Last year, development of the Sugar interface moved away from the control of One Laptop per Child to be overseen by the independent Sugar Labs. Since then, Sugar Labs has focused on encouraging greater use of Sugar in elementary school education. The latest step towards this goal is Sugar on a Stick (SoaS), a USB drive installation of Fedora 11 that uses Sugar as an interface. Besides giving students a consistent work environment that they can use on any computer, SoaS is also a way to introduce Sugar's applications to both educators and anyone else who is interested.
Installing SoaS requires both the .ISO image and the installation script. Download locations for the image are listed on the SoaS introductory page, and a link for the script is provided on the page for installation under GNU/Linux.
The basic instructions include steps for installing in a virtual machine, specialized instructions for openSUSE, and general ones for Fedora and Ubuntu that should work on most other distributions as well. However, when you run the installation script, remember to adjust the size of the /home directory to your USB drive, and to add the option for an encrypted drive if you want one.
The script has the annoying habit of running past some errors and incorrectly reporting a successful installation. Otherwise, the installation process should not prove difficult for a moderately experienced GNU/Linux user, or for anyone willing to take the time to follow instructions. However, they do assume some minimal knowledge of GNU/Linux. This assumption seems at odds with the idea of using SoaS to introduce Sugar to more people, and makes me wonder why the project didn't make more effort to get the install working with liveusb-creator, the cross-platform wizard that is used in the Windows instructions. A friendlier install — preferably, a graphical one — might encourage more people to copy and distribute SoaS.
Fructose and Honey
SoaS includes thirty-two activities, as Sugar calls its applications. The word choice emphasizes the collaborative learning activities for which the applications are designed. The usage is not merely semantics, because closing an activity opens the Journal, a log that can be used to record information or reflections. To the casual observer, the Journal may seem a nuisance, the equivalent of endless confirmation notices, but, in an educational context, the Journal becomes a constant reminder that the purpose of Sugar is to encourage learning through both discovery and reflection.
The activities included consist of twelve activities designed by Sugar Labs developers as demonstrations, and twenty by outside developers. The demonstration activities — or Fructose, in the Sugar taxonomy — consist mainly of core utilities, such as Calculate, Image Viewer, and Terminal or common applications like Browse,
Chat, and Write. In fact, some of the Fructose applications like Write are so basic to Sugar that they do not have separate web pages and might be better designated as part of Glucose, Sugar's core utilities.
Most of the Fructose activities are stripped down versions of applications for mature users. For example, Write, which is based on AbiWord, offers basic text formatting, with only token attention to character formatting styles. No headers or footers, page numbering, or any of a dozen other standard word processing features are available, although, if you look carefully, Write is more versatile than its first impression suggests — for instance, you can use tables to divide a page into columns.
Browse, which is based on the Mozilla engine, is equally basic. In Browse, the web is reduced to a Google search field, with links in the upper right corner to Sugar Labs pages and any pages set up by the user's school. To further simplify, the input field displays web page titles by default rather than URLs. Other features, such as configuration and privacy options or extensions, are absent altogether. But if you can accept the limitations, the result is a fast browser that emphasizes the web as a reference source and that encourages children to stay within safe parts of the web (without actually confining them).
Some of the most interesting Fructose activities are those associated with
for example, allows users to run and modify Python scripts.
A more advanced
approach to programming is provided by Turtle
Art, which teaches programming with graphical elements. Older students,
by contrast, might prefer to go directly to Terminal to work, or to Etoys,
which teaches programming in the context of producing multi-media content.
In contrast to the Fructose, the Honey activities written by outside developers are more varied. On the whole, they seem designed for users a few years older than the Fructose ones. They include a number of games, such as FreeCell and Jigsaw Puzzle.
Other Honey activities can be described as a combination of leisure and learning. For example, CartoonBuilder and StoryBuilder, while essentially fun activities, can also encourage a development of a sense of narrative structure. Similarly, while Physics might be seen as the computer equivalent of building blocks or Lego, the fact that objects obey physical laws also make it an indirect teaching tool.
