High sugar can be good

Having recently been diagnosed with high sugar levels, I was delighted to find a type of sugar that I could indulge in freely.

The product in question is not food, unfortunately, but is the free Sugar Learning Platform which was released onto the Internet in the last couple of weeks. It is a complete learning platform which can run on just about any computer and can be installed on any USB flash drive with a capacity greater than 1 GB.

It is available from the Sugar Labs website and was apparently first developed for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO-1 computer, which I’ve mentioned before in the column. The Sugar Learning Platform, or Sugar for short, is apparently being used by over a million children, speaking 25 different languages, all round the world.

Getting a copy of Sugar and installing it is a fairly easy process, although the file is just over 380Mb in size, and so the download takes quite a while. You then need another much smaller program called Fedora Live USB Creator, to transfer Sugar onto a USB stick, in such a way that a compatible computer can boot from it.

Older computers won’t boot from a memory stick but you have the option of downloading a file which you can use to create a CD-ROM disc to boot from. Fortunately, the instructions on the website are pretty clear and you shouldn’t have too much problem getting it installed on any Windows, Linux or Apple PC.

The install process is fiddly but the benefits include the fact that the user’s computing activities take place only on the memory stick, keeping files on the hard drive insulated from harm. Other benefits include the fact that you can use Sugar on a computer without a hard drive, that users can plug into any convenient computer, and that many people can share one computer.

I finally got Sugar up and running on my PC and found that it has a spare and clean layout which children, and older users, should have no problem in learning. The first time Sugar boots, it asks you for your name and, once that’s done, you are taken to a screen where you can choose from a wide range of different activities.

The word activities, it should be explained, describes not only the things you do with Sugar, but is also the word Sugar Labs uses in place of the word programs. Thus, you would use the Journal activity if you wanted to indulge in the activity of reading an electronic book, for example.

Activities include music players, a web browser, a wordprocessor, games, and so forth. There are also puzzle activities to be solved, activities for reading electronic books, for composing music, for computer programming, and there is even some reference material and maps to be going on with.

The idea was that the OLPC laptops would be equipped with wireless networking and that, even if not directly connected to the Internet, children in the classroom could use the facility. Thus, most of the activities have collaborative features built-in and users can easily design graphics, put slideshows and music together, or solve problems in cooperatively.

One of the central organising features of Sugar is the Journal which records everything that the user does, including all the projects they create, and makes it easy for parents or teachers to see exactly what the child has been up to.

I did find the interface a little puzzling here and there, largely because I’m so used to doing things in a particular ‘Windows’ way. Luckily, there is a very decent user manual which you can download and which has plenty of notes for teachers and parents. In addition, many of the activities include a lesson plan which the teacher can refer to.

I must say that I was quite excited by the whole concept of Sugar and can see that it could be extremely useful in places such as South Africa, where there is no way we could afford to buy a computer for every child. On the other hand, we might just be able to provide each of them with a memory stick with Sugar installed, which they can plug into any PC that they can get access to.

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