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

Many people wouldn’t touch coffee or cereal without sugar. And the XO laptop would be useless without Sugar—the standard, Linux-based graphical interface for the little green laptop, nearly a million of which have been distributed to classrooms in developing countries by the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation.

While OLPC and Microsoft have been talking for nearly a year about shipping XO laptops that run Windows XP rather than Linux and Sugar, that hasn’t yet happened. Which means Sugar and the XO are still cohabitating, despite the acrimonious divorce last year between OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte and Sugar creator Walter Bender, the foundation’s former president of software. In fact, not only are Sugar and all the programs that come with it (“activities,” in Sugar lingo) still the keys to the XO laptop’s educational value, but they’re spreading beyond the XO to other platforms—and may well end up overshadowing the little laptop when it comes time to write the histories of technology and education in the developing world.

Bender came by Xconomy’s Cambridge office yesterday to give us the latest news about Sugar, whose development is now led by Sugar Labs, the non-profit, open source community he set up after leaving OLPC last April. Sugar Labs—which Bender says is based in “cyberspace,” though he himself works from his home office in Newton, MA—provides a forum for the global community of educators and volunteer developers that has sprung up to support and extend Sugar.

Perhaps the biggest piece of news from Sugar Labs is that Sugar is going portable: the community has created a version of the Linux-Sugar stack that can be copied to a so-called “Live USB” thumb drive, which can then be used to boot virtually any laptop or desktop PC into the Sugar environment. Bender calls it “Sugar on a Stick,” and he’s in discussions with USB drive manufacturers to create a branded version that would be available for sale from the Sugar Labs website (though you can also create your own version for free). The implications are big: separating Sugar from the XO means that any child or teacher, in Minneapolis or Mumbai, could take advantage of Sugar’s educational tools without having to wait for OLPC to find funding to get XO laptops into their schools.

And next month, Sugar itself is getting an upgrade, in the form of the next major release, called “Sucrose 0.84.” Bender says he and the Sugar community have built some major improvements into the new release, including a better system for storing and accessing saved work (the Sugar environment is built around an automatic diary called the Journal rather than old-fashioned files and folders); easier ways for users to edit the Python source code underlying Sugar activities; and a portfolio presentation tool designed to make it easier for students and teachers to engage in periodic critiques. As Bender explains, critiques of open-ended problem-solving work—as opposed to standardized testing of students’ performance on closed-form problems like arithmetic or vocabulary questions—are a big element in the constructionist educational philosophy from which Sugar grew.

When OLPC announced drastic staff cuts last month, the last two people who were being paid full-time to work on Sugar development lost their jobs. And Sugar Labs has yet to raise the money Bender says it needs to bring the community together for more face-to-face brainstorming and software critiques. But overall, it sounds like the split between OLPC and the Sugar community may end up being a healthy one, with each platform now free to develop in its own direction. Indeed, Bender says “a lot of people have actually come forward now [to help with Sugar] because they see a cleaner separation between the two organizations.”

Certainly, “Sugar on a Stick”—or on a netbook, or another low-cost laptop like the ASUS Eee PC—could help the software find its way into classrooms around the world much faster than OLPC is able to build and distribute XOs. And if there’s one thing Negroponte and Bender agree about, it’s that the One Laptop effort is about learning, not about hardware.

An edited version of our interview follows.

Xconomy: Thanks for coming by. So, where are you with Sugar?

Walter Bender: [Holding up a USB thumb drive] This is where we are. Live USB is going to be a really big part of Sugar in the next year or two, because it’s an easy way in the door. Most schools’ IT departments don’t even let teachers install software. The overhead associated with large IT infrastructures forces these people to be very conservative about adopting new ideas. So having Sugar on a stick means we can hand this to a teacher or a student and they don’t have to have any impact on the existing infrastructure at all. They can be off to the races using Sugar and all its advantages, in a computer lab, a classroom, at the library, at home, on their parent’s computer, at an Internet cafe—wherever they can get a computer that they can boot off a USB, which is most computers these days. Everything is stored on the USB, so essentially, your schoolwork walks around with you, in the form of your journal. We think it’s going to really make Sugar a lot more accessible.

X: It sounds like “Sugar on a Stick” lets you pretend you’re using an XO laptop, without actually having one.

