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Walter Bender on the Sugar Software for OLPC

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project (see Wikipedia), founded by Nicholas Negroponte (co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory) has reopened its Give One Get One program (see Wikipedia) so you can donate an XO laptop for a child for $199, or to get a laptop and donate a second for $399 (purchase through Amazon.com).

The OLPC XO was designed for use by for the world's poorest children, as a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. It includes a rugged plastic exterior and membrane-covered keyboard, rotating display (readable under direct sunlight), plus built-in wireless (the side antennas cleverly rotate down lock the cover closed).

The OLPC XO runs custom-designed software called Sugar, designed for children to encourage exploration, creativity, and collaboration. (The OLPC also announced last May that it would also offer a version of Microsoft Windows.)
(Main screen with views (network, activities) at top, activities at bottom.)

The Sugar development platform is now available as stand-alone software from Sugar Labs, a non-profit foundation formed to produce, distribute, and support the use of Sugar as a learning platform (see Wikipedia).

Walter Bender is the founder of Sugar Labs, and former president for software and content for the original development of the software at OLPC.

Bender spoke last night about Sugar to the Princeton, N.J. joint chapters of the ACM and IEEE Computer Society.

Bender's focus is on building an open community around Sugar, and, especially with the availability of more and more inexpensive "netbook" computers, moving it away from dependence on any particular hardware platform.

The Sugar development platform is freely available under the open-source GNU General Public License (GPL) to anyone who wants to extend it. It can run as a session on many GNU/Linux distributions including Debian, Ubuntu, Gentoo, and Fedora. It also can be booted from CD or a USB drive ("Sugar on a stick") to run on a computer without touching the existing hard drive. And a Windows version is in progress.

Sugar avoids the multi-window desktop metaphor of files and folders for a more simple approach of focused "activities," which include the application, data, and associated history. Everything is saved automatically, and the system keeps a "journal" or diary of all your activities so you can review and reflect on your work. And collaboration is "one click away," as the activities encourage working with other children in a local / mesh network.

The Sugar activities include traditional word processing, painting, book reading, and Web browsing, plus a calculator and games. But the real focus is on getting children involved and exploring and creating their own experiences, with deeper tools like photo, video, and audio capture, basic Logo language Turtle Art, TamTam music composition, Distance measuring between two laptops, and Measure with oscilloscope.

But this is only the first level -- the children (and teachers) can dig deeper, from simple music generation to composition to scoring too instrument creation. Or from Turtle Art, to full Logo, down to the Python programming language / environment in which Sugar is built. You can drill down into whatever level of complexity you need -- Bender notes that the world is complex, and we humans appreciate the complexity (do you ever go to the wine store and look for a simple wine?).

Bender is seeing real understanding of the possibilities of this kind of open software environment as he works with teachers and children in areas like Peru. Teachers are taking up the challenge of extending the system to add capabilities they need (such as new math functions), and children are using the software to contribute to their communities (helping to find the best site for a reservoir).

Interestingly, Bender sees the Free and Open Source Software idea (FOSS, see Wikipedia), as a great model for learning as well, with its focus not only open collaboration, but also open critiques as part of the community as well.

There are plenty of opportunities for help out -- The Sugar Labs community is not only helping with the design and development of new activities, but also providing services including testing, support, and documentation.

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