A Complete Literacy Experience For Young Children

From the “I should have posted this months ago” vault…

When I led technology development at One Laptop per Child Australia, I maintained two golden rules:

  1. everything that we release must ‘just work’ from the perspective of the user (usually a child or teacher), and
  2. no special technical expertise should ever be required to set-up, use or maintain the technology.

In large part, I believe that we were successful.

Once the more obvious challenges have been identified and cleared, some more fundamental problems become evident. Our goal was to improve educational opportunities for children as young as possible, but proficiently using computers to input information can require a degree of literacy.

Sugar Labs have done stellar work in questioning the relevance of the desktop metaphor for education, and in coming up with a more suitable alternative. This proved to be a remarkable platform for developing a touch-screen laptop, in the form of the XO-4 Touch: the icons-based user interface meant that we could add touch capabilities with relatively few user-visible tweaks. The screen can be swivelled and closed over the keyboard as with previous models, meaning that this new version can be easily converted into a pure tablet at will.

Revisiting Our Assumptions

Still, a fundamental assumption has long gone unchallenged on all computers: the default typeface and keyboard. It doesn’t at all represent how young children learn the English alphabet or literacy. Moreover, at OLPC Australia we were often dealing with children who were behind on learning outcomes, and who were attending school with almost no exposure to English (since they speak other languages at home). How are they supposed to learn the curriculum when they can barely communicate in the classroom?

Looking at a standard PC keyboard, you’ll see that the keys are printed with upper-case letters. And yet, that is not how letters are taught in Australian schools. Imagine that you’re a child who still hasn’t grasped his/her ABCs. You see a keyboard full of unfamiliar symbols. You press one, and on the screen pops up a completely different looking letter! The keyboard may be in upper-case, but by default you’ll get the lower-case variants on the screen.

A standard PC keyboard
A standard PC keyboard

Unfortunately, the most prevalent touch-screen keyboard on the marke isn’t any better. Given the large education market for its parent company, I’m astounded that this has not been a priority.

The Apple iOS keyboard
The Apple iOS keyboard

Better alternatives exist on other platforms, but I still was not satisfied.

A Re-Think

The solution required an examination of how children learn, and the challenges that they often face when doing so. The end result is simple, yet effective.

The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)
The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)

This image contrasts the standard OLPC mechanical keyboard with the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard that we developed. Getting there required several considerations:

  1. a new typeface, optimised for literacy
  2. a cleaner design, omitting characters that are not common in English (they can still be entered with the AltGr key)
  3. an emphasis on lower-case
  4. upper-case letters printed on the same keys, with the Shift arrow angled to indicate the relationship
  5. better use of symbols to aid instruction

One interesting user story with the old keyboard that I came across was in a remote Australian school, where Aboriginal children were trying to play the Maze activity by pressing the opposite arrows that they were supposed to. Apparently they thought that the arrows represented birds’ feet! You’ll see that we changed the arrow heads on the literacy keyboard as a result.

We explicitly chose not to change the QWERTY layout. That’s a different debate for another time.

The Typeface

The abc123 typeface is largely the result of work I did with John Greatorex. It is freely downloadable (in TrueType and FontForge formats) and open source.

After much research and discussions with educators, I was unimpressed with the other literacy-oriented fonts available online. Characters like ‘a’ and ‘9’ (just to mention a couple) are not rendered in the way that children are taught to write them. Young children are also susceptible to confusion over letters that look similar, including mirror-images of letters. We worked to differentiate, for instance, the lower-case L from the upper-case i, and the lower-case p from the lower-case q.

Typography is a wonderfully complex intersection of art and science, and it would have been foolhardy for us to have started from scratch. We used as our base the high-quality DejaVu Sans typeface. This gave us a foundation that worked well on screen and in print. Importantly for us, it maintained legibility at small point sizes on the 200dpi XO display.

On the Screen

abc123 is a suitable substitute for DejaVu Sans. I have been using it as the default user interface font in Ubuntu for over a year.

It looks great in Sugar as well. The letters are crisp and easy to differentiate, even at small point sizes. We made abc123 the default font for both the user interface and in activities (applications).

The abc123 font in Sugar's Write activity, on an XO laptop screen
The abc123 font in Sugar’s Write activity, on an XO laptop screen

Likewise, the touch-screen keyboard is clear and simple to use.

The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen keyboard, on an XO laptop screen
The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen keyboard, on an XO laptop screen

The end result is a more consistent literacy experience across the whole device. What you press on the hardware or touch-screen keyboard will be reproduced exactly on the screen. What you see on the user interface is also what you see on the keyboards.

HTML5 support in Browse

One of the most exciting improvements in OLPC OS 12.1.0 is a revamped Browse activity:

Browse, Wikipedia and Help have been moved from Mozilla to WebKit internally, as the Mozilla engine can no longer be embedded into other applications (like Browse) and Mozilla has stated officially that it is unsupported. WebKit has proven to be a far superior alternative and this represents a valuable step forward for Sugar’s future. As a user, you will notice faster activity startup time and a smoother browsing experience. Also, form elements on webpages are now themed according to the system theme, so you’ll see Sugar’s UI design blending more into the web forms that you access.

In short, the Web will be a nicer place on XOs. These improvements (and more!) will be making their way onto One Education XOs (such as those in Australia) in 2013.

Here are the results from the HTML5 Test using Browse 140 on OLPC OS 12.1.0 on an XO-1.75. The final score (345 and 15 bonus points) compares favourably against other Web browsers. Firefox 14 running on my Fedora 17 desktop scores 345 and 9 bonus points.

