Sugar Labs @ NDSU

Building a smarter computing culture in Fargo, ND

Sugar and The Shallows


Chris and I have been thinking about our Sugar experiment at Madison Elementary in relation to a number of high profile slogans and questions like Douglas Rushkoff’s “program or be programmed,” Alan Kaye’s “are computers making us stupid?” (via Susan Barnes, blogged on this site) and Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google making us stupid?” or the subtitle of his book, The Shallows, “What’s the Internet Doing to our Brain?” This post is going to try to wrestle with Carr.

Carr is obviously not dealing with Sugar: he is dealing with the Internet, with Google specifically, and sometimes with video games. He provides some compelling research out of cognitive psychology that has shown things like IQ gains in spatial reasoning but flat lines in math and literacy scores, gains that seem to be connected to computer use.  He cites studies that show the poor reading habits of internet readers–poor comprehension of message, frequent and easy distractions, etc. He doesn’t say much that is surprising, but he documents pretty convincingly trends that any one thinking about the internet, computers, and games, would suspect.  He worries about a loss of culture and a loss of wisdom because of the shallowness of engagement with text, ideas, and people seemingly facilitated by Internet culture, but he is also not a complete doom-and-gloom story teller. He acknowledges the gains, and he recognizes the compelling nature of the medium(s). He had to cut himself off to get his book written, but he happily returned to surfing and blogging when the project was complete.

Sugar is not the technological solution to any of these problems, although it could make some positive contributions to making kids smarter in a few ways.

1. Limited distractions. Rather than window upon window, Sugar gets users to focus on one program or activity at a time. While it is certainly possible to leave an activity and go to something else (the kids always want to leave whatever we are doing and go to chat), the interface encourages a more focused engagement with the activity at hand. This feature could be promoted more. We have certainly seen sustained engagement with Turtle Blocks and E-toys (at times).

2. Problem solving. Carr, in the last chapter, draws upon a couple of well-designed, compelling studies that had two groups of users solving problems. One group had an easy interface, an interface that offered help and drag and drop kinds of qualities; the other had a difficult interface, and gave the users with no help. The first group solved the problems they were given quickly, but they didn’t seem to learn much and couldn’t handle difficult problems. The second group was slow to learn but the learning was deep and significant–they could handle more complex problems later on.  Sugar is much more like the later; a challenging (because unfamiliar) interface, difficult to learn, but once kids (and adults) start learning, confidence starts to grow. We’ve had students balk at the challenge of doing some of the projects in Turtle Blocks, but when we push them through the initial challenge, they gain confidence, speed, and skills.  We would love to track them and see how much this experience carries over (transfers) in to different problem solving situations.

3. Math knowledge, math scores. I’m an English professor, not a math professor, but I am definitely getting a math work out, and can see the potential for teaching math (particularly geometry) through Turtle.  I don’t know how Sugar stacks up against other math programs, but Turtle clearly requires applied math knowledge; it isn’t a drill and skill kind of program.  Memorize could do that for students who need to memorize things; Turtle requires applied knowledge.

I don’t see anything about Sugar that is going to contribute to regained cultural knowledge or literacy skills. Sure, there is a Gutenberg Project reader that can give users access to e-books, but as an interface, Sugar (on any machine) is not going to compete with books or other devices.  Yes, there is a Write activity, and the kids all tell us that they prefer to compose on computers to pen and paper, so there is some potential for Sugar to support more and better writing (the Maine Laptop project has found the laptops useful in this area), but MS Word might do that as well as Write (maybe better). E-toys, and perhaps Turtle, have potential for supporting 21st century literacy skills–multimodal compositions, stories that combine programing and narrative–but these projects would not really address the problem Carr sees–depth engagement with culture, with big ideas, with wisdom.

And while I don’t agree entirely with Carr, I think this is a challenge that Chris and I and others need to think about with Sugar.  How do we use the tools available to support a deeper engagement with culture, big ideas, social problems, and wisdom?  Perhaps we could think of something like this: students (at the appropriate grade level, whatever that is) do a unit a wisdom traditions, collect aphorisms (although I suppose this could lead to shallowness) and program a kind of oracle.  I’m just stealing, or perhaps was inevitably lead to  Greg Ulmer’s ideas about an Internet Oracle, because he too has been interested in retaining the wisdom traditions of the world, but is more willing to think about how they can be engaged with in an era of electracy, rather than literacy.

Bottom line: Sugar won’t make kids stupid; it has the potential to make them smarter in a variety of ways.

4 comments on “Sugar and The Shallows

  1. Nick Doiron
    March 17, 2011

    > potential for Sugar to support more and better writing (the Maine Laptop project has found the laptops useful in this area), but MS Word might do that as well as Write

    Because Write is open source, it could be modified to upload assignments to a class website directly, or to analyze writing. For example, Write could track which spelling mistakes students are making. I wrote a post with ideas a few months ago: http://mapuganda.blogspot.com/2010/11/viewing-from-afar-analyzing-writing.html

  2. kab13
    March 18, 2011

    Thanks for the comment and link to your post, Nick. We do need to start thinking more about how to use the computing power of programming with something like Write. I like the idea of tracing spelling mistakes, but as a writing teacher I also worry about how that kind of feedback leads to an overemphasis on spelling and an under-emphasis on writing. Here is an idea:

    What if the program could ask writers to construct an “avatar” before they start writing? First prompt would be “who are you writing for?” and students would fill that in: my teacher. Then “what do you know about him or her relevant to this writing task?” and they would fill that in. Maybe limit it to a few basic question, and then “presto,” an avatar pops up in the bottom right of the screen to remind students of their avatar. Additional info could be added as needed.

    Hmm. Easy enough to imagine this stuff. Who will build it? Who will test it? Will it work? Will it be worth the time and effort?

  3. Kevin Brooks
    April 4, 2011

    An extensive review of The Shallows: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n05/jim-holt/smarter-happier-more-productive

    Conclusion: we were busy and distracted before the internet. A grain of truth in that, but now is different.

  4. Pingback: Edutainment Ratios & Device Wars « The Fargo XO / Sugar Project

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2011 by in pedagogy, readingnotes, Sugar, Turtle and tagged .

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