As you might know, the open-source Sugar operating system has been spun out of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program and is now managed by a new non-profit, Sugarlabs. It's also been lightly re-branded as the Sugar Learning Platform, highlighting its inventive, learning-centered tools designed to help kids work effectively and work together. But can these affordances be effective in developing-country grade schools?
Sugar offers a unique combination of tools and features:
- Collaborative writing tools
- Easy sharing of bookmarks and URLs
- USB portability between school, home and wherever
- Reasonable integration of writing tools and drawing tools
- Automatic recording and (theoretically) cataloguing of all work
- Graphical network topography displaying (who's who and where)
And now that it's de-coupled from the XO (Children's Machine XO, that is), and ported to Windows, Mac OS and many flavors of Linux, Sugar is as platform independent as you could wish. eeepc, iBook, Classmate, Inspiron--Sugar works with all of them.
Sugar-the-idea is extremely cool: an OS designed for active, collaborative and (essentially) design-based learning. Kids grab Sugar and start to find things, make things, and share things. I can easily imagine Sugar becoming the OS of choice for primary and possibly middle-school 1:1 laptop programs in Maine, Washington, Edinburgh and Melbourne--any place, really, where teachers and primary-grade kids are already exploring the Internet as a learning resource, and collaboration as a learning method.
It's not so clear that Sugar will fulfill the original OLPC aspirations for primary-school change in developing countries.
In OECD countries primary school can be pedagogically posh: Kids can learn in a variety of ways, one teacher teaches nearly everything and knows the 20 to 30 kids in class pretty well, the subjects can be all mashed up interdisciplinarily, and, in the US, historically there have been few tests that really determine a student's educational future.*
In poor countries, even in well-off enclaves, primary learning is more constrained: Parents might struggle to pay school fees, buy uniforms, let the kid skip work; teachers confront (sometimes literally) classes of 50 or 60 kids (or more), and at the end of each term the kids face tests that determine whether they advance to the next grade and, ultimately, whether they matriculate to the next level.
OLPC + Sugar was originally conceived as a resource that would transform primary learning in poor countries. But the nut is just too big to push up the hill: No tool in and of itself is going to pry apart the educational, bureaucratic and community cultures that come together to determine what happens in schools. Teacher training, learning resources and changes to assessment--not to mention increases in teacher professionalism (e.g., $)--all have more bearing on what happens. And, more importantly, none of these more necessary factors are sufficient in and of themselves to catalyze change.
So, what are we going to see? It's possible, and perhaps probable, that we'll see Sugar adoptions taking place all over the world in schools that serve elites--whether in private schools in Bangalore or public schools in Portland--while the impact of Sugar on its originally intended demographic remains slight.
If Sugar has become a "learning platform" to change teaching and learning in poor countries, SugarLabs needs to partner-up with strong, committed advocates for comprehensive systemic change in developing-country school systems.
* I'm not suggesting that kids in your town aren't having crappy experiences of fourth grade. Poverty and educational success in the US are tightly linked,as they are in most places. I'm also not suggesting that primary education in the US isn't becoming more test driven: NCLB has introduced regular but not instructionally informative testing; lower-stakes tests such as the MAP suite [Measures of Academic Progress] have been developed to help schools conduct formative assessments and build student skills [and prepare for NCLB].