Walter Bender, former president of software and content for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation and founder of Sugar Labs, granted an interview in December 2009 to Wade Roush. Wade’s article is titled, “Sugar Gets Sweeter: Former OLPC Exec Walter Bender on Netbooks, E-books, Blueberry, and Cloudberry.” Bender gave the opening keynote address in both 2008 and 2009 at the Netbook World Summit. I found many of his recommendations as well as insights in this interview noteworthy.

Notebook and Netbook
Creative Commons License photo credit: dmpop

Whether or not students and teachers are presently part of a 1 to 1 learning initiative, the focus of activities which involve computers should regularly extend beyond MEDIA CONSUMPTION. There can be no creativity without content creation. Students should regularly create, communicate, and collaborate with their digital technologies as a part of the formal curriculum both inside and outside the traditional classroom. On this topic, Bender notes:

Netbooks today all look the same, and all do the same thing, and the innovation is really happening on smartphones. So I challenged [2009 attendees at the netbook World Summit] the netbook community to wrestle back their innovative lead, and to frame it in terms of what you can do with a netbook that you can’t do with a phone. At some level, they are all just computers. But a netbook has a bigger screen, it has a keyboard, and there is a certain level of expression and creativity that those affordances give you that you are going to be hard pressed to do on a phone. A lot of people shoot video on a phone, but not many edit video on a phone. On phones, a lot of people type text messages, but very few people write essays. On a phone a lot of people will play a game, but very few will write a game.

This echos the advice of Nicholas Negroponte in the March 2010 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

On the subject of creativity and how to perceive a netbook, Bender discourages us from getting “…caught up in thinking about netbooks as doing everything that [laptop and desktop] computers do, only less expensive[ly].” These are key ideas. In his January 2010 presentation announcing the iPad, Apple CEO Steve Jobs talked about it as “a third category device.” One of the biggest things the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod Touch have going for them at this point is the iTunes App Store. Google is expected to launch its own app store for its Android operating system this week. As educators and advocates for engaged digital learning, we need to remember the core focus of these “app stores” is the consumer market, not the educational market and our needs as learners. Certainly there are numerous iPhone / iPod Touch applications which DO have direct and powerful uses for traditional as well as non-traditional learning, but the primary focus of the app stores is high volume, consumer sales. Bender advocates not simply embracing a consumer focus on mobile apps” and doing stuff we’ve always done with laptops, but instead REINVENTING operating systems (like his group continues to do with Sugar) which specifically address the unique needs of education, students and teachers. Bender explains:

I like to describe Sugar as an example of bucking the status quo. We’ve got a problem to solve around learning and education, and rather than bringing our problem to the existing tools, we said we’re going to make tools to deal with our problem. And there are lots of other problems out there that aren’t education, where people are going to say “we can build x, y, or z for our problem,” and that is where the innovation is going to happen. That’s very different from what you see happening in the smartphone world, where there are a phenomenal number of apps, but most of them are pretty trivial. The netbook industry is talking about doing that—Intel is doing their Moblin app store, for example. I’m not sure an app store is the right way to do it, but it will at least get people excited about the kinds of innovation that Litl did and that Sugar did at OLPC and continues to do.

Intel’s AppUp Center is currently available as a Windows-OS download only, but Intel promises it will soon also support MobLin (Mobile Linux) platforms. I have experimented with early versions of Sugar on my XO Laptop, but have not played with the “Blueberry” version yet. Mark Ahlness, a 4th grade teacher in Seattle and avid XO Laptop user, recommends using Xtra Ordinary 2010 as an alternative desktop environment to Sugar. Yesterday Mark tweeted me a link to the January 2010 OLPC News article, “Xtra Ordinary 2010: the XO Laptop OS Evolved,” which gives more background on the environment. I need to play with both these desktop environment options for the XO laptop and other netbooks, and hope to carve out some time to do so in the weeks ahead.

