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.
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