One or two Honey activities are even advanced enough to satisfy adults. The mind-mapping activity Labyrinth compares favorably with similar tools you can find in most distribution's repositories, while Poll stands up well against the polling modules that are found in content management systems.
The thirty-two activities that come with SoaS offer a well-rounded sample of what Sugar can provide, to say nothing of all the basic tools that children are likely to need on their computers. With Sugar connected to the rest of the operating system largely through the Terminal, the selection of activities is so thorough that it no longer seems like just a user interface, but something that very nearly approaches an independent operating system.
The main shortcoming of Sugar's selection of activities is that, while you can easily see a progression in the sophistication of some activities, particularly the ones for programming, you are left on your own to discover such connections. Perhaps that discovery is part of the intended learning process, but, considering that SoaS is partly intended as a demo, a teaching guide might help to show how such activities build on each other. Otherwise, explorations of SoaS might lead to very different evaluations of its possibilities, depending on the users' thoroughness and starting points.
Although Sugar is now available in major distributions and is known to some through One Laptop per Child, SoaS also serves as a showcase for the Sugar interface.
For those who have not seen Sugar, it is a radically simplified interface compared to popular desktops like GNOME, KDE, or Xfce. Its default Favorites view shows an icon representing the current user in the middle of a ring of favorite applications. Beneath the user icon is an icon for any still-running application, or else for the user's Journal. Alternatively, you have the List view, a menu that gives a complete list of installed activities with the most recently accessed activity at the top. You can move between activities and these interfaces using either the icons in the top panel, or the first four function keys.
Embedded in the Sugar interface is a strong emphasis on collaboration. Press the F1 key, and you can see the Neighborhood, a map of other online Sugar users. Similarly, most Activities are designed for collaboration, and have an option for you to share what you are working on as you exit.
Within the activities themselves, interfaces vary. Generally, basic utilities like Chat or Terminal are clearly named, and many activities include detailed mouse-over help. In some activities, the help is even a permanent part of the interface, showing you where you might start. This design choice might seem as crude as a web page telling you to "click here," but it is effective in keeping users of any age oriented.
The one place where ease of navigation breaks down is the method for closing activities. To do so, you must go to the Activity tab, and then click an icon in the upper right corner. A recent article reported that how to close activities was the major problem that children faced when using SoaS for the first time, and I admit that I suffered the same confusion at first. If you know about the function keys, you might at least be able to jump to the Favorites or List view to run another activity, but even that escape is easy to miss unless you discover it through trial and error.
Another concern is that everything is in full-screen mode, so that you can only view one activity at a time. Activities can still be running when not visible, but you can easily forget them, especially if you are in List view, where they are not shown.
These shortcoming aside, Sugar is an interface that is likely to intrigue anyone with an interest in usability. Whether you call them learning platforms, desktops, or window manager, very few other interfaces manage to do so much with so little while being so user-friendly.
Sugar and the free desktop
From a casual perspective, SoaS might seem to be just another .ISO image on a USB drive. However, as Walter Bender, the founder of Sugar Labs, emphasizes, the release of SoaS is a reminder that Sugar is not a typical free software project.
"We're not just doing this to do it," he says, referring to the tendency for free software to be its own end to many developers. "We're doing it so that the kids can use it. And that means thinking about how the software is going to be positioned in a learning setting."
In other words, SoaS is part of Sugar Labs' long-term strategy — a strategy that has already proved more successful than many of us realize. When I booted SoaS in a medium-sized city, school was not in session. Yet, even so, by pressing F1, I saw over two dozen other users of Sugar connected to my service provider. Sugar, it seems, has made inroads everywhere, and this process has happened, on the whole, without the rest of the free software world noticing.
Sugar is already influencing both education and other projects involved in the free desktop. By making Sugar more accessible to the curious, SoaS is a major step towards increasing that influence.
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