder directly under my home folder: /home/tim/PDF. Often, the PDF file gets named something random, so to make sure it is the file you want, just sort by creation/modification date.

file browser

As you can see, this created a PDF file that was more than 13 MB in size. That's pretty big for a PDF file. It appears that the PDF is made up of several raster images as opposed to a set of selectable text with images. That seems to account for the huge size.

Now all you have to do is rename your file to something sensible, file it in the correct folder, and copy your PDF file to whatever device you want to use to view it offline. There are decent PDF readers for Android and IPad/IPhone available in their respective app marketplaces.

Please note that publishing your new PDF to the Internet is a violation of copyright law and could get you in trouble.

Please give this a shot and let me know if you have any questions, troubles, or feedback by commenting below.