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The Role of Free Software in Education, by Walter Bender
Friday, September 18 2009 @ 11:18 AM EDT

The Role of Free Software in Education
by Walter Bender, Executive Director, Sugar Labs

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.”

The joint Sugar Labs/FSF Freedom Day Press Release:


Sugar Labs and Free Software Foundation Celebrate Software Freedom Day, Announce Joint Efforts to Promote the Sugar Learning Platform for Children Worldwide

18 Sep 2009 - english

CAMBRIDGE, MA, September 18, 2009 - Sugar Labs, nonprofit provider of the Sugar Learning Platform for children, and the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which promotes computer users’ right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs, have announced joint efforts to collaborate and promote Sugar on the occasion of Software Freedom Day, September 19th. The FSF will host an event in Boston featuring Sugar Labs Executive Director Walter Bender, FSF president Richard Stallman, and other speakers. Peter Brown, FSF’s executive director, said, “The Sugar Learning Platform is fast becoming an essential route to computer user freedom for children around the world. The international free software movement is getting behind Sugar, and we want to use Software Freedom Day as an opportunity to help draw community attention, developer resources, and external funders to the important work going on at Sugar Labs.”

The FSF has upgraded its hosting services support of Sugar Labs to keep pace with its growth. As part of the ongoing relationship, Bernardo Innocenti, a member of the Sugar Labs Oversight Board, is working at the FSF offices. Mr. Innocenti stated: “The FSF and Sugar Labs are pursuing distinct, but interdependent goals; Free (as in Freedom) Software is a fundamental part of globally accessible education, and good education enables critical thought, a pre-requisite for appreciating the value of Freedom.”

Sugar is a global project. Translated into 25 languages, it is used in classrooms in 40 countries by over 1 million children as part of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) nonprofit program. Sugar’s simple interface, built-in collaboration, and automatic backup through each student’s Journal have been designed to interest young learners. The recently released Sugar on a Stick (SoaS) project brings Sugar to even more children, allowing young learners to keep a working copy of Sugar on a simple USB stick, ready to start up any PC or netbook with the child’s environment and data. Pilot projects in schools with Sugar on a Stick are underway in Boston, Berlin, and elsewhere. SoaS is free software available under the General Public License (GPL) and is available for download without charge

According to Walter Bender, “Sugar is running on over 99% of all of the OLPC-XO laptops around the world because governments prefer its quality, openness, built-in collaboration, and easy localization to indigenous languages. Teachers and students are exercising their freedom by modifying and improving Sugar and its Activities. With Sugar on a Stick, access to Sugar is even more widespread.”

For example, Uruguay has distributed a Sugar-equipped OLPC laptop to every student in the country. Alexandre Oliva of FSF’s sister organisation Free Software Foundation Latin America ( said, “I was amazed when I first saw Sugar in action in Peru two years ago; shortly thereafter, my daughter tasted Sugar and loved it. She’s going to elementary school next year, and I’m very happy she can now easily carry Sugar with her, and share it with her friends. Myself, I’m going to spread its freedom into as many schools as I can.” Karsten Gerloff, President of Free Software Foundation Europe (, added: “Education and Free Software are both all about sharing knowledge. Through projects like Sugar, young people around the world can discover the creativity that freedom makes possible. Together with the political backing that FSFE’s Edu-Team and others are building, Sugar puts Free Software in its rightful place in education.”

Sugar Labs relies on the efforts of software developers who donate their skills to the project. Mr. Bender continued, “We are looking for developers with experience in GNU/Linux, Python and/or Gtk+ for contributing to the Sugar shell and educational Activities for children. We also need testers, experienced packagers, and educators willing to contribute their ideas for Sugar in the classroom.”


The Role of Free Software in Education, by Walter Bender | 96 comments | Create New Account
Comments belong to whoever posts them. Please notify us of inappropriate comments.
Corrections thread
Authored by: Aladdin Sane on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 11:33 AM EDT
Any corrections you care to note about the article can be posted here.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. --Richard Feynman

[ Reply to This | # ]

[NP] News Picks discussion
Authored by: Aladdin Sane on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 11:35 AM EDT
Discuss Groklaw News Picks here.

