Sugar Labs’ Walter Bender on the Sweetness of Collaborative Learning

Walter Bender was one of the first people to be involved in the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which seeks to make portable computers affordable and place them in the hands of children who need them across the globe.

While at OLPC, Bender was president of software and content. Last month, he left OLPC to form Sugar Labs, which exists to develop and improve the Sugar user interface, an open source software layer originally designed for OLPC’s XO laptop.

His departure coincided with the announcement by OLPC that it would begin offering Microsoft Windows as an operating system option for the XO.

Sweetening the Learning Process

LinuxInsider: What is Sugar, and what is it not?

Walter Bender:

Sugar is a software environment that we developed to facilitate and encourage learning. At the heart of sugar is this concept called the “Activity.” What we’ve done is we’ve taken the notion of applications in software and put a wrapper around it to enhance the notion of an application in three ways. All three ways are driven by needs we see in learning.

One thing you get when you Sugarize an application is the presence of other people — you get a community or a set of collaborators around an application automatically. A concrete example of that — I could go on the Internet and use Google apps and invite someone in to do peer editing on my document. In Sugar, that kind of interaction comes for free, it’s just one mouse click away instead of going off to the Internet somewhere.

If I want to share something that I’m reading, it’s one mouse click away in Sugar to share it with other people in my community. So we think that sharing and collaboration is an important part of learning, and we made it be a first-order part of Sugar.

The second thing that happens in Sugar is Sugar automatically builds for you a portfolio or a diary of everything you do. We do that so that there’s a vehicle for you to reflect on what you’re learning. There’s this diary that’s recording everything that you’re doing — all the pictures you’re taking, what programs you’re using — so that you can sit down with your teacher or a parent or your friends and sort of talk through your progress, your learning. We think reflection is an important part of learning.

The third thing that Sugar does is it has a very simple, very cool, very transparent interface. We think that the simplicity is important in terms of getting started and lowering the barriers to entry. We think the transparency is important in order to allow the learner to grow so that there’s not just a low floor, but there’s no ceiling. You can start with something simple, but reach to something complex. And that’s part of the notion that the learner should not just have access to knowledge but appropriate that knowledge and put it to use.

So, that’s Sugar. It’s written primarily in Python. It runs on top of most Linux distributions today.

LI: Originally, it was Red Hat?


Originally we developed it with Red Hat on top of Fedora. Recently people have bundled Sugar inside of Ubuntu, inside of Debian, and then there are a number of ports of Sugar that are also under way.

LI: What other operating systems are planned or envisioned for the future of Sugar?


There’s been a lot of talk about porting Sugar to Windows XP. I don’t know anything about those plans, I haven’t been in the loop on those plans, I’m not the one who would actually be doing that. Some of that, there are things that are done in Sugar that currently have some Linux dependencies — more or less difficult to migrate over to a Windows environment. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Windows to be articulate about that.

LI: Sugar being open source software, and being built on and with open source software, how does open source software help people to learn?


I’m not sure that open source software in and of itself helps people to learn any more than proprietary software helps people to learn, but what comes part and parcel with open source software is a culture, and I think that culture is critical to the learning process. Let me give two simple examples. One example is — and this isn’t really open source vs. proprietary, but it is open vs. closed — I can give you a book to read, and I can give you that book to read as a .pdf file or I can give you that book to read as a wiki.

That doesn’t say very much one way or another about how easy or hard it is to read. Presumably it’s relatively easy to read in both formats. But it does say quite a bit about whether or not you’re going to add a comment to that book, because to add a comment to a .pdf file is not very easy, and to add a comment to a page in a wiki is actually — all the affordances are there already. So there’s sort of a culture around wiki that says not only do I want you to have access to this knowledge, but I want you to be an active participant. And so it’s really that culture that we’re after and the affordances that come along with that culture.

