Sugar (the software on OLPC) and my conversation with Walter Bender

I had a good conversation with Walter Bender, former president of One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and the founder of Sugar Labs. Sugar is the software that comes on OLPCs. It also comes in some of the Linux distributions like Debian, Ubuntu and Fedora and can run on most laptops.

Walter is interested in how Sugar Labs can make Sugar successful. He wants to make Sugar successful because Sugar helps computers be effective in education by providing a user interface for kids that promotes "sharing, collaborative learning, and reflection." It’s currently used by half a million kids world-wide through OLPCs but there are a lot more kids out there.

I think the huge advantage that Sugar has is that is a very noble project with noble goals. How can you not get people excited about helping kids learn? The challenge they have is reaching the right groups. The three groups they need to reach are:

  1. Developers. Sugar still has a lot of things that need to be developed or changed. Like any software project, it’s an ongoing process. (And I know my mother-in-law, Anita, has a list of features she’d like to see!) I think this group is out there and willing. If you have a good cause, there are some very good developers out there that have shown they’re willing to give time and energy to making good things happen.
  2. Upstream. There are parts of Sugar – or rather lots of things that have been developed by and for Sugar developers – that probably belong upstream in either GNOME (GTK) or the Linux distributions. I think these groups are very open to discussion and doing what makes sense. (I offered to facilitate any introductions or conversations that need to happen, if they aren’t happening already.)
  3. The outreach community. I could have called this "teachers and kids" but I think it’s bigger than that. I think there’s a whole community of people out there (like my parents, almost-retired teachers) that would love to help schools get started with computers. There are also groups out there refurbishing computers that would love to get them to the schools that need them. This is where the key work has to be done. My dad has said he’d be more than happy to help but someone needs to show him (and people like him) how the software works and then connect him to the schools that need help. And make sure those schools have hardware. (I wanted to create a sister school program between my stepson’s school and a school in Mexico, buy OLPC for all, set them up and have them become email buddies. Dad was going to do the Mexico part, I was going to do the fund-raising and Colorado parts. But then OLPC had supply chain problems and then I got a new job.) I imagine user groups and conferences of people willing to volunteer or take volunteer vacations to educate local schools and schools in developing countries how best to use the software in classrooms.

The other thing Walter and I talked about funding. I really encouraged him to do a donations program like FSF’s associate members or Friends of GNOME. I think you could get people to give to a cause like kids in education. And then use the money to fly developers to conferences, teachers to conferences and schools that need them to get things rolling, maybe hardware or funding for some of the recycling efforts, etc.

But by far I think his biggest challenge will be reaching the people that can help him do the outreach effectively.