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Open Systems for Broader Change
Author: Walter Bender | January 14th, 2010

Seymour Papert's vision of a children's machine, a computer as a thing
to think with, was already realized in part by the mid-1980s. The
personal computer had become sufficiently inexpensive that it was
feasible to outfit clusters of computers—in a lab or classroom
setting—where young learners could engage in activities ranging from
word-processing (“writing to read”), LOGO programing and game design,
multimedia publishing, and robotics. Twenty-five years ago, all of
these learning activities—and more—were part of a program at the
Hennigan School, a public elementary school in the Jamaica Plain
neighborhood of Boston; the program was a harbinger for much of the
ensuing technological intervention in the classroom. But as Papert
said at the time, "The context for human development is always a
culture, never an isolated technology." How do we change the culture
of school, not just the technology in school?

Today we are in the midst of the 1-to-1 laptop revolution. I take
pride in having been a member of the team (One Laptop per Child) that
built the first netbook computer for children—which among other
impacts continues to put great pressure on the computer industry to
lower prices and bring laptops within reach of many more children.
However, advances in hardware and access are only addressing part of
the challenge we face in educating our children. Quoting Papert again,
"Using the computer not as a 'thing in itself' that may or may not
deliver benefits, but as a material that can be appropriated to do
better whatever you are doing (and which will not do anything if you
are not!)" How do we raise of generation of children who can
appropriate knowledge—learn to learn—and put that knowledge to work
towards critical thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving? (The next
generation will certainly inherit from us any number of intractable
problems that need solving.)

I argue that open systems, designed for appropriation, is the most
efficient means to bring about a broader change in education. The
culture of open systems--open knowledge, open communication, and open
tools--has perhaps best manifested itself in the Free Software
movement. With Free Software and any computer that can run
GNU/Linux—i.e, any computer, control and knowledge creation are
shifting to the end user, enabling new opportunities, particularly
around learning, which, irregardless of pedagogy, inevitably involves
content consumption and creation.

Sugar is a Free Software learning platform used by more than
one-million children around the world. Sugar provides a unified
framework for learning-activity developers to support collaboration,
reflection, and sharing in their programs. Those features were chosen
with a purpose: to encourage learners to engage in authentic
problem-solving and a critical dialogue about whatever problem in
which they are engaged.

Sometimes that dialog is with your peers, sometimes it is with a
teacher or mentor. Sometimes it is open-ended and sometimes it is
within the context of structured instruction. In every case, it
involves expressing, debugging, critiquing, and reflecting. In every
case, it is enhanced by "the hard things to learn", Alan Kay's
"non-universals", e.g., reading and writing; deductive abstract
mathematics; model-based science; etc.

Being open, with an emphasis on ''en plein air'' debugging and
critique, is part of our pedagogy and also a central tenet of our
community. Sugar embodies the message that everyone has an opportunity
and responsibility to contribute to our knowledge commons. Free
Software and open content represent a path to a lifetime of learning
for the next generation. To help them along that path, we must:

* explore, share, evaluate, and debate best practices;
* provide technical and pedagogical support; and
* create new learning activities and pedagogical practice.

A new version of Sugar has just been released: Sugar on a Stick v2
Blueberry. Join our community by downloading it from
http://www.sugarlabs.org, Sugar on a Stick can be freely loaded onto
any ordinary 1Gb or greater flash drive to reboot any PC, netbook or
recent Mac directly into the child-friendly Sugar environment without
touching the existing installation. Sugar is also available for
GNU/Linux distributions, runs under virtualization on Windows and
Apple OS X.

Walter Bender is executive director of Sugar Labs, a non-profit
foundation he founded in 2008, in order to support the further
development of the Sugar learning platform. Bender is coordinating the
efforts of thousands of volunteers from around the world, a
melting-pot of software developers and educators, who are working
together to provide powerful tools for learning to every child. In
2006, Bender co-founded the One Laptop per Child, a non-profit
association with Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Papert. The team
designed and built the OLPC-XO-1 laptop computer and put it into the
hands of over one-million children, worldwide. As director of the MIT
Media Laboratory, Bender led a team of several hundred researchers in
fields as varied as tangible media to affective computing to lifelong

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