WB: You get all the advantages of the XO software environment, but you don’t need to be tied to any particular hardware. You don’t even need a laptop—you could do it with a desktop. So, that’s a big thrust, in terms of our strategy for outreach and getting Sugar into the hands of more kids.

X: But if you boot into Sugar on a home computer or a library computer, aren’t you missing the mesh networking built into the XO and the collaboration aspect that’s so important to the pedagogical theory behind Sugar?

WB: When you stick in the Live USB, you’ve got Sugar and you’ve got collaboration. You might not be doing the collaboration through peer-to-peer networking; you might be doing it through Jabber [an open-source instant messaging platform]. But the mesh-networking is not necessary to make Sugar work. It’s a nice-to-have. And one issue with a lot of schools is that they don’t want kids using the Internet—-they want to keep the kids containerized. With Live USB, you could run a classroom environment over a local Jabber server and have the kids collaborate without ever going out onto the net.

X: What are your plans for distributing the USB version? Can people make their own?

WB: If you’ve got a blank USB drive, you can download the Sugar image off our website. For Windows and Ubunto and Fedora, there are utilities for writing the image to a USB key. There must be one for the Mac as well. At conferences, we set up little USB stations so that if you’ve got a key, you can walk up and we’ll make you an image right there. I’m also talking with a couple of USB manufacturers about making a branded “Sugar on a Stick” USB key. We could even sell them on the website.

X: What about getting Sugar onto other platforms?

WB: We’re continuing to work closely with OLPC on all their deployments. The talk about putting Windows on the XO has been going on for 18 months and there is not a single Windows deployment on OLPC hardware anywhere in the world, because it doesn’t work yet. So OLPC and Sugar are still very tightly related. But we’re also working with a number of other laptop manufacturers. For example, there is a MIPS-based machine called Gdium . They’re building some exciting hardware, and we’re talking with them about how to get Sugar on that. We’ve also ported Sugar to all the major netbook configurations, so it now runs on the [ASUS] Eee PC, the [Intel] Classmate, on any of those devices, essentially. So again, what we’re trying to do is broaden the choice of hardware, so that people can use Sugar on whatever hardware they can get their hands on.

X: You also have a major new release of Sugar coming out—Sucrose 0.84. What’s new and interesting in that release?

WB: Yes. We are actually about to have our second major release since we’ve been standing on our own. It’s coming out in March. The new features coming in 0.84 are mostly in the area of what we call the Journal. The Journal is a core Sugar idea; it keeps track of everything you do. It’s your diary. What we’ve done with this new release is, we’ve just done a much better job of integrating the Journal into Sugar as a whole. We’ve separated the Journal into two components. One is actions or verbs, and the other is objects or nouns, to make it easier to organize.

X: What do you mean by verbs and nouns?

WB: Right now, we record in your journal not just what you make but how you make it. But in the earlier version, people were a little bit confused about whether they were actually accessing the program they used to make an object, or were accessing the object itself. We’ve brought more clarity to that. We’ve also made it a lot easier to retrieve things you’ve been working on. In earlier versions, you had to go into the Journal to get a recent document, and now the recent documents are directly accessible from the Sugar equivalent of the Start menu. It makes it a lot more fluid and accessible.

But there’s a pedagogical aspect to the work as well. I’ve been working very closely with a Boston University professor, Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, on a portfolio activity. The idea is that you don’t just have this collection of things, but you also have a tool that allows you to make a presentation. Maybe it’s once a month or once a semester—however often the teacher wants to do it–but the idea is you can go in and select the things that were the important moments from that term and make a portfolio presentation of those moments. It’s a nice balance to the standardized testing that seems so prevalent in the world these days. There are actually whole nations moving toward portfolio assessment, including the UK, and it’s becoming much more prevalent in this country.

So we have a really nice portfolio tool built into Sugar that allows you to take this history of what you’ve learned and use it as the focal point for a conversation between the learner, the teacher, and the parent…We don’t just capture what you have made, but we also capture the process. So we have a little thumbnail associated with everything you do. A description of what you did in the journal automatically becomes the text of your slide. When I give conference talks now, I use the Sugar portfolio tool.

X: Both the Journal improvements and the portfolio tool sound like they’re intended to adapt Sugar to fit better with practices in the classroom.

