I did not totally despair when OLPC announced that it was cutting most of its engineering team. I am confident that Sugar can continue as a FOSS project independently of OLPC but its effectiveness hinges on how closely it can tie the development of Sugar to the needs of deployments. Further, the SugarLabs community needs to expand the diversity of its membership and to broaden its pedagogical approach.
One of the greatest losses in OLPC's recent job-shedding was in Project Manager Greg Smith. He had a tremendous talent for working w/ deployments and pushing their requirements into Sugar.
Before Greg, I often felt like that my requirements for Sugar fell on deaf ears. When I presented a requirement I was answered with roughly "That's not a problem, you're just doing it wrong." I don't see anyone taking up Greg's role currently and nor is it clear to me how SugarLabs will support deployments.
More simply put: The weaker SugarLabs' ties to deployments, the less relevant Sugar will be. At this time, those links are tenuous. Sugarlabs currently relies on an informal network of people like myself to push requirements to the developers.
Now, one can argue that Sugarlabs is still young and can develop these systems in time. But Sugarlabs should at least have a roadmap to build up these systems.
An (almost) All-Boyz Club
There are far too few women and no professional primary or secondary school teachers involved in Sugar. This is a critical weakness. Mel Chua and Caroline Meeks are women making an important impact on Sugar but two is too few. Educational software designed largely by male engineers will reflect the perspective of male engineers. We know that different people learn in very different ways. Sugar has to encompass those differences in order to be effective.
Too many of us are operating on the assumption that Sugar is a better UI for kids than traditional UI's. We need to put those assumptions to the test. Sugar has been in existence for some time now and needs to be put to some serious HCI testing.
Papert Pros and Cons
Dr. Seymour Papert is the pedagogical saint of OLPC and Sugar. Dr. Papert had a lot of great ideas about how kids can learn mathematics and science.
He had no professional experience as a primary or secondary school teacher, nor did he spend much of his career navigating the bureaucracies of public education systems. Sugar reflects many of Papert's great ideas. The difficulties one faces when integrating Sugar into schools reflects either Papert's lack of experience working within educational bureaucracies or a lack of interest in them.
The early development of Sugar was completely oblivious to the existence of an already great piece of educational software: moodle. Moodle excels at helping teachers organize their materials, distribute them, and monitoring student progress.
Too often, sugar developers discuss new features for Sugar that moodle already has. At XO Camp 2 last week, someone proposed a new feature for Sugar. Martin Langhoff, XS architect and long-time moodle contributor, quickly spoke "But, moodle already does that."
I get the sense that the principle "What Would Seymour Do" (WWSD) guides design decisions for Sugar. Jon Camfield's piece "Seymour Papert's Past is OLPC's Prologue" does an excellent job of detailing Seymour's mixed results working in real schools. It is time for Sugar to broaden its pedagogical moorings. The best place to start is establishing effective channels of communication with deployments.
Papert's theories are great but Sugarlabs needs to take its cues from educators who have and/or are actively implementing technology in education, particularly those in disadvantaged places.
Going Forward or Backwards?
Dr. Seymour Papert's educational ideas and work have been hugely influential. Sugar may likewise be hugely influential but will fall well short of helping every child "learn learning" unless Sugarlabs makes some important changes.
Bryan Berry is the co-founder and CTO of OLE Nepal, the organization implementing OLPC in Nepal in partnership with Nepal's Department of Education.