Hi. I’m Euan Ong (eohomegrownapps) and I’m a 14 year old student, coder and first-time participant in Google Code-In 2016 based in the United Kingdom. Described as a “global, online, contest introducing teenagers to the world of open source”, Google Code-In is a free programme run by Google, wherein school-age developers can work on tasks set by various FOSS (Free, Open-Source Software) organisations, contributing to their software and applications and (hopefully) learning a lot in the process. For Google Code-In 2016, I have chosen to work with Sugar Labs. Sugar Labs is a not-for-profit foundation, founded by the MIT-based technologist and researcher Walter Bender, which aims to serve as the driving force behind the development of the Sugar platform, a new operating system reinventing the way computers are used for education.
Even now, more than 60% of the world’s population (over 4 billion people) do not have access to a computer or the Internet; in some developing countries only 1 in 10 people have access to the internet, and worse still, this is often striated along gender divides. Often I, living in a developed Western country, take the Internet and computing power for granted - combined with every child’s natural thirst to learn, it is an amazing and empowering resource providing near-instant access to reams of information and knowledge, and has changed the way we work forever. Especially now, in today’s digital society, it is vital that children worldwide grasp technology and use it to their advantage, to not only gain knowledge but to ‘learn by doing’, giving them an edge in this increasingly competitive world. As one of Sugar Labs’ pedagogical maxims so nicely puts it, “Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs.” In an effort to change this and empower children worldwide, in 2005 two revolutionary pedagogists both working at MIT’s Media Lab, Walter Bender and Nicholas Negroponte, came together and dreamt up a radical idea: to create a laptop so affordable and so versatile that every child in the world could have one - hence the name of their project: “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC).
But to accompany such a radically new laptop, its designers felt that Windows (then the de-facto operating system for business) just wouldn’t cut it: it needed a radically new operating system, one which could break free of current computing paradigms and drive children’s education. This project had its ideological roots in the pedagogy of Seymour Papert, working at the MIT Media Lab at the time, known as constructivism: ‘learning by doing’, rather than being spoon-fed information and being asked to regurgitate it. No one can learn to ride a bicycle, say, just by being shown pictures of people riding bicycles and learning by heart the required movements; they must first try to ride the bicycle, make mistakes, fall off and get back on again, so discovering how to ride the bicycle for themselves. The same goes for almost all ‘basic’ processes in life - for example, walking is an extremely complex activity requiring one to coordinate over 200 muscles at exactly the right intervals with the right amount of force applied, yet toddlers master this near-effortlessly, driven by just a burning desire to master the task and thousands of (failed) attempts. Constructivists try to carry this more natural approach to learning into academic subjects - they encourage ‘learning to learn’, giving students the tools and skills needed to ask questions, discover things for themselves and so understand facts rather than simply knowing them. As the great scientist Albert Einstein once said, “The value of an education… is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”, or “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” Thus in 2005, Walter Bender began a software initiative aimed at increasing the learning potential of these ‘XO’ laptops, as they were called, and the Sugar operating system was born.
The principal groups involved in the development of Sugar were small engineering teams from Red Hat, the organisation behind Fedora Linux (leading software engineering), and Pentagram, an international design partnership (leading UI/UX and design). One particularly interesting result of this, and partly what drew me to Sugar, is that engineers from Red Hat began to bring some of the culture from the FOSS community into Sugar, and into the classroom. As in FOSS communities, children are encouraged to both create content and consume it, with collaboration (which in many more traditional school environments might be called cheating) encouraged and a strong emphasis on children helping one another.
Furthermore, Sugar encourages ‘learning by doing’ by offering ‘activities’, rather than plain applications - each activity compels the learner to do something, or create something, and share this creation with peers. They also help the student to be reflective about their learning (asking questions about one’s own progress) by keeping a record of everything children do on their computers, complete with screenshots and their observations and reflections, if they wish. This can form a portfolio of the child’s lifetime work that they can then look back on to analyse their progress. Children are also encouraged to be creative forces within their community - approximately 10% of all Sugar applications (known as ‘activities’) have been written by schoolchildren! For Sugar, working together is a fundamental part of how children learn and is something to be embraced - in the adult world you should never see workers ‘closeting’ themselves and refusing to talk to anyone as collaboration is essential in almost any job.
