Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sugary collaboration (joel stanley, tom hoffman)

I didn't grok the ability of Sugar to transfer collaboration to other hardware. Joel Stanley explains how much of the collaborative functionality built into the OLPC can be transferred via Sugar to other hardware provided you have a network of some type (from a recent email chat). This increases the lure of schools purchasing trollies of cheap laptops such as the EEE ("ultramobile" PCs). Thanks also to walter for leaving a similar comment about part of this on my earlier blog post.

Question: Alternative scenarios (to having OLPCs) might include the plethora of cheap laptops now coming on stream, initiated by the EEE -- but without mesh network and sugar etc it's going to be a very different experience, isn't it?

Joel: No.

Sugar =! XO. And Sugar is where the collaboration occurs. Your platform can be any computer, as Sugar will run on any computer.

What you think of as the "mesh" is really a software layer in Sugar that enables connection between to computers, and is quite distinct from the 802.11s meshing wireless technology.

Sugar's collaboration software layer can run atop any network layer - a wired network, current wireless (802.11b/g) or up and coming tech (802.11s "mesh" wireless). The collaboration experience does not degrade by using traditional tech; infact, it improves due to increased reliability over mesh - a technology which is still and evolving and is yet to mature.

Note that students who use XO's in classroom or school wide deployments will not use the mesh wireless at school - it doesn't scale beyond 20ish machines (yet - this is a work in progress, the number goes up as the software develops).

(Don't let this detract from the awesome technological feat that is the 802.11s mesh - it enables groups of up to 20 students to turn on their laptops while sitting under a tree, or in an random classroom, to form a network without any other infrastructure. This is a handy piece of tech, but it is not essential to the Sugar experience.)

Question: Do you know on what platforms sugar currently runs?

Joel: provides an overview.

To summarise: current versions of the major Linux distros can run Sugar as it's desktop. Ubuntu 8.04, Fedora 8, Debian Unstable.

Ubuntu 8.04 provides a version of sugar that is close to - but not exactly the same as - the Update.1 or build-703 images for the XO.

Debian has more up to date packages in "unstable", which isn't a released distribution of Linux, but is more than stable for our purposes.

Question: So my school can buy a trolley of EEE laptops for my class, run ubuntu / sugar and sit out under the tree and chat? There's gotta be a catch

Joel: The 'sit under a tree' model is how we describe the XO's when operating without a wireless access point. This uses the unique mesh technology.

As it stands, your school can buy a trolley of laptops, and run Sugar on Linux with all the collaboration enabled, /iff/ they can connect to a wireless access point.

Some terms that will help us have this discussion:

mesh - a low level wireless networking protocol that enables laptops to form a network without the assistance of an Access Point. Enabling the 'under a tree' model. Unique to the XO (at this point).

collaboration - a fundamental part of Sugar that enables multiple users to share activities. Runs on top of /any/ network - wireless LAN, wired LAN, internet, etc., and therefore any hardware platform.

Tom Hoffman explained the broader educational implications of this in April:

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 activity works.

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) ...

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....

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 broader context.

1 comment:

squidinkcalligraphy said...

That's what got me about sugar when I received my olpc - not the fact it was running on the xo itself, but the possibility of running it in the computer lab at school - we have sufficient computers (not portable, true, but you use what you have) - to do things I would never have dreamed about with traditional educational software. It's funny that till this point there has been almost no interest in networked/collaborative educational software. Unfortunately it seems there is little money there, so most innovation in software development comes out of the games and business worlds.