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The Role of Free Software in Education

The Role of Free Software in Education

On 19 September, we celebrate Software Freedom Day. At tomorrow's Boston gathering, I will have an opportunity to thank the Free Software Foundation on behalf of Sugar Labs for their support. I will also have a chance to tell the story of Sugar, our efforts to help children learn to learn and learn to love and exercise their freedom. I will also solicit your help.

The usual argument for basic education is economic: the premise is that investment in human resources results in improved productivity.

"Those investigators who have used learning outcomes as their measure of education — literacy, numeracy, science knowledge — have found robust connections between education and economic growth." - Rationale for Public Investments in Primary Education in Developing Countries, World Bank report [PDF]

Thomas Jefferson had a more fundamental rationale for basic education:

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness... The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. - Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe (1786)

To Jefferson, education "enables every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." Each of us are the "ultimate guardians of own liberty."

Almost 200 years later, Jean Piaget said "only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual." Learning is necessary to preserve freedom. This assertion begs the question: Is freedom necessary to preserve learning?

The conventional wisdom is that teachers teach and students learn. Teachers hand out knowledge "objects" that students accumulate. Once a student has amassed a sufficient collection of objects, they are considered educated.

Such received knowledge can help to bolster the status quo, but it will not protect us from kings and monopolists. And it will not lead to economic growth that is a result of a culture of innovation.

To be educated means more than just having accumulated facts handed down from the teacher: Knowledge is a noun; learning is a verb. To learn requires activity on the part of the learner. Learning is doing; if we want more learning, we need more doing. Further, it is our human nature to be social and to be expressive; everyone is both a learner and a teacher. These are the foundations upon which we must build our learning platforms. Freedom to express is not optional.

Learning has a bearing on all of the challenges our children will inherit; learning is essential if they are to be a generation of critical thinkers and problem-solvers, excelling in an ever-changing world. Providing every child with the opportunity to learn learning will allow them to develop independent means towards their future.

Forty-years ago Seymour Papert developed a revolutionary thesis that computation is the most powerful "thing to think with" and that access to computers enables children to explore powerful ideas. But today, most children don't have access to computation as a regular part of their schooling and those that do are for the most part using a computer designed for office workers. They are not free to imagine, realize, critique, and reflect. They are not being prepared to ensure their freedom.

We created the Sugar Learning Platform to facilitate exploring, collaboration, and reflection and to encourage critical thinking. Designed from the ground up especially for children, Sugar offers an alternative to traditional "office-desktop" software. Sugar users (we often say "Learners") create demonstrations, projects, and critiques in Activities, not "applications". They develop craft, engage and persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and understand. They engage in open-ended exploration and discovery, going far beyond the use of the computer simply as a means of access to information. Although the interface can be off-putting to grownups used to filing cabinets and a trashcan, children adapt quickly to the interface. The child's work is automatically saved to their Journal, a diary of everything a child does in Sugar.

When we founded One Laptop per Child in 2005, our mantra was "low floor, no ceiling." We were motivated to empower children by giving them laptop computers with free software that would put no upper bound on their opportunity for learning and achievement. We aspired to raise a generation of children who will be enable to solve the hard problems the world faces. They need tools that they can think with, not stock answers.

Originally, the Sugar platform was built on top of the Fedora distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system as the user interface for the OLPC XO-1 computer. We are excited that Sugar will be distributed on their Gen-1.5 machine, which in the months to come will offer a dual desktop with Gnome for older learners. (Note: I left OLPC in 2008 because I felt that Sugar should have a wider reach than being exclusively on the OLPC hardware. This Xconomy article tells more about that).

Today, Sugar is largely platform-agnostic. It is being packaged with most major GNU/Linux distributions and can run on Apple OSX and MS Windows with virtualization. Sugar can run on almost any computer, even the old, obsolete hardware typical of school computer labs. Sugar also runs on education netbooks such as the Dell Latitude 2100 and Intel Classmate. Sugar is built on top of the GNU/Linux desktop: GTK+, X11, D-Bus, NetworkManager, Gconf, Telepathy, etc. Sugar provides a data-storage service and a presence service that are accessed through D-Bus, thus Sugar activities can be coded in any programming language. The majority are written in Python, which takes advantage of binding in the Sugar-Toolkit. The Sugar shell manages the desktop and the Sugar datastore/Journal.

Sugar is maintained by a community of volunteers working with the non-profit Sugar Labs foundation, a member project of the Software Freedom Conservancy. Sugar is free software; it is licensed under the General Public License (GPL), versions 2 and 3. The power of free software is that it can be "used, studied, and modified without restriction." And Sugar users are encouraged to modify the code. Sugar is written in Python in order to make it easy to customize. A "view source" mechanism — the source to every Sugar Activity is never more than one mouse-click away — empowers the learners — teachers and students — to rapidly tailor Activities to their changing needs as they design new learning experiences.