WB: Part of it is to make it fit better into the classroom, and part of it is that these are just sound pedagogical ideas. These are things we’ve had on the plate from the very beginning, but we have finally found the opportunity to implement them. It’s been part of the Sugar master plan from the very beginning.

X: What else is new in Sucrose 0.84?

WB: One thing that’s pretty exciting is that we’ve had this concept in Sugar from the very beginning called “View Source,” yet it was implemented in only a very small number of Sugar activities. We’ve expanded it in the new release so that every activity has a View Source functionality. What we’re trying to focus on is making Sugar a practical tool. One of the things that has happened over the last six months is that some of the teachers involved in Sugar have started to band together and have been quite vocal in the development community. The teachers in Latin America, especially, have been blogging and have been very active in the e-mail lists, and voicing things that they need—saying, wouldn’t it be great if we had this or that. So we’re trying to narrow the gap between what a Sugar developer can do and what a Sugar user can do, and View Source is part of that. As it stands, if all you do is pop into a Python editor, it’s a pretty steep climb for most people. I’ve been working on a series of smaller steps to allow the teachers and learners to acclimate to the idea of making modifications [to a Sugar activity].

X: Can you give me an example?

WB: One of the programs that I’m the maintainer of in Sugar is a programming environment called Turtle Art. It lets you snap together instructions called bricks to teach a little turtle to run around the screen to make pictures. It’s a very expressive program, but it’s also a limited expression, in the sense that all it can do is make graphics, so it’s got a very low ceiling. There are different strategies for letting the learner reach beyond Turtle Art without having the steps be too steep. One of the first things I did was make it so that you could export from Turtle Art into a traditional Logo environment. So that’s a transition path into a full-featured language. But I also decided that there were other things that would be interesting to explore. So rather than having all the bricks be predetermined, I added a brick where you can type in mathematical functions, like a square root function. That was one of the things the Uruguayan teachers had been asking for. It was easy for me to do, but making a brick like that would be a little too difficult for most teachers.

That was fine as far as it went, but it still didn’t get them any deeper understanding of how this thing works. It doesn’t get them inside. So I added another brick called a “no-op” brick that lets you edit that Python module. So you’re writing code in the style that the rest of Turtle Art is written in, and it gets you a little bit closer to the code, and it lets you do essentially anything. You’re not restricted to a simple set of mathematical functions. The idea is that, without having to worry about the mechanics of how the graphics or the user interface elements are handled, Turtle Art is suddenly extensible, so that teachers and students themselves can approach these things.

The Uruguayans I mentioned who had wanted the square-root function then said they wanted to build a program to draw Mind Maps, and this time they did it themselves. In fact, a lot of Sugar development is happening now out in the field and then being shared with the rest of the world. The whole idea of Sugar is to enable that kind of code development.

X: So you’re saying the new no-op brick you added is an example of bringing the View Source function to more areas of Sugar?

WB: Yes, the point of this long-winded story about the no-op brick is that the step from here to there was too big a leap for most people, so we’ve been adding a number of affordances into Sugar to make it easier for people to take advantage of the View Source function. Every activity now has a special case where View Source will go directly into the Python editor—but I’m trying to set a precedent where we have this concept of editing a module as opposed to editing a whole activity, to provide a stepping stone.

I’ve said this over and over again since the early 1990s, but the reason why the Web took off as a protocol is that the Mosaic browser had a View Source menu item, which meant that anybody using the Web could also create things for the Web. The idea with Sugar is that anyone using Sugar should also be able to create things with Sugar. And just as HTML editors and word processors that exported HTML made building Web pages accessible to a lot more people, so Sugar is entering a phase of having a set of tools for creation.

X: Unfortunately, the problem with a lot of those HTML editors, like FrontPage or Dreamweaver, was that they evolved to the point where the HTML code they were churning out was no longer human-readable or accessible to amateurs like myself.

WB: That’s something we’re trying to avoid with Sugar. We’re trying to keep things relatively simple. But there are two schools of thought. One is that the world is complex and we should make tools to reduce the complexity and bring everything within the reach of people. That is called human-centric design. The other school says that the world is complex and we want people to reach for that complexity, because that is the interesting stuff. That is called learning-centric design. Sugar is about learning-centric design. We have simple tools, but we want people to use those tools to reach for more complexity. It’s like when you’re buying wine. You’re looking for wine that has complexity.

