[Its.an.education.project] My Thoughts on Sugar...
tom.hoffman at gmail.com
Fri May 2 15:32:42 CEST 2008
This blog post I wrote recently on Sugar has been pretty well
received, so it seemed like a good thing to interject near the
beginning of this conversation:
As I see it, Sugar is a set of tools for writing creative and
collaborative activities for children. I think a lot of the confusion
about, say, "porting" Sugar for Windows mis-places the reader's
emphasis on Sugar as a window manager, rather than Sugar's potential
advantages for the activities (née applications) which are built on
it. Put another way, what's most important about Sugar is not what I
see and do up to the point I launch an activity, it is how the
As an English teacher, here's what grabbed me about Sugar: it was
designed to make it as easy to pass a copy of a student's work across
the room electronically as it is to carry a piece of paper across the
room. A close second in importance is automatic saves that don't use a
hierarchical file system. Not using a hierarchy isn't such a big deal
in high school, but if you've ever sat in the back of a room full of
third graders while their teacher tries to make sure they've all saved
their PowerPoints to the right folder in a networked drive, you'll
understand the value (although the computer teachers tend to have
internalized the idea that that teaching 9 year olds to use tools
ill-suited to their needs is part of their job).
What is important is not just that the Sugar HIG requires that
functionality, but that the Sugar libraries should make it easy for a
developer to generate it. With mature Sugar, it should be possible to
create a basic implementation of what I describe above by importing a
Python-wrapped GTK rich text editing widget, doing import sugar and
writing 100 lines of code or so to tie it all together.
In a sense, the whole OLPC project is designed to maximize the
opportunity for kids to undertake collaborative Sugar activities.
That's why you need a cheap laptop with great power consumption and
mesh networking. In this context, porting Sugar to other platforms is
simply furthering children's access to those activities.
As a teacher, if one kid fires up an OLPC running the full Sugar shell
and clicks on the Write icon in the frame, and another kid double
clicks on a icon on his desktop or selects Write from his Start menu,
I don't care as long as they can easily collaborate. I don't really
care if on Windows Write opens as a regular window, with a separate
window for the neighborhood view. I can deal with that. I don't care
if my Windows desktop running Write has any concept of mesh
networking, because it is plugged into an ethernet jack anyhow. I just
want my kids to be able to have writing circles with the least
technical hurdles possible.
In a perfect world, Sugar would pre-date OLPC by about three years,
and the relationship between hardware and software would be more
apparent -- we've got this revolutionary learning software, now we
just need to design a device to get it to as many kids as possible!
Back in the real world, however, "Sugar" is the software written to
run the OLPC, not vice versa, and it is all getting really confusing.
>From where I sit, there has been a distinct lack of interest in Sugar
from the "learning sciences" and other communities that are involved
in research and development around software for kids. They have not
seen Sugar for what it is, which is the one chance in this
generation,and I'm talking human generations here, not technological
ones, to create a common set of open source tools specifically for
writing applications for kids. They don't seem to get that this is a
singular opportunity to invest in the foundation of their discipline.
I don't understand why, but one hope I hold out for Walter's software
spin-off is that he can engage this community. However, I only see
that happening if Sugar is not limited to OLPC or Linux. Also, it is
certainly true that as long as Sugar is a subset of OLPC, OLPC doesn't
have a strong motivation to dedicate resources to non-OLPC platforms.
Sugar needs an home outside of OLPC that can look at the software in a
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