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Walter Bender Discusses Sugar Labs Foundation

In April, Professor Walter Bender resigned from the highly publicized One Laptop Per Child project. While his departure has caused a lot of speculation as well as commotion within the open source community, the former One Laptop Per Child president of software and content has simply moved forward. Bender has turned his attention towards the launch of Sugar Labs, an organization that will refine the development of the Sugar user interface.

Laptop.orgBender, currently on sabbatical from MIT, offers the following description of the Sugar Labs concept on his web page. Sugar Labs is “a non-profit foundation that serves as a support base and gathering place for the community of educators and software developers who want to extend the Sugar platform and who have been creating Sugar-compatible applications.”

Bender further explains, “Sugar is an educational software platform built with the python programming language and is based on the principles of cognitive and social constructivism.” One critical focus of the organization is to create distributions of Sugar for multiple hardware and open-source platforms.

Prior to the launch of Sugar Labs, Professor Bender had taken a two-year leave from MIT in order to join One Laptop Per Child. On his web page Bender described the not-for-profit foundation O.L.P.C. as seeking to “revolutionize how the world’s children engage in learning.”

The man who states simply that the best thing about MIT is the students, has drawn praise from the open source community for stepping down from O.L.P.C. at the time the project began working with Microsoft. At we offer him thanks for taking some of his time to inform our readers about the Sugar Labs project.

It is our understanding that your departure from the O.L.P.C. project was based on your assessment that you could have greater “open-source learning software impact from outside of O.L.P.C. than from within.” Could you provide us with an explanation of how you see this happening?

MIT.eduI am not quite sure where you got that quote from; I think that from outside of O.L.P.C., I can have a bigger impact on learning through helping to foster the development and distribution of an open-source learning platform (Sugar). By no longer being tied to a specific platform and Linux distribution, I can try to reach a broader audience of developers and users of Sugar. For example, since founding Sugar Labs, we have been in discussions with four hardware manufacturers.

Could you explain to readers what, in your view, is meant by an open-source (FOSS) fundamentalist. I understand that you consider yourself a learning fundamentalist. Could you explain the difference in these two concepts?

I can only speculate as to what was meant by the characterization “open-source fundamentalist”. I suppose it was said in the mistaken belief that I am more interested in advancing the cause of free and open-source software (FOSS) than improving the tools for learning. In terms of learning, I am steadfast in my belief that we need to be fostering the appropriation of knowledge, not just access to it. We should provide tools that skew the odds towards appropriation, without being proscriptive. For example, you could give a child a book as a PDF file or in a Wiki format. In both cases, the child can read the book. But the choice of representation does make a difference: the chances that the child will add a comment to a PDF file, which is read-only, are much less than to a Wiki page, which has built-in affordances for annotation.

Bringing the concepts together, the culture that is embodied in the FOSS movement — a meritocracy that is built upon both collaboration and critique — is synergistic with some core principles of learning, so, where possible, I try to embrace that culture. (The guidelines when I was still at OLPC were to choose FOSS tools over proprietary tools when there was not a significant difference in terms of the impact on learning.)

Could you take a few moments to explain the Sugar Labs open-source education software, how that fits with O.L.P.C. and what you see as the future of the Sugar Labs open-source software beyond O.L.P.C.?

Sugar revisits how computers can be used for education: it explicitly promotes sharing and collaborative learning. At its core is the concept of an “Activity”. Activities are software applications such as a web browser, a word processor, or even a calculator, that, when “Sugarized”, are enhanced by three key features: (1) the application is readily shared with others; for example, to share what you are reading with others requires just one “button click”; in the word processor, Sugar provides the ability to do peer-to-peer editing, again with just one click; a chat window is always available for seeking help, sharing ideas, or exchanging data; (2) a journal entry is created every time an application is run; not only are files and data automatically saved, but a diary is created so that a child, his/her teacher, and parents can monitor progress; and (3) applications run full-screen in a simplified framework, yet there is no upper bound on the complexity that can be reached; for example, TamTam, a music Activity that is bundled with Sugar, enables a child to progress from playing a single instrument to layering multiple instruments and rhythms to playing music in synchrony with other children to composing music to designing new instruments to programming music.

Sugar was originally developed for the OLPC XO-1 laptop, but it has recently been ported to a number of other computing environments, thus making it available to anyone who has access to a computer. This work was done by volunteers in the FOSS community.

In a recent New York Times article, we read that the “Sugar software that provides the user interface for O.L.P.C. laptops is the means toward the end of a ‘constructionist learning model’.” The article further states that you see this approach as building upon the conceptual work of Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert. Could you explain to readers what this constructionist learning model consists of?

“Constructionism” is a theory of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert. Papert first started developing the theory as a student of Piaget in the early 1960s. Over the course of more than 40 years of research and practice, Papert and his students found that children learn best when they are in the “active role of the designer and constructor” and that this happens best in a context where the child is “consciously engaged in constructing a public entity” — something “truly meaningful” for the learner. Further, the creation process and the end product must be shared with others in order for the full effects to take root.

According to that same Times article, you indicated that the Sugar experience is all about having a positive impact on education. Could you explain what you meant by this statement?

As I explained above, Sugar provides simple and readily available affordances for learners engaging in construction and sharing the process and end products with others. Thus, while it isn’t proscriptive about learning, Sugar provides a fluid means to engage in constructionist learning — which has a demonstrably positive impact on learning.

We understand you have begun putting your time and energy into According to the site, “Sugar reinvents how computers can be used for education. It promotes sharing and collaborative learning and gives children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms.” Can you elaborate on these statements and explain for readers what the Sugar Labs wiki is all about?

Sugarlabs.orgThe Sugar Labs wiki serves as a mechanism for supporting the Sugar community of volunteers. These volunteers are engaged in a variety of activities: some are writing software to improve Sugar; some are porting Sugar to new platforms; some are developing new activities that run in Sugar; some are helping to debug Sugar and help with quality assurance; some are writing documentation for Sugar developers and for those who use Sugar in the field; some are developing new scenarios for learning with Sugar; some are using Sugar and reporting upon their experiences to the community; and some are providing help and support.

Could you explain briefly what will make Sugar different from other educational projects underway and the rationale for you putting your energy into this endeavor?

Sugar is at present unique in the way in which it provides affordances for collaboration for all applications. Seeing children around the world learning with Sugar has convinced me that it is a powerful tool that should be made more widely available.

Is there anything specifically that you would like to say to our readers regarding the Sugar Labs site?

Please visit the wiki and contribute to the effort; Sugar is being developed for the world’s learners and it will always be free – as in speech and as in price – so feel free to both use it and help us improve it. You don’t have to be a programmer to participate. Educators may want to join the discussion about technology and learning.


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