This feature may seem esoteric, but students and teachers are already taking advantage of it. For example, an educator in Australia modified the Sugar Physics Activity within 24 hours of its release in order to add a feature to create objects of different densities: a feather, wood and rock. He posted his patch to our wiki in order to both share his code and his enthusiasm for tailoring tools to meet the needs of his students.

We complement the view-source feature by providing a multitude of programming tools and environments in Sugar. In addition to a Python Activity called Pippy, which includes everything you need to create your own Sugar Activity, we include two Smalltalk environments — Squeak Etoys and Scratch — as well as several Logo environments— Turtle Art (graphical) and UCB Logo (text-based)—that serve the needs of children as young as six-years old as well as experienced software developers. We don't expect every child to become a professional software developer, but every child should have exposure to the ways of computation, both because: (1) computation and computational thinking is part of virtually every modern discipline; and (2) "debugging is one of the most powerful educational ideas of the 21st century" (Cynthia Solomon). In Sugar, programming is on an equal footing with literacy and mathematics.

The culture of free software has influenced the development of Sugar. Free-software developers go beyond consuming; they create and they share their creations. Most important, they engage in criticism. They take nothing at face value. The Sugar parallels to the free software movement are tools of expression — children create content as well as consume it — collaboration — children share their creations and help each other — and they engage in self-reflection and group critique. Sugar also draws inspiration both from observing how people collaborate on the Web — they chat, socialize, play games, share media and collaborate on media creation — and what happens in an informal-learning setting — they look over shoulders. The Sugar Neighborhood brings these three worlds together, directly facilitating sharing, collaborating, and critique. Learners write documents, share books and pictures, or make music together — connecting with just one mouse click. Sugar Learners engage in "reflective practice", applying their own experiences to practice while mentored by "experts" (the expert could be a teacher, a parent, a community member in IRC, or a fellow student engaged in a persistent critical dialog). Sugar leverages the work of other free software projects for children; recently, the GCompris suite of 100 children's activities were added to the Sugar Labs Activity Library.

Sugar is used every school day by one-million children. (Although much has been made of OLPC's difficulties—and misperceptions abound—more than 99% of the little green XOs used by learners in forty countries have always run Sugar.) If only one percent of today's Sugar Learners become free-software developers, that means that within a few years, there will be 10,000 new developers willing to contribute to the Sugar ecosystem and to education and freedom in their communities. Meanwhile, we need your help to reach our second-million children. Developers can provide technical support; create new learning Activities, or help with a Sugar deployment. An important first step is to join the discussion about the platform. Join the Sugar developers mailing list and hang out in the #sugar channel on Many of the open tickets in our trac system would make good projects for new developers. The community is happy to help mentor new contributors. Teachers can develop lesson plans and share their experiences. Join our education discussion list It's An Education Project (IAEP) and contribute to our wiki and our Planet.

Recently, the Sugar community developed Sugar on a Stick (SoaS), a LiveUSB image of the Sugar Learning Platform that enables almost any computer to run Sugar as a "live" session without making any modifications to the files on the host computer—everything, including all programs and user data are stored on a USB storage device. A small USB device can boot different computers at home, at school, at an after-school program, library, or museum, bypassing the existing operating system. The computer need not even have a hard-drive. The learner experiences the same interface and accesses the same data on every computer—at school, at home, at the library. USB storage devices are widely available in dozens of different shapes and form factors and they are inexpensive—as little as $5 per 1-2 gigabyte device. SoaS technology promises a consistent experience and convenient portability while being affordable, thereby providing greater access to free software for formal and informal learning.

Sugar and Sugar Activities are available to any library, school, parent, child, or teacher who would like to use them—better utilizing the installed base of computers while untapping the potential to engage every child in critical thinking, arming them with the complementary tools of science and the arts. Sugar offers numerous economic and pedagogical advantages to schools. Because it is free software, schools can upgrade to the latest in educational software without paying any license fees; the platform is easy for teachers to learn, which minimizes initial training costs and reduces recurring training costs; it runs "everywhere", so schools can be opportunistic about used and new computers; it offers baseline support in word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools, and web browsing as well as advanced features, such as multimedia, programming, portfolios, etc.

Sugar encourages every child to be a creative force within their community and culture. Learning is not a mind-numbing service from the telephone or cable company or web service or school board. It is about creativity, fluency, innovation, and problem-solving, all of which involve personal expression. We can bring the tools of expression within reach of children so that they can be free to change their world. Free software is necessary to achieve this goal. The mantra of the next generation will be "show me the code and I will make it even better."

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