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

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.