Please mention at least the title of the NP your comment refers to, and if you're feeling really unlazy, reproduce the link to the story as well.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. --Richard Feynman

[ Reply to This | # ]

[OT] Topic Drift
Authored by: Aladdin Sane on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 11:37 AM EDT
Drift Off Topic here.

Please make clicky links, don't feed the trolls, etc...

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. --Richard Feynman

[ Reply to This | # ]

What about the others kids?
Authored by: LouS on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 12:09 PM EDT
My son teaches in an amazing school - they teach largely by exploration and
discovery, and for many kids it provides a very good education. But there is a

small group of students who seem to do better in a much more structured
environment. I have never seen an acknowledgment by Papert or any of his
disciples that children differ from each other in how they learn best. They
seem to assume that everyone is like them - this shows up in the current
article in the reference to more rote models of education as "mind
They are mind numbing for most of Groklaw;s readers, but not for everyone.

On the whole, OLTP no doubt empowers most of the kids (and families)
involved, but not for everyone.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Good article!
Authored by: Aladdin Sane on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 12:11 PM EDT
Ends on a strong note.

I sometimes wonder how the Constructionism theory compares and contrasts to the Montessori method? I was taught at a Montessori school from 3rd-5th grade (though "grades" are not used in Montessori school).

SFD occurs on the third Saturday of each September. This year it oddly coincides with ITLAPD.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. --Richard Feynman

[ Reply to This | # ]

Value of education / Human Rights
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 12:45 PM EDT
About: "The usual argument for basic education is economic: the premise is
that investment in human resources results in improved productivity."

I thought education needed no justification. I don't think about education in
terms of arguments, usual or unusual.
It also looks silly to call it an investment.

Education is recognised as a human right, see,

(Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 14 of the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.)

The problem with education is "how", not "whether".

[ Reply to This | # ]

The Role of Free Software in Education, by Walter Bender
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 02:01 PM EDT
Free software! Arr! Sounds right for pirates! It be International Talk Like A
Pirate Day too.

(This post is totally in jest. I'm not stating an opinion on pirated software.)

[ Reply to This | # ]

Ye scurvy lubbers celebrate what ye want
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 04:26 PM EDT
Belike, I'll be talking like a pirate. Belay me wi' a marlin spike, else.

[ Reply to This | # ]

If knowledge is so important...
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 11:51 PM EDT
Why does the USA have such repressive patent and copyright laws.

While this post is great to see, its a failing that the country its posted form
fails so badly.

Control is the reason....and greed.

[ Reply to This | # ]

related links
Authored by: grouch on Saturday, September 19 2009 @ 03:49 AM EDT
A collection of links which (I've been told) has helped in getting FOSS into some schools: Why should open source software be used in schools?

-- grouch

GNU/Linux obeys you.

[ Reply to This | # ]

The Role of Free Software in Education, by Walter Bender
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, September 19 2009 @ 06:47 AM EDT
Sugar is far too complicated for children and not responsive enough.

Why didn't they put LXDE on the OLPCs?

[ Reply to This | # ]

Go back to high school, Mr Bender
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, September 20 2009 @ 06:33 AM EDT

This assertion begs the question:

Sigh. Misuse of this phrase is becoming more common than correct use in the blogosphere.

There's something incongruous about this man Bender bloviating about education.

[ Reply to This | # ]

  • Corrections thread - Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 21 2009 @ 02:43 AM EDT
    • Inappropriate - Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 21 2009 @ 04:28 PM EDT
The price of ignorance - The Role of Free Software in Education, by Walter Bender
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 22 2009 @ 06:25 PM EDT
"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) "

Little did Thomas Jefferson conceive of the explosion of knowledge that would
face the individual. Not only is knowledge important, but what knowledge is
important. Do you need to know the law? Then hire a lawyer, because there is
no other way an individual can "gain the knowledge" to protect him or
her self. That is only the tiniest portion of the mountain of knowledge at your
fingertips, from polution, travel, health, the list is endless. One can not
begin to hope to become expert in more than one field.

Which boils down to the raw fact that the rich "buy" the knowledge
they need, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. What good does it to learn
to fish, when the river becomes so polluted fish can not live, or the weather
changes drying up the river, or foreign inedible water life chokes out the fish
you need to live on?

[ Reply to This | # ]

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