Welcome to the Sugar school administrators site. Here you will find all you need to know on how Sugar can help your students and teachers.

Student and teacher agency

Sugar provides the user with affordances (things we designed for the possibility of taking action by the user) and pathways to engage in developing skills. Sugar is not instructional curricula in part because curricula tend to reflect very local norms and needs, and as a consequence, are resistant to global solutions. Also Sugar reflects an explicit rejection of instruction as a pedagogical framework. With Sugar, we try to give agency to the learner, knowing that in all likelihood, the institution of school would likely be trying to take away agency. At each design decision point, we asked ourselves: “how will this impact the learning?” and “how will this impact the autonomy and agency of the learner and the teacher?”

Agency is made possible in part because of the choice of a software license, the General Public License (GPL), which ensures that the learner has permission to both use Sugar and to modify it. We go a step further by giving the learner affordances to engage in software development and debugging, i.e., to exploit the license. We provide a context for encouraging the learner to take initiative, both by deliberately leaving the platform “incomplete” and by providing a social norm in which it is expected to take initiative. Even if it were possible to make Sugar “complete”, we would have chosen not to. We wanted there always to be “itches” needing to be scratched.

In a related design decision, Sugar was never intended to be an endpoint in and of itself. Rather, we envisioned it as a waypoint along a lifelong journey of learning. We encourage our users to outgrow Sugar and even provide them with a means of advancing from the Sugar desktop, with its tools for exploration to the GNOME desktop, with its more powerful tools for production.

What using Sugar can do for your students and school?

The Sugar Learning Platform was designed to promote collaborative learning through tools and activities that encourage critical thinking. Sugar puts an emphasis on divergent thinking. A related goal is to make that thinking visible to the learner. Sugar equally promote cultures of expression and reflection. With Sugar, we provide teachers and learners with a collection of open-ended tools and activities, applicable to problems of their own choosing.

The choice and organization of the tools is analogous to how one might organize a kitchen. Everyday tools, e.g., a coffeemaker, are on the low shelf, for easy access. Less commonly used tools, e.g., a special baking pan for a holiday cake, are on a higher shelf, since they are not needed as often. The selection of “low shelf” tools in Sugar is left up to the teacher and student, although Sugar has a default selection that emphasizes tools for expression and reflection: write, record, program, chat, journal, portfolio, etc.

Sugar offers an alternative to traditional “office-desktop” software based on three affordances:

  1. Sharing:
    Collaboration is a first-order experience. The interface always shows the presence of other learners who are available for collaboration. Sugar allows users to dialog, support, critique, and share ideas with each other.
  2. Reflecting:
    A ‘‘journal’’ records each learner’s activity. It is a built-in space for reflection and assessment of progress.
  3. Discovering:
    Sugar tries to accommodate a wide variety of users with different levels of skill in terms of reading and language and different levels of experience with computing by providing activities with a ‘‘low floor’’ and, where possible, ‘‘no ceiling.’’

“The only time collaboration is called cheating is when you are in school.” – Walter Bender

Sugar drew inspiration for its activities and the fluid interface between activities from observing how the free software community collaborates. Software developers chat, socialize, play games, share media, and collaborate on media creation and programming in both formal and informal settings. The Sugar parallels to the Free/Libre Software movement are tools of expression, children creating content as well as consuming it, and a strong emphasis on collaboration, co-creation, and helping one another. As with Free/Libre Software, Sugar encourages every child to be a creative force within their community.

Sugar users are given access to a variety of commonly used tools for collaboration, e.g., Chat, and IRC. By default, the IRC application opens into the ​ #sugar​ channel on​ , where Sugar developers discuss their work. Sugar users are given real-time access to the developers of the very tools that they are using and the opportunity to watch (and participate) in the deliberations of professional software developers working on problems that directly impact them. Many want-to-be developers come into the community this way at an age as young as nine or ten years. (It is a testament to the generous spirit of the Sugar community that they have welcomed these children, who often behave as children, disrupting and straying off topic. Providing an opportunity for learning trumps all else.)

David Cavallo, in his work on emergent design, describes the “motorcycle culture” of rural Thailand, where children would gather around mechanics, observing and helping as they repaired and modified their vehicles. A similar scene can be found in rural India, halfway between Delhi and Pilani, where tractor repairs are done by mechanics while surrounded by swarms of attentive children. The open problem-solving by software developers in IRC is another example of children learning from experts who do their work in the open.

In addition, Sugar provides a framework, the Neighborhood, based on Collabora’s Telepathy package, for making any application capable of sharing data in real time, one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many. When given an opportunity, applications were enhanced by collaboration: the word processor, the camera application, various programming environments, etc. Sugar enhancements to Abiword enabled real-time peer writing and editing, similar to the now commonplace Google Docs, but without the necessity to utilize the Cloud or expose personal data to third parties. The Sugar journal enabled file sharing, similar to Google Drive, but again without the necessity to utilize the Cloud or expose personal data to third parties. In “server mode”, shared data need not ever leave the classroom. In “ad hoc” or “mesh” mode, shared data remain strictly between those participating in a collaboration. Sugar provides powerful tools for collaboration and productivity while it respects the privacy of children and their teachers.

