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.