Sugar Beyond the XO Laptop: Walter Bender on OLPC, Sucrose 0.84, and “Sugar on a Stick”

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a lot of the netbook manufacturers are working on touch screens, and making Sugar take advantage of touch screens is something we’ll be working on.

But to me, the thing you want in elementary education is a tool that makes writing easy. So I am hoping that the idea of a keyboard isn’t totally abandoned. I think keyboards are the most efficient tools we have for entering text. Onscreen keyboards and pen-based interfaces are nice romantic notions, but they are not very pragmatic.

Now, there is something about using paper and pencil, rather than a computer, that is undoubtedly important, in terms of motor skill development. It’s important to interact with the physical world and manipulate things. But I don’t see it as an either/or proposition—you can have kids be doing lots of things with the physical world and also be using a computer. The big danger is not whether they are using computers instead of paper and pencil, but whether they are using iPods instead of paper and pencil. With these little touch-screen devices, rather than being expressive and making things, are they just consuming information?

X: That leads to a more general question that’s been on my mind lately. If constructionism is about learning-through-doing, don’t you really want kids out in the real world, doing arts and crafts and exploring the woods and collecting specimens? Obviously you can make and explore things on a computer, but in the end, it’s just a flat, 2-D screen. So how big of a role should computers really play in education?

WB: I think that more arts and crafts, more getting out into the woods and collecting specimens—we need all of that. But one of the reasons why OLPC built a laptop is because a laptop can go out into the woods with you. You can take photos of the specimens, and plug in sensors and measure things. While Sugar will run anywhere, a laptop will always be the preferred environment, because a laptop is in vivo. It’s part of life.

It all boils down to this: the only time in school where we do open-ended problem solving—which is the kind of problem solving we encounter in life and on the job most of the time—is in art class. We value the things we measure, and what we measure through standardized testing is closed-form problem solving. So the thing that gets left behind, the thing we do less and less of in school—not because of computers, but because of the methods of measuring—tend to be the arts, construction, expression. So I don’t see it as being a question of the computer versus the physical world. I see that question as being, what are we valuing and measuring as a society in education?

What we’re trying to do with Sugar is not replace interaction with the physical world, by any means. What we’re trying to do is say that whenever you are doing something with a computer, put the opportunity in play so that the learner can actually be expressive and make things. And further, one thing that happens in art class and doesn’t happen elsewhere is that you have this process called a critique. The culture of critique is actually missing from most other disciplines, but one place you do find it is in the open source software community. Nicholas has often accused me of being an open source fundamentalist, and indeed, there are two areas where I do think open source is fundamental. One of them is voting machines [meaning the code running inside these machines—the subject of long debate in election policy circles]. And the other is education. People should be free to appropriate ideas and express them and free to critique them. That is so fundamental in education, and it’s also fundamental to the culture of open source, so it’s a really powerful synergy. What open source has to offer education is not just sharing software, but also sharing this culture of critique. As we fire all of the art teachers in elementary schools, we are losing that. Hopefully, Sugar will be a way to retain it.

X: And to circle back to the beginning—it sounds like the portfolio tool you were talking about is tailor-made for facilitating the critique process.

WB: The portfolio tool is fundamental. That’s why it’s fun. It’s like PowerPoint, but much cooler.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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14 responses to “Sugar Beyond the XO Laptop: Walter Bender on OLPC, Sucrose 0.84, and “Sugar on a Stick””

  1. ms says:

    I wish I could get the Pippy activity by itself so I could use it on other OSs. It’s a great little python learning program that those guys put into the OLPC.

  2. In 2006 I compared the price of a basic PC that year with the equivalent in 1997 and did the same for software designed to be used by the blind. Interestingly enough the price of a basic PC had gone down by over 80% (adjusted for inflation) and the price of software used by most blind students went up by more than 20%. Moral of the story, it is not the hardware we need to worry about, it is the software.

    The same dramatic price drop is taking place with laptops in general and USB Flash drives in particular; and the latter has a much smaller ecological footprint not to mention portability and reduced theft concerns, etc.

    Today I only worry about the software because there are billions being spent to make the hardware better and cheaper while FOSS programs are hard to get a hold of if you are not technically sophisticated. That is why I have adopted the Live USB Flash drive strategy as well; cheap portable and with all the advantages of FOSS. Sugar will now be vastly more successful than OLPC, you can be sure of that.

    Well done!

  3. mark says:

    “the XO laptop would be useless without Sugar”

    I refuse to read the rest of the article based on this statement alone. Mine runs DebXO/Gnome, not Sugar. Goodbye

  4. mark: Funny you should say that given that later in the article they specifically mention that people who are interested in other things besides education can run different distros on it.

  5. Wolfgang Rohrmoser says:

    I also want to mention the XO-LiveCD project.

    You just download an ISO file burn it on a CD
    and you have a running OLPC/Sugar desktop
    with more than 50 activities, collaboration and
    much more …

    Since about 6 month there is also a script included
    which flashes the image on a USB Stick. The
    documentation also explains how the image can
    be easly installed on harddisk parallel to existing
    other operation systems ….

  6. Dave Marney says:

    The link to the TAPortfolio Activity is broken. It should be

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  7. Thanks Dave, I have fixed the link for Wade, who is out on his next interview.

  8. ck says:

    # mark — 2/5/09 4:01 pm
    “I refuse to read the rest of the article based on this statement alone. Mine runs DebXO/Gnome, not Sugar. Goodbye”

    Way to go. Not sure you understand the intent here, as you’re also not an 8 yr old kid in a developing nation. Good you’ve found a nice way to stay close minded though.

  9. Bob says:

    Basically, I’m having an extremely difficult time getting Sugar** running. The flash drive option is awash because changing the bios booting order is more than tricky; the CD option is beyond my understanding. I’m not advanced in my understanding of computers, but I should think such a program should be absolutely easy. At least as easy as they make it sound. How do you run the ISO run CD
    for instance is readily detail….Makes me wonder….