Sugar on a stick, and other delectables (praise for the lowly USB drive)

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another innovative USB stick | image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, used according to the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 What's peripheral? In the case of the use of technology in schools around the world, it is becoming increasingly hard to tell.

In many developing countries, for better and/or for worse, the traditional way to approach large-scale ICT procurements is to divide such undertakings into four primary components: hardware; software (which often includes 'e-content'); connectivity; and peripherals. (Thankfully, 'training' is showing up as a fifth component more and more ... although in most instances we are still only talking about 'technical training'). 

The category of 'peripherals', a catch-all category where one typically finds things like like printers and projectors, is often treated as the poor cousin of the other, 'flashier' components.  But this may be changing.

(The category itself is rather malleable.  In some places, for example, interactive whiteboards are treated as peripherals, in other places they are in a category all their own -- for cost and other reasons.)

Why should we care, you might ask?  This categorization is actually quite important in some places, as many systems seek to impose rough numerical targets to guide purchasing decisions (e.g. x% of ICT hardware costs can be used for 'peripherals'). From a strategic perspective, this sort of segregation by category may also limit the imagination of policymakers as they look to promote 'innovative' teaching and learning practices through the use of technology. 

This week's release of version 1 of 'Sugar on a Stick' highlights the utility, and the power, of one peripheral -- the lowly USB stick.

(Sugar is an innovative piece of software developed originally for the OLPC XO laptop, also known by many as the '$100 laptop'.  For the past year, Sugar's development has been led by Sugar Labs, an organization founded by former OLPC president Walter Bender.  Sugar, which its creators describe as a 'learning platform', is an innovative piece of software meant to encourage critic thinking and other related skills and attitudes in children. More information on Sugar can be found the Sugar Labs web site, where you can download it for free.)

Scores of organizations that work directly with teachers in developing countries have long known that small investments in a 'USB stick for every teacher' often can be an important key to unlocking the value in the higher profile, much costlier investments in school computer equipment.  In places where one-to-one computing is simply too expensive to consider, and where 'storing your files in the cloud' is still a long way off, the idea of every teacher or student having their own, personal USB stick, holding their personal files, which they can carry with them from classroom to computer lab, from Internet cafe to home, offers a degree of data portability and ownership that is a few steps removed from the oft-stated ideal of 'one laptop for all', but still quite valuable. And in some small ways, even revolutionary.

Educational policymakers are slowly beginning to understand that these cheap devices can be used not only to store files, but that you can actually run programs off them.  For the tech-savvy readers of this blog, this may be very old news, of course.  Things like Computer-on-a-Stick have been around for quite awhile, and even many non-tech-savvy people working in restrictive corporate computing environments have long known that it is possible to run portable versions of Firefox off a USB stick (as I am doing right now!), something made quite easy with the assistance of tools like PortableApps

From an educational technology perspective, what's peripheral, and what's central, is becoming increasingly blurred.  As USB, bluetooth and wi-fi allow us to connect devices together in new and inventive ways, and as devices at the edge proliferate, and become more powerful, the idea of peripherals as simple 'add-ons' to other ICT devices is more and more tenuous.

The use in schools of various things now classified as 'peripheral' in many places -- things like dataloggers or probeware, things like graphing calculators, things like Sugar on a Stick -- should be debated on their merits as tools for learning, and not dismissed simply because of arbitrary budget categorizations.

Whether or not you tend to think of such tools as peripheral or not, in the end it should come down what is really central -- the learner.

The image used at the top of this blog posting is used according to the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 and comes courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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