X: Let’s talk about the changes at the One Laptop foundation, which laid off half its staff in January. How has that affected the Sugar project?

WB: It directly affects the Sugar project in the sense that the two people at OLPC who were being paid to work on Sugar aren’t being paid anymore. But those people are still working on Sugar as part of the volunteer community, which is how the rest of us are also working. Since the OLPC announcement, there has actually been more Sugar activity than before. The Fedora community, for example, has really risen to the occasion, saying they are still interested in this and that they’re going to support it and bring a lot more resources to the table. The Debian and Ubuntu communities have said the same. [Fedora, Debian, and Ubuntu are all variants of the Linux operating system.–Ed.] In some sense, I think a lot of people were holding back because of the perception of an exclusive relationship between Sugar and OLPC, and as much as I like the OLPC mission, the OLPC laptop is not the only game in town. I think a lot of people have actually come forward now because they see a cleaner separation between the two organizations.

X: Will the XO laptop continue to ship with Sugar on it, for the foreseeable future?

WB: Right now, I don’t think there’s any other choice. You can run other Linux distributions on the XO laptop, and have a traditional desktop instead of Sugar, and that’s attractive to some of the people who are using the XO hardware for things other than learning. But again, every single OLPC deployment to date is a Sugar deployment, and we are certainly very interested in keeping those deployments and making them successful.

X: Are you or were you getting any financial support from OLPC in return for supplying the operating environment for the laptops?

WB: No. What we’ve gotten from OLPC over the last year since Sugar spun out is some in-kind engineering help—those two people who were paid to work on Sugar. That in-kind engineering support is ending. But it will come from other places, I hope. And I’m hoping that OLPC will continue to be able to support Sugar from the perspective of deployment. Their new focus is on deployment, and I think that’s a wonderful thing for them to be doing. Sugar Labs itself is not doing deployment—that’s happening through partnerships like the one with OLPC. So there is a lot of mutual benefit associated with their deploying Sugar. And in fact, I’m going from here over to OLPC, because I’ve got a number of questions about how we can make sure that the new March Sugar release is on track with the next round of OLPC deployments.

X: Can Sugar Labs survive and thrive without sponsorship from an organization with a real budget, like OLPC? Can it keep going forever as a self-sustaining volunteer community, like the other Linux sub-communities?

WB: In the long term, I thing Sugar has to remain a community project. There will occasionally be people who are hired to work on certain things because they’re of interest to a particular company. A particular device manufacturer might decide they want to do a big Sugar push, and they might hire some engineers to make sure that Sugar is really fine-tuned for their platform. But as a whole, Sugar Labs itself is going to remain essentially a volunteer organization. Right now we are operating on a budget of zero, and we have for almost a year. While I would love to raise some money—and I have a big stack of grant rejections—we’re going to keep going without it. And the money that I’m trying to raise is not for software development. It’s for enhancing the community—for finding more face-to-face time so that people can exchange ideas. That’s not lots of money, and I’ll find the right way to raise it. I have to admit that rather than spending as much time on fundraising as I should have, I’ve been spending more time on code, because it’s a lot more fun. But I’m going to start to be a lot more disciplined.

Also, we called it Sugar Labs, plural, purposely. The idea is that there will be local, regional Sugar Labs springing up around the world, and a lot of those efforts are beginning to get some traction, although none of them are officially off the ground yet. There are two or three Sugar Labs that are in the works in South America, and there are a couple of efforts to get Sugar Labs off the ground in Europe and Asia. The idea is that those regional Sugar Labs could very well be for-profit, and could be hiring people, while the central Sugar Labs builds consensus around goals and maintains some basic infrastructure. The local Sugar Labs would be determining how they can best use Sugar with local communities, and they’d be much more deployment-focused.

X: Nicholas Negroponte and others at OLPC have talked about a dual-screen, touch-based, keyboardless device as model for the second-generation XO. Would Sugar work on the “XO 2.0,” or would it have to be significantly rewritten?

WB: I don’t really know anything about it. I know nothing about what the user-interaction paradigm is going to be. I do know that 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.

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 http://sugarlabs.org/go/Activities/TAPortfolio

    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….