Beyond the XO Laptop: Walter Bender on OLPC 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 laptops, nearly a million of which have been distributed to classrooms in developing countries and the United States by the Cambridge, MA–based One Laptop Per Child Foundation.
Despite the acrimonious divorce last year between OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte (see Part I in T&L’s March issue) and the foundation’s former president of software, Sugar creator Walter Bender, the hardware and the software remain intertwined. 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 history of technology and education in the developing world. Wade Roush, chief correspondent for the business and technology Web site, interviewed Bender on what’s next.

What’s the word 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, in a classroom, at the library, at home, on their parents’ 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 make Sugar a lot more accessible.

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.

Nicholas Negroponte and others at OLPC have talked about a dual-screen, touch-based, keyboardless device as the 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. On-screen 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?

That leads to a more general question. 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—tends 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—long the subject of 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 the art teachers in elementary schools, we are losing that. Hopefully, Sugar will be a way to retain it.