Eventually, however, as both the OLPC campaign and the Sugar operating system grew and evolved, reaching the point where XO laptops could feasibly be produced at $100 and garnering significant governmental interest, a conflict of interest began to emerge between the two groups. After two years, OLPC’s funding had already begun to run short, as original partnerships for the initial 5 million laptop sales had not materialised, and the OLPC board started to doubt the usefulness of a custom OS to support the mass distribution of laptops - in February 2008, after pressure from a number of partners, Negroponte eventually agreed to refocus the efforts of OLPC around Windows. Meanwhile, market demand for cheap laptops had begun to grow, and many competitors to OLPC had emerged as affordable alternatives for education. While OLPC was primarily interested in achieving one-to-one computing (one laptop per child, no matter what runs on it), the Sugar team were keen to improve the development of children - rather than overloading the market with laptops, they wanted to change the way children in general learned and developed; many in Sugar began to ask themselves whether it might be better to expand their learning platform worldwide rather than confining it to the XO laptop. One month after Negroponte made the change to Windows, the Sugar community split off from OLPC, founding the new independent non-profit organisation of Sugar Labs that we know and love today.
From then on, Sugar Labs has focused on bringing great learning software to the public and changing the way children interface with computing, maintaining its constructivist ethos from which it was born. It serves as a support base for the community of educators and developers wanting to support the Sugar OS and create Sugar Activities, as the upstream community for the Sugar Project. The Sugar OS now has a very wide reach: not only can it be installed on computers such as the XO laptop but it is also available as a free download on the Internet as an ISO file to be burned onto a USB stick (“Sugar on a Stick”) and an online Sugar environment, Sugarizer, has been produced and can be downloaded from Google Play and the Chrome Web Store as well as being run in the browser.
About GCI 2016
I first heard about Sugar/OLPC during my primary school years when I seemed to be obsessed with the freedom and portability Linux (especially live USBs) offered when used on computers - more likely than not I was just becoming very tired of Windows appearing everywhere! After investigating a number of distributions I found Sugar on a Stick; after trying it I thought it was a very interesting and different operating system (why couldn’t I have something like this in my school!) but I paid it little attention after that. In the years that followed, I began to develop a passion for technology, in particular coding - I loved being able to (occasionally) coax a computer into doing what I wanted it to do and just discovering what makes the ‘black box sitting on the desk’ tick. Unfortunately, Google Code-In was only brought to my attention after the competition had ended last year, when I was rooting around in the Google Open-Source blogs to find out more about some new Google product (I don’t remember what it was). To me it sounded like something I’d enjoy - I would get the chance to not only code software with great mentors but help good causes at the same time - and perhaps win a nice T-shirt. Fighting back the disappointment that I had missed GCI 2015, I made a note to myself not to forget to sign up for GCI 2016…
In GCI, students can help Sugar Labs by completing a plethora of tasks ranging from documenting and squashing bugs to improving existing applications (like Turtle Blocks, a logo-based Scratch-like programming language) to creating entirely new activities. So far, I’ve been participating in it for just over a week and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the four tasks I’ve completed - each one seems to highlight different areas of my own inadequacy (which I then have the chance to patch up). I also greatly appreciate the busy #sugar IRC channel - for me, as a developer all too often shut up at home with his computer it’s refreshing to know that there are other like-minded people out there willing to help fix problems, debug code and discuss life and Sugar Labs in general. During the remaining weeks of GCI 2016, I hope to patch up my coding skills, in particular HTML5/CSS/JS and Python, and to get used to coding projects whereby your code will actually be seen and worked on by others (maybe I might convince myself that it’s a good idea to start giving my variables and functions sensible names…), and to familiarise myself with the rubric of FOSS development in general. But more importantly, I hope to leave GCI 2016 in the knowledge that I have helped a thriving community to bring learning products to the next generation - and maybe make the use of computing in school much less dull than it was for me!