One Laptop Per Child Foundation No Longer a Disruptive Force, Bender Fears; Q&A on His Plans for “Sugar” Interface

4/24/08Follow @wroush

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to it, and that is, how do you actually support this in the field. It’s not mature enough yet to be completely self-supporting. While that is certainly a goal, it’s a difficult goal to achieve. I spent a lot of time in Peru working on the Peru deployment [of the XO Laptop], and one of my goals in Peru was to build a lot of redundancy around support. That’s fundamentally a social problem, and how you solve it is an enormous challenge and one that I’m really interested in. So there is a technical piece and a social-cultural piece and both of them are passions of mine.

The exact form or framework to work on those problems is to be determined. I’m having a number of conversations with people about maybe hosting the program at a university or setting up another foundation, or maybe even setting up something that is a for-profit, open source project. There are a lot of ways of doing it. Maybe there will be multiple ways. I don’t own this, and don’t have any intention to own it. I think the redundancy of that approach is probably important as well.

X: On the technical side, how do you take something that was developed so specifically for the XO Laptop platform and port it to other platforms?

WB: Over time there are lots of things that will happen with Sugar in terms of efficiency and platform independence. Already, the community has by and large ported Sugar to Ubuntu [a form of Linux]. You can do an “apt-get Sugar” and if you’ve put the right repositories in place, you can install Sugar on Ubuntu. There is also a live CD that some folks in Austria put together, so you can run Sugar from your CD drive. There’s a lot of discussion on the developer forums about how to make all of that happen more efficiently.

The flip side—it’s been attributed to Steve Jobs, though I never heard him say it—is that if you really care about software you have to work on hardware. Certainly there are a lot of hooks from Sugar into the OLPC hardware, because the hardware itself is pretty special. But while I think that the things that OLPC has done with the hardware are necessary for successful deployment, I think that there are compromises that can be made with other hardware in the short term. So [you could get Sugar running on] other laptops and even other computers.

X: Is it conceivable that someday there would be an XO Laptop without Sugar?

WB: You’d have to ask OLPC. Even today, it’s easy enough to turn Sugar off and run the laptops with a standard Linux distribution. Microsoft allegedly is working on XP for the XO laptop. Sugar is not tied to the XO.

X: Let’s back up. You’ve said many times, and so has Nicholas Negroponte, that OLPC is a learning project, not a laptop project. So can you talk about the basic pedagogical principles that are important to you, and how Sugar embodies those?

WB: When we started to do this, I tried to build the solution based on three very simple principles about what makes us human. Because I knew this had to be something that worked everywhere, with every child. The first of the three things is that everyone is a teacher and a learner. Second, humans by their nature are social beings. Third, humans by their nature are expressive. I decided those would be the pillars of how we design the user experience for the laptop. The other thing is that I was very much influenced by Seymour Papert and his constructionist theories, which can be summarized in my mind very efficiently by two aphorism. One is that you learn through doing, so if you want more learning you want more doing. The second is that love is a better master than duty. You want people to engage in things that are authentic to them, things that they love. The first is more addressed by the Sugar technology; the second is more addressed by the culture around freedom.

In terms of the technology—as we already discussed, that drove in my mind the necessity to make this an open source project. But secondly, when we started Sugar I said that the presence of people always has to be present. Because if you are going to collaborate with people, we need to make it a first-order experience. I want the kids and teachers to engage in a dialogue with each other, to support each other, to critique each other and share ideas. So that presence had to work independent of whether or not the Internet was available. We were developing this mesh network, so I knew … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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