Interview Walter Bender au SugarCamp

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SugarCamp, Paris, may 16th.

Bastien Guerry: So first question, very simple; what is Sugar?

Walter Bender: What is Sugar? Sugar is a Learning Platform. Sugar is a collection of software that gives children a rich environment for learning. And it has three attributes that make it different and, I think, special. One of them is, it's very simple. It has a very easy entrance. So even the most young children, even children as young as 2 and 3 years old can start to use Sugar. But at the same time, it has no limit to what they can do. So the children can use this simple platform to reach to very complex ideas. So they're not bound by it's simplicity but they use it's simplicity for growth.

The second attribute of Sugar is collaboration. Sugar makes it very very easy for children and teachers to work together on projects, to share ideas and, in particular, share a process of criticism of ideas. So they can be expressive with their ideas, be expressive with their knowledge and engage in a critical dialogue which is so important to learning.

The third part is reflection. Sugar maintains a record, a diary, of everything you do and in that diary we store, not just what you make, but also how you made it. So you can go back and look at your progress and use it as a way of personal assessment. The teacher and parents can also look at and use it as a way of knowing where the child is making progress, where the child is struggling, and work with them. So the combination of simplicity, collaboration and reflection. That's really what Sugar is all about.

What are the intellectual roots of Sugar? What are the fathers and grandfathers in terms of concepts?

Probably, you know, the great grandfather of Sugar is John Dewey. Sugar goes and plays upon the great work of people like Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire, Seymour Papert, Alan Kay. All of these people that have been thinking about the pedagogy, the richness of the learning experience. So Sugar is not about instruction, it's about learning. It's not about education, it's about learning. And it's well grounded in forty, fifty years worth of research. It's not that we just woke up one morning and decided, "Hey we're going to write software for children", it's something that we've been living and breathing our entire lives.

And what is Sugar Labs and how do you work with teachers? And is it more code oriented or just a cementing of all these ideas about education?

Well, Sugar Labs is a community. It's a community of people that are interested in giving children opportunity for learning, and leveraging free software tools to achieve that goal. And what we've done with Sugar Labs is build an international coalition of teachers, of software developers, of artists and writers, of parents, of children, all of whom are interested in their own learning and the learning of others. So we bring together groups from around the world. There is a very strong group here in France, OLPC France. There are teachers that talk about how they use Sugar and give feedback to the software development community. There's software developers who are interested in, not just scratching their own itch, but helping to development tools for others, which is I think a great indication of what that community is all about. It's moral fibre. One of our goals is to make the Sugar Community be as inclusive as possible. The Sugar community really is a learning community. And so anyone who is a learner becomes part of that community and contributes to a collection of knowledge that the community has.

And what distinguishes Sugar and Sugar Labs' educational projects from other education ICT based projects around the world?

There are several things that distinguish Sugar. There are a lot of great ICT projects. I mean there is the Gcompris project that's here in France that Bruno has been leading. Great stuff. And what I hope will happen is that it will be part of this larger platform, this larger experience. Sugar is like a sponge, it can pull in the great ideas and make those great ideas be available to more children, more people. But Sugar typically has a particular bias to it that makes it. We try in Sugar to provide certain affordances that will make certain types of behaviour happen, that we believe are important to learning. So I like to make an analogy. The difference if I want to give a child a book. I can give the child a book as a PDF and that's really a read-only format or I could give the child a book as a wiki. The difference isn't in the reading, the difference is that if I have the hope, the aspiration, that the children will not just read but also write. Not just absorb but also engage in a dialogue. The wiki format has built into it affordances that would enable that activity. Whereas a PDF doesn't do that. So with Sugar what we're trying to do is take lots of great educational ideas that are happening around the world and provide these affordances that will encourage this collaboration, this reflection, this growth.

And why free software? Are there any limitations attached to free software, or just more potential? And what is the crumple zone idea that you have?

Okay. So, Sugar has to be free. It has to be free software, software libre. We don't have the right word in English really, for freedom. And the reason is because Sugar is about learning. And learning fundamentally is not about receiving ideas, it's about appropriating the ideas. Putting an idea to use. You can't do that unless it's free software. And there is another aspect of free software which is an aspect of culture, that is important to learning. Free software is not just about sharing, free software is also about critiquing. It's about engaging in a critical dialogue about ideas. And that's fundamental to learning. And so without the culture of free software, the learning is not as rich. So Sugar has to be free software.

Now I'd like to make an analogy to the automotive industry. The automotive industry used to make cars which are very rigid. And when that rigid car would hit a tree, nothing would happen to the car. But all the energy, the impact, would land on the passengers of the car. So they would protect the car and not the passengers. But then they realised that that's actually wrong. People are more important than cars. And so they made this concept called the crumple zone where instead of making the car rigid, they made the car flexible so the energy would be absorbed by the car. The car would fail, not the people. And we try to make that same analogy with Sugar and I think it's inherent in free software as well. The idea of a crumple zone, where we don't make everything locked down or rigid. That's an impossible goal. There's always going to be problems. But instead of imposing the problems on the user, on the child, on the learner we make that be an opportunity for learning. Learning involves making mistakes. And when you make a mistake, when you are debugging a problem, first of all that's when you're passionate about something, and we want to tap into that passion. But there is also, if the penalty for making a mistake is high, you soon learn not to take risks. You soon learn not to challenge ideas. So we make the penalty for making mistakes in Sugar very low. We make it be not hard to break. We make it easy to break but we make the penalty of making that mistake very low. So that we encourage children to explore, experiment, try things. And I think that, again, that ties somewhat to the culture of free software. Again, car industry is not a great industry to emulate today perhaps but nonetheless they had some good ideas.

Sugar was originally developed for the XO from OLPC, now it's available on more platforms. And, does that mean that Sugar was developed for developing countries, and now is available for any country?

Well, Sugar was developed for children for learning. Now the platform we developed on was the OLPC XO computer. The OLPC XO computer was targeting children in the developing word. And so naturally much of their concerns influenced the design of Sugar. But Sugar was always fundamentally about people learning. And whether you're from the East, or the West, or the North or the South, all of us, everyone of us is a teacher and a learner. Everyone of us, part of our DNA, of being human, we're expressive. And being human, we're social. And so Sugar is built on those foundations and those foundations are universal. So one of the things we did, the reason we started Sugar Labs was because we wanted to take these ideas and let them reach beyond OLPC XO. OLPC XO is a great platform but it's only one platform. And there are many other great platforms we'd like to be able to reach as well. There's the Gdium for example, there is the whole Netbook phenomena. But even more so, there's a relatively new effort by Sugar, is this. This is Sugar on a USB key, a live USB key. So with Sugar On a Stick, any computer can be a Sugar experience. So we can take an old collection of computers in a school and let the children run Sugar. Those children can take their Sugar experience, bring it home, use their parent's computer, use it at the library, at the Internet Café. So suddenly Sugar becomes everywhere, and the more people that use Sugar, the bigger the community, the richer the experience for everyone.

And last question. What are the next steps, what are the milestones for Sugar Labs and Sugar projects?

Sugar Labs itself is a virtual community. There is no physical place for Sugar Labs. We live in IRC,, channel #sugar. That's where we live, but what we're trying to do with Sugar Labs is build consensus around the international community, around our goals. Both our development goals and also to build a place where there can be an exchange of ideas. Where teachers can exchange ideas with other teachers about pedagogy, about how they put Sugar to use in the classroom. Where developers can share their creations with other people. There are lots of engineering tasks ahead of us, but the real effort, the real work of Sugar Labs, is to grow the community and grow the discourse in the community.