The enhanced eBook reading AND creating tools in the Blueberry version of Sugar are one of the most significant features which grab my attention. I’m a big advocate of helping students not only develop their individual identities as avid READERS, but also as avid writers, illustrators, and AUTHORS. On the subject of eBooks, Bender states:

Yes, we’ve always had an e-book in Sugar, but it was never really more than a placeholder. We basically put a wrapper around a technology called Evince, a PDF viewer, and we didn’t do much with it until Blueberry, when we really had an all-out push. The other thing we have done is to put a text-to-speech engine into the reader so that kids can have books read to them.

We also continue to put an emphasis on the notion of writing to read—that one way you learn to read is by writing and having some incentive to read because you’re communicating with other people. So we’ve been trying to expose some pretty neat tools for making multimedia books that were always built into Sugar but were buried or hidden. There is a technology in Sugar called E-toys that was originally done by Alan Kay and his team, and it’s got built into it a very nice multimedia document system. There is a teacher in New York who has been doing a lot of work having kids using E-toys to make documents for a science class. It’s a really rich environment for doing science—it’s the whole idea of a lab notebook and communicating what you’re doing and engaging in critical dialogue.

I’m eager to give these multimedia book authoring tools a virtual spin!

Whatever desktop environment and operating system we happen to be running, it’s reasonable to assert computing the cloud is a BIG deal and we’re going to continue to see more computer use “migrate” into the cloud. In this interview, Bender calls the forthcoming Google Chrome Operating System (OS) an elephant in the room of all netbook conversations:

… But the big question is where things are going with Chrome OS, and what is a Chrome OS computer going to look like. There is an elephant in that room.

The next version of Sugar from SugarLabs is due out later this month or in April, and is going to be called “Cloudberry.” Bender explains:

Well, one teaser I’ll give you is that the working name for the next release of Sugar on a Stick is “Cloudberry.” It’s a wonderful berry that grows in the Lapland region of Finland—a little orange-colored raspberry that they use to make a really nice liqueur. But as the name suggests, we’re really going to try to beef up a lot of the cloud features in the next release. Part of it would be things like using the cloud for storage, and part of it flips the other way, having the cloud locally on your machine, using Google Gears-like stuff. We have a bunch of extensions to Sugar already that we haven’t put into the main release that allow you to move your work offline and then redistribute it–so for example a teacher could go find something online at home, then bring it into the classroom, and have the kids work on it, even though it was originally a Web app. I had a Google Summer of Code student working on that last summer, and its been getting closer to being ready.

These developments sound exciting, and bode well for educators as well as students. As we continue to use digital devices to power our own learning and (hopefully) facilitate student learning, let’s remember Walter Bender’s exhortations to CREATE and SHARE with our devices. Let’s find more ways to help students CREATE music on their computers, not simply listen to and consume music made by others. The same goes for written texts and videos. We need more student Storychasers!

There can be no creativity without content creation. What are you creating today?

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One Response to Writing Essays and Creating New Games: Things We Should Do on Netbooks

  1. Mark Ahlness says:

    Wes, my experience with SOAS (Sugar on a Stick) was thrilling – at first. The idea of anybody carrying around a complete computer, OS and docs, on a flash drive that could plug in anywhere was intoxicating.

    But as Bender says, the biggest hitch was the issue of getting them to boot on the thousands of different bios setups possible. Despite great strides in many areas, I believe that problem still exists – and limits the idea from the get go… Even if they can boot, then trying to program for every possible ethernet adapter pops up, and on, and on…

    It’s a shame Sugar and OLPC parted ways. Egos and visions…

    So my goal this year has been to get my fleet of (seven!) XO laptops ready to access that CLOUD. With a browser (not OS) like Google Chrome, my little XO’s are ready – and they’re even overclocked, moving along like OLPC and Sugar did not envision.

    Here are a few pics I just took as I set up the latest XO to move beyond Sugar:

    I’ll keep my eyes on the big boys, but will also be on the lookout for independent great ideas for the here and now, like Xtra Ordinary 2010. Solid, stable, fast, free. Tough to beat. – Mark

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