Now let me give another example that’s a little bit farther into things. We did a pilot at a school in Nigeria, and in Nigeria the official language is English, but there are actually between 300 and 500 languages spoken in Nigeria, depending on how you count. There are three major languages in Nigeria: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Now it’s only actually been very recently that Microsoft is providing support in Office for those three languages. In our trial, because the official language in the schools is English, the laptops come with English, and the kids were — in this particular school, most of the kids spoke Igbo at home.

And so when they were trying to use the word processor for Igbo, the found there wasn’t a spelling dictionary for Igbo. So what did they do? Well, they made a spelling dictionary for Igbo. Now, two things happened: One thing is that they solved this problem, but the other thing is that they solved a problem. There was sort of this meta-phenomenon of “Hey, we don’t need to be dependent on others to solve the problem for us, we can take this into our own hands, we can appropriate the system and solve problems ourselves.” That’s an enormously powerful lesson for a learner.

LI: So the platform sort of enabled the solution?


Yeah, so in that sense, there’s this culture around open source that I think is a really important culture for learning. So it’s not so much any particular tool, as much as the culture that comes with the tools.

LI: Where is Sugar going? What are its goals? The organization’s goals?


Sugar Labs is a brand new organization. Its short-term goals are just to get incorporated and to come up with a governance model and the like, but its real goal is to support Sugar as a platform, and that means supporting the developer community, supporting the user community and promoting Sugar as a way to solve problems.

LI: It started as part of the OLPC initiative. Do you envision that it will be used in other settings, other hardware platforms? Give me some examples of the vision.


It’s migrated to Fedora 9 to Ubuntu Hardy Heron and to Debian. So any hardware platform that can run one of those three distributions of Linux can run Sugar. So in some sense, Sugar already runs on virtually any computer. In terms of tuning and optimizing it for a particular platform, that’s something we’ve been talking to a number of different people about and it’s something I encourage the community to engage in because the broader the community, the more people contributing, the better Sugar will be.

LI: As far as devices go, it could be pretty much anything, it could be an Android phone down the road, something like that?


I don’t know that anybody’s actually ported Sugar to a phone platform yet, but Sugar has been running on pretty much any of these ultra-mobile PCs that can readily support Sugar with not much heavy lifting. The problem with a phone — at least for the moment — is the displays tend to be very small. The problem with a small display is it taxes your short-term memory too much. So to be a learner on a very small display is to be handicapped. But, that too will change, I’m sure.

LI: The Sugar platform itself — who should use it and what should they use it for?


It was originally designed to support learning — so anybody who’s a learner. It’s been more focused on younger children than older children, but I think that’s going to change. I think that it’s going to have more broad appeal over time as it matures and as it becomes more readily able to support a broader set of applications and activities, which is one of the things that’s in the works right now — to be able to more directly support native Linux applications. There’s also even a Wine activity in Sugar, so you can run Windows programs inside Sugar now.

I think there’s a lot of appeal in a wholly different demographic, which is the elderly. We did a number of things in the user interface that make a lot of sense for the elderly so, for example, there’s no double clicking. It turns out that if you’ve got a little arthritis in your hand, it’s really difficult to double-click a mouse. The other thing is that in Sugar you primarily do one thing at a time as opposed to having eight different things coming at you at once, so it’s just a little bit easier to focus when you’re using Sugar. There are a number of things about Sugar that are going to make it a little bit of a more broad appeal than just the elementary learner.

LI: That goes along with the philosophy that learning is a lifelong process.



LI: Do you anticipate that, say, my mom, for example, who’s in her 60s and never really used a computer in her life, do you think that she could pick up a machine running Sugar and start doing something with it?


I think she absolutely could, and I think the chances of her being able to do that with Sugar comfortably as opposed to almost anything else I’ve seen is just much greater, it’s just that much simpler and more consistent. One of the nice things about starting afresh is that you can throw out a lot of baggage that’s accumulated.

LI: I’ve run out of questions. Normally what I do when that happens is I ask if there’s anything I’ve missed, or that you’d like to emphasize.


Sugar is still pretty young, but I encourage people to try it and contribute to it and make it better. Learning is about being social, it’s about being expressive, it’s about teaching others — and Sugar tries to emphasize these three attributes.

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