Update: Rafael Ortiz writes, “For the record previous non-webkit versions of browse only got 187 points on html5test, my beta chrome has 400 points, so it’s a great advance!

XO-1 Training Pack

Our One Education programme is growing like crazy, and many existing deployments are showing interest. We wanted to give them a choice of using their own XOs to participate in the teacher training, rather than requiring them to purchase new hardware. Many have developer-locked XO-1s, necessitating a different approach than our official One Education OS.

The solution is our XO-1 Training Pack. This is a reconfiguration of OLPC OS 10.1.3 to be largely consistent with our 10.1.3-au release. It has been packaged for easy installation.

Note that this is not a formal One Education OS release, and hence is not officially supported by OLPC Australia.

If you’d like to take part in the One Education programme, or have questions, use the contact form on the front page.

Update: We have a list of improvements in 10.1.3-au builds over the OLPC OS 10.1.3 release. Note that some features are not available in the XO-1 Training Pack owing to the lesser storage space available on XO-1 hardware. The release notes have been updated with more detail.

Update: More information on our One News site.

XO-AU OS 12.0 Release Candidate 2 released

Release Candidate 2 of the 2012 OLPC Australia operating system, XO-AU OS 12, has been released. We hope to make a final release in two weeks, in time for the start of term 2 of school in Queensland and Northern Territory.

To get started, visit our release notes page.

Installing the Release Candidate is no different from installing the XO-AU USB 3 stable release: extract the zip file to a USB stick and you’re ready to go.

The “What’s New” section outlines the changes in this release.

To provide feedback, please join our technical mailing list.

Following this, you can send your comments or ask questions on the list. The OLPC Australia Engineering team are active participants on this list, and we will reply. Remember, the better you can help us with quality information, the better we can make the product for you 🙂

OLPC Australia Education Newsletter, Edition 9

Edition 9 of the OLPC Australia Education Newsletter is now available.

In this edition, we provide a few classroom ideas for mathematics, profile the Jigsaw activity, de-mystify the Home views in Sugar and hear about the OLPC journey of Girraween Primary School.

To subscribe to receive future updates, send an e-​​mail to education-​newsletter+subscribe@​laptop.​org.​au.

OLPC Australia XO-AU OS 12 beta 1

The OLPC Australia XO-AU OS 12 has reached beta 1. This is based on OLPC OS 11.3.1 and Dextrose 3.

We’d really appreciate some testing. Please direct your feedback to the OLPC Australia mailing list.

Here is the notice I sent out to teachers:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Sridhar Dhanapalan
Date: 24 December 2011
Subject: Taking part in improving new XO software


The 2012 OLPC Australia operating system, XO-AU OS 12, has reached a
beta stage of development. It has many improvements, and we looking
for feedback on how it works to help us create the final product. This
beta is suitable for testing, documentation and developing lesson

In early February, we will have a near-final release candidate,
suitable for trialling in classrooms. We are looking for clever
teachers to provide us with real-world feedback on how the software
works with their classes.

This is an opportunity for you to take part in XO development and
ensure that the device suits the needs of your classroom. We would be
especially interested to know how the connectivity and collaboration
works on your school’s networks.

To get started, visit our release notes page:

This page outlines the main changes in the new operating system. Go to
the “Beta 1” part of the Installation section. Installing the beta is
no different from installing the XO-AU USB 3 stable release: extract
the zip file to a USB stick and you’re ready to go.

To provide feedback, join our technical mailing list:

Following this, you can send your comments or ask questions at
olpc-au at lists dot laptop dot org

The OLPC Australia Engineering team are active participants on this
list, and we will reply. Remember, the better you can help us with
quality information, the better we can make the product for you 🙂


Are you sick of highly paid teachers???

This has been making the rounds lately and is an absolute gem:

Teachers’ hefty salaries are driving up taxes, and they only work 9 or 10 months a year! It’s time we put things in perspective and pay them for what they do — babysit! We can get that for minimum wage. That’s right. Let’s give them $3.00 an hour and only the hours they worked; not any of that silly planning time, or any time they spend before or after school. That would be $19.50 a day (7:45 to 3:00 PM with 45 min off for lunch and planning that equals 6 1/2 hours). Each parent should pay $19.50 a day for these teachers to baby-sit their children. Now how many students do they teach in a day… maybe 30? So that’s $19.50 x 30 = $585.00 a day.

However, remember they only work 180 days a year!!! I am not going to pay them for any holidays. LET’S SEE…. That’s $585 X 180 = $105,300 per year. (Hold on! My calculator needs new batteries.) What about those special education teachers and the ones with Master’s degrees or higher duties? Well, we could pay them minimum wage ($7.75), and just to be fair, round it off to $8.00 an hour (but we shouldn’t get carried away). That would be $8 X 6 1/2 hours X 30 children X 180 days = $280,800 per year. Wait a minute — there’s something wrong here! There sure is!

The average teacher’s salary (nation wide) is $50,000. $50,000/180 days = $277.77/per day/30 students=$9.25/6.5 hours = $1.42 per hour per student — a very inexpensive baby-sitter and they even EDUCATE your kids!) WHAT A DEAL!!!!

Make a teacher smile; re-post this to show appreciation for all educators.

I don’t think the dollar values are for Australia — our minimum wage is higher than $3.00. The point should be obvious nonetheless: we seriously undervalue the people who are responsible for educating our children.