In support of student and teacher discovery, Sugar has a low floor and no ceiling. Sugar comes with a variety of programming environments that allow children to use a computer as a tool for creativity. These include many programs such as Turtle Blocks, which is based on Logo and allows children to make images while learning concepts of geometry and programming; Scratch, a programming language that enables the creation of interactive stories, games, music, and art; and Squeak Etoys, a multimedia authoring environment and visual programming system that is meant as an educational tool to teach children powerful ideas (primarily science and math) in new ways.

These tools are by-in-large designed to have a low floor, i.e., easy to learn, and a high ceiling, i.e., few if any constraints on how the tools can be applied. A core example is Turtle Blocks, an activity with a Logo-inspired graphical “turtle” that draws colorful art based on snap-together visual programming elements. Its low floor provides an easy entry point for beginners. It also has high-ceiling programming features which will challenge the more adventurous student. These features include blocks to access sensors and various inline and external mechanisms for adding extensions to the block language. Turtle Blocks has been used to create, for example, presentation software, paint, multimedia chat, an oscilloscope, etc.

Instead of just using Power Point™, the children can write their own presentation tools. Turtle Blocks also allows the user to export their block-based program as Python code, which in turn can be converted to a stand-alone Sugar activity, setting the learner down the path of text-based programming and embarking on the journey from user to developer.

Reflection and assessment in the context of Sugar and interoperability with school administrative systems

In the early days of the development of the Sugar user interface, one of the biggest points of contention with the OLPC advisory board was when we told them that we were not going to use file browsing as the primary mode of navigation. We were asked, “how will the children learn to use Windows?” Our response was, “why do they need to learn to use Windows?” They can engage with the powerful ideas of computation without acquiescing to the idiosyncrasies of a specific vendor of proprietary software. In retrospect, we probably made the correct decision in that very few contemporary interfaces use file browsing; it is not in the critical path to computation.

Instead of browsing a filesystem, Sugar gives the user a journal or notebook into which one’s work is “kept” rather than “saved”. The interface tries to keep things that offer value automatically in the Sugar journal. (The journal was the brainchild of Ivan Krstić, who also designed the OLPC security model.) The primary function of the journal is as a time-based view of the activities of a learner. As with physical media, such as pen on paper, no explicit “saving” step is needed. The individual journal entries are treated much like pages in a laboratory notebook. There is a title, room for taking notes, and adding tags. The learner is encouraged to adopt a routine where by time is taken to write about what they are doing either while they are doing it or immediately afterward. This process of note taking becomes the basis upon which they can subsequently engage in reflection. This mechanism is similar to the “commit message” used in source-code management systems, e.g., git, which would be familiar to software engineers. It is also parallels practice common in the arts and sciences.

Sugar acknowledges the need for measurement and evaluation. While Sugar does not take a position in the debate on high-stake testing, our goal is to have learning have some positive socio-economic impact on children, we do advocate for an evaluation of our interventions that look more broadly than those data that are captured by standardized tests. We developed a series of recommendations for innovation in evaluation at different levels: at the level of individual students, teachers, and parents; at the level of a classroom or school; and national and global indicators.

The primary tool for assessment within Sugar is the digital portfolio. Sugar journal entries are directly incorporated into digital portfolios to support reflection that can help students (as well as teachers and parents) be aware of their own learning, and do so by documenting their work and thinking over time. Digital portfolios are part of a “comprehensive system that combines formal, informal, and classroom assessment, including portfolios, to inform the state, the district, the school, and the teacher”. Without a way to make visible what students do and what teachers teach, it is difficult to make changes to improve those dynamics.

The Sugar journal also has a fixed set of metadata entries that are displayed in the journal detail view for all entries, e.g., “description”, “tags”, “preview”, et al., as well as activity-specific metadata. For example, when assessing student work, it is of interest to teachers to know what tools a student may have used and, perhaps how many iterations a student made in creating an artifact. These data may vary from activity to activity, hence an enhancement to the journal “expanded view” enables Activities to specify which metadata fields would be useful to display. Utilizing these data are some Sugar tools that deploy rubrics to help teachers understand the impact and evolution of the program in a larger context—at the level of the classroom or the school. We have designed tools that navigate and visualize data automatically derived from the learning activities in which the learners are engaged. These data help teachers, administrators and stakeholders understand the impact of a program and make adjustments to it. The Sugar Journal has extensions that allow for interoperability with a number of cloud-based services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive. In addition, there is a “teacher-share” activity that enables students to receive assignments from the teacher into their journals as well as “turn in homework”. The Sugar portfolio supports commentary by both teachers and peers.

Some Sugar applications incorporate strategies for understanding the use of computation in learning at a much larger scale. These strategies involve the design and implementation of a repository of objects or artifacts designed by children from different programs. There are a number of similar repositories with artifacts from an individual already in existence, e.g., the Scratch website and Turtle Blocks. Such collections make possible the analysis and understanding of impact at a large scale, and the learning that emerges, not only at the individual, but also at the collective level. And these collections present another opportunity for learners to learn from each other.

Where to get resources for training your teachers?

Most individual Sugar activities are documented in both the Sugar Help activity and in the Sugar Labs wiki. The documentation often includes specific guides to teachers and “Learning with” sections. In addition, Free (libre and gratis) materials are available from many of the Sugar deployments.