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Platform Agnostic Approaches to Empower Bottom-Up Edcuational Change

Walter Bender

In my previous post, I argued that the primary goal of any educational-computing deployment is to get great learning software into the hands of children. I skirted the terminal server vs. one-to-one computing question by pointing out ways in which mobility and form factor impact when, how, and by whom these tools are used.

Less Top-Down Approaches

In this post, I frame the discussion somewhat differently. I assert that different communities are going to allocate their limited resources differently – not exactly a stretch. Economics, infrastructure, inertia, and pedagogy all play a role. Typically, there is a inhomogeneous collection of old and new, mobile and desktop, network-enabled and stand-alone machines available in a school, at home, and in the community at large.

This situation might change over time as in-bulk purchases for “top-down”, government-sponsored deployments of one-to-one laptop programs or terminal-server solutions become more common place, but such deployments remain the exception, not the rule. One size doesn’t fit all.

Maine's laptop learners

Maine's laptop learners

Even in places where such programs are being put into place on a large scale, sustaining the deployment is often a local burden. (The Maine Learning Technology Initiative has evolved along these lines – local townships are being asked to fund the “refresh” of the program, which is resulting in more diversity of both equipment and configurations across the state.)

Further, the way in which these resources are used is quite varied from place to place and program to program. Again, making reference to the Maine program, the choice of whether or not the laptops go home with the children is a decision made at the school or even the classroom level. In the case of computer labs, the schedule of access also varies – from daily use across all classes to occasional, specialized use.

Empowering a Bottom-Up Approach

It has be argued that teachers are able to incorporate computers into their day-to-day teaching only when they themselves are comfortable with the technology and cognizant of its promise. How can we help teachers and learners experiment and explore, regardless of the configuration or setting? How can we support a teacher with computers in the classroom but – as is most often the case – no administrative access to those computers and little support from the central information technology (IT) department? How can we support a school that has a computer lab, but again with little customized support from central IT?

At Sugar Labs, we are trying to address the diverse needs mandated by heterogeneous computer environments while trying to support “bottom-up” grassroots adoption by teachers, parents, and informal learning communities. Regardless of the constraints imposed by a school-district’s IT, we want to maximize learning opportunities and provide a consistent framework for teachers and students.

Taking advantage of the Fedora LiveUSB Creator, it is possible to store everything you need to run the Sugar Learning Platform on a single USB memory stick (minimum size of one GB). “Sugar on a Stick” gives children access to a personal Sugar environment on any computer with just a USB memory stick.

Sugar on a Stick on Classmate

Sugar on a Stick on Classmate

It is the Sugar Learning Platform packaged onto a memory stick that can be plugged into almost any computer and run without affecting its “host”. It bypasses the software on the hard drive. In fact, Sugar on a Stick will work even if the host computer does not have a hard drive!

With Sugar on a Stick, the learning experience is the same on any computer: the operating system, the Sugar software, and the child’s work are stored on the stick, ensuring a consistent learning experience in school, in the classroom or the lab, and after-school, in the library, the museum, at home, or at grandmother’s house.

The initial targets of Sugar on a Stick are early-adopter teachers with “geek” parental support; but the model can be readily adopted more widely across a school district. There are a number of advantages to the Sugar on a Stick approach:

  1. It reduces costs with flexible hardware choices by allowing institutions to continue using their existing investment in hardware while reducing support costs and user frustration.
  2. It enables low-cost options when purchasing new computers.
  3. It also makes it easy to accept donated older machines; it increases the life of older computers, reducing disposal costs and enabling the reuse of existing resources.
  4. It provides a coherent and consistent computing experience even during times of fluctuating technology funding and changes in hardware choices.
  5. It allows communities to take advantage of the increasing household computer ownership, while still providing a consistent, comparable computing environment.
  6. It gives learners access to the projects and creations and explorations they have previously done regardless of where they did them.
  7. It provides off-line access to applications and content: not every learner has access to broadband or the Internet in the classroom or at home.

Platform Agnostic Yet Education Focused

Live USB distribution need not be restricted to the Sugar Learning Platform. For example, there is a beta version of “Squeak on a Stick” being developed by Bert Freudenberg that would enable access to the Etoys environment in much the same way as Sugar on a Stick allows access to Sugar.

Also, harking back to last month’s Educational Technology Debate on the potential of mobile devices for learning, essentially the same “bits” that go on a LiveUSB image also run in a virtual machine. We are exploring the use of a Sugar VM on a mobile phone (of course, this would require a relatively high-end phone) that would provide many of the same advantages outlined above.

Our goal at Sugar Labs is to put an emphasis on learning through doing and debugging: more engaged learners are able to tackle authentic problems. Sugar on a Stick combines powerful tools with a simple and flexible medium of distribution. All of the necessary tools for guide discovery are on the stick. It is also possible to include training and curricula materials targeting specific audiences on the stick. Sugar on a Stick allows one to experience learning software with almost no effort and no risk.

The Live USB approach to distribution of learning tools to a large extent by passes the theme of this debate. The Sugar on a Stick approach allows us to emphasizes access to a learning process over any specific technology or platform.

It is great that there are many different such platforms being developed: a diversity of hardware configurations is necessary to meet the demands of schools, budgets, and cultures. But one can remain agnostic about hardware platforms and configurations, while providing a great learning experience, better utilizing the installed base of computers while tapping the potential to engage every child in critical thinking, arming them with the complementary tools of science and the arts.

“It’s an education project”, after all.

One Response to “Platform Agnostic Approaches to Empower Bottom-Up Edcuational Change”

  1. Thomas,

    Interesting concept, but how does a Cloud Computing required device work in a low-to-no bandwidth setting? In the schools we're talking about Internet access is usually rare and infrequent, if it exists at all. A Cloud Computing solution, while relevant to developed world schools, does not see applicable here.


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