Friday, June 06, 2008

untangling Free, Sugar and Constructionism (walter bender)

Walter Bender Discusses Sugar Labs Foundation

I agree with the way that Walter Bender talks about Free, Sugar and Constructionism as though they are different things which can be brought together synergistically to enhance the overall learning impact. I think it's important not to mix up these words in a fuzzy jumble, to be able to speak clearly about the different aspects of something you support, the OLPC, [no, not necessarily the OLPC but whatever material construct that Free, Sugar and Constructionism becomes embodied in]

Also, in an imperfect world where you can't achieve everything at once it's important to try to tease out the relative impact of each piece of the mix. If we can't obtain OLPCs for Australian schools, for instance, then it still might be possible to do something along similar lines if we understand the issues deeply.

We should provide tools that skew the odds towards appropriation, without being proscriptive. For example, you could give a child a book as a PDF file or in a Wiki format. In both cases, the child can read the book. But the choice of representation does make a difference: the chances that the child will add a comment to a PDF file, which is read-only, are much less than to a Wiki page, which has built-in affordances for annotation.

Bringing the concepts together, the culture that is embodied in the FOSS movement — a meritocracy that is built upon both collaboration and critique — is synergistic with some core principles of learning, so, where possible, I try to embrace that culture. (The guidelines when I was still at OLPC were to choose FOSS tools over proprietary tools when there was not a significant difference in terms of the impact on learning.)

So, for Walter learning is more important than FOSS but if the software is roughly equivalent then choose FOSS. I agree.

Sugar revisits how computers can be used for education: it explicitly promotes sharing and collaborative learning. At its core is the concept of an “Activity”. Activities are software applications such as a web browser, a word processor, or even a calculator, that, when “Sugarized”, are enhanced by three key features:
(1) the application is readily shared with others; for example, to share what you are reading with others requires just one “button click”; in the word processor, Sugar provides the ability to do peer-to-peer editing, again with just one click; a chat window is always available for seeking help, sharing ideas, or exchanging data;
(2) a journal entry is created every time an application is run; not only are files and data automatically saved, but a diary is created so that a child, his/her teacher, and parents can monitor progress; and
(3) applications run full-screen in a simplified framework, yet there is no upper bound on the complexity that can be reached; for example, TamTam, a music Activity that is bundled with Sugar, enables a child to progress from playing a single instrument to layering multiple instruments and rhythms to playing music in synchrony with other children to composing music to designing new instruments to programming music.
I would summarise this three points of what it means to be “Sugarized” as:
(1) Shareable with one click, ease of sharing, conversation and community
(2) All edits can be tracked through the journal (it's invaluable for a teacher to know which students are editing since many students don't edit)
(3) low entry, high ceiling

I think this clarifies what Sugar is, not just a new User Interface, with different features than Windows, but also a way of doing things that is built into the Activities (which replace Applications). Others have acknowledged the confusion of identifying clearly what Sugar is. In the Power of Sugar Christoph Derndorfer pins Sugar down as a "gravitational force" ie. there is a cloud of different concepts floating around in idea space and Sugar is a unifying concept that picks out some concepts and brings them together, including:
information storage and retrieval (Journal) and the fact that collaboration is a “first order experience”
“Constructionism” is a theory of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert. Papert first started developing the theory as a student of Piaget in the early 1960s. Over the course of more than 40 years of research and practice, Papert and his students found that children learn best when they are in the “active role of the designer and constructor” and that this happens best in a context where the child is “consciously engaged in constructing a public entity” — something “truly meaningful” for the learner. Further, the creation process and the end product must be shared with others in order for the full effects to take root.
I think this part is correct as far as it goes but it does leave out creating the meta-learning environment, which does require a lot of work by the teacher


I notice also that Walter uses the word affordances a couple of times and I think that is just the right word to use, because affordances means the opportunity is there but not the inevitability (eg. bad teaching can destroy the best intentions of those who designed the machine):
Sugar provides simple and readily available affordances for learners engaging in construction and sharing the process and end products with others ...

Sugar is at present unique in the way in which it provides affordances for collaboration for all applications ...
... some are writing software to improve Sugar; some are porting Sugar to new platforms; some are developing new activities that run in Sugar; some are helping to debug Sugar and help with quality assurance; some are writing documentation for Sugar developers and for those who use Sugar in the field; some are developing new scenarios for learning with Sugar; some are using Sugar and reporting upon their experiences to the community; and some are providing help and support
What a great list of possibilities! So, there is some scope here for educators as well as python developers - ideas for new activities to run on Sugar and developing new scenarios for learning with Sugar.

One question though: With OLPCs only being distributed to the developing world and with limited options for educators in industrialised countries to obtain at least two OLPCs (at least two are necessary for collaborative activities), then how do interested educators acquire the basic material substrate to become actively involved in these activities and scenarios? There needs to be a way for educators in developed countries to obtain OLPCs. We are currently stuck in our wealthy countries doing thought experiments for the impoverished. (the Give one - Get one scheme was limited to the USA / Canada, had a limited time frame and from some reports the distribution was inefficient or worse)


Walter Bender said...

Even if you are unable to get your hands on the OLPC XO-1 hardware, you can still use Sugar, which is now bundled with Fedora 9, Ubuntu 8.4 (Hardy Heron), and Debian. Sugar will soon run on almost any of the "ultramobile" PCs.

Unknown said...

You can use the XO emulator live CD, it supports sugar networking

Bill Kerr said...

clickable link to tony's blog, sharing with sugar

downloading the live CD as I type this

jose i. icaza said...

Bill Kerr said that with Sugar... "All edits can be tracked through the journal (it's invaluable for a teacher to know which students are editing since many students don't edit)"

In theory yes, in practice not yet. A student can certainly track his edits. The teacher would have to grab the student's XO-1 or his Sugar on a Stick in order to examine his journal. Journals do get backed up to the XServer, but not in a way that can be easily examined by the teacher. Further, looking at all of a student's journal rises issues of privacy -there is currently no way for a student to say "this is private", so that the teacher cannot examine that item.