Category Archives: Education

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.

Interview with Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network

Adam Holt and I were interviewed last night by the Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network about our not-for-profit work to improve educational opportunities for children in the developing world.

We talked about One Laptop per Child, OLPC Australia and Sugar Labs. We discussed the challenges of providing education in the developing world, and how that compares with the developed world.

Australia poses some of its own challenges. As a country that is 90% urbanised, the remaining 10% are scattered across vast distances. The circumstances of these communities often share both developed and developing world characteristics. We developed the One Education programme to accommodate this.

These lessons have been developed further into Unleash Kids, an initiative that we are currently working on to support the community of volunteers worldwide and take to the movement to the next level.

Published in Engineers Without Borders Magazine

Engineers Without Borders asked me to write something for their Humanitarian Engineering magazine about One Laptop per Child. Here is what I wrote.

The school bell rings, and the children filter into the classroom. Each is holding an XO – their own personal learning device.

Students from Doomadgee often use their XOs for outdoors education. The sunlight-readable screen
combined with the built-in camera allow for hands-on exploration of their environment.

This is no ordinary classroom. As if by magic, the green and white XOs automatically see each other as soon as they are started up, allowing children to easily share information and collaborate on activities together. The kids converse on how they can achieve the tasks at hand. One girl is writing a story on her XO, and simultaneously on the same screen she can see the same story being changed by a boy across the room. Another group of children are competing in a game that involves maths questions.

Children in Kiwirrkurra, WA, collaborate on an activity with help from teachers.

Through the XO, the learning in this classroom has taken on a peer-to-peer character. By making learning more fun and engaging, children are better equipped to discover and pursue their interests. Through collaboration and connectivity, they can exchange knowledge with their peers and with the world. In the 21st century, textbooks should be digital and interactive. They should be up-to-date and locally relevant. They should be accessible and portable.

Of course, the teacher’s role remains vital, and her role has evolved into that of a facilitator in this knowledge network. She is better placed to provide more individual pathways for learning. Indeed the teacher is a learner as well, as the children quickly adapt to the new technology and learn skills that they can teach back.

A teacher in Jigalong, WA, guides a workgroup of children in their class.

Helping to keep the classroom session smoothly humming along are children who have proven themselves to be proficient with assisting their classmates and fixing problems (including repairing hardware). These kids have taken part in training programmes that award them for their skills around the XO. In the process, they are learning important life skills around problem solving and teamwork.

Dozens of students in Doomadgee State School are proficient in fixing XO hardware.

This is all part of the One Education experience, an initiative from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia. This educational programme provides a holistic educational scaffolding around the XO, the laptop developed by the One Laptop per Child Association that has its roots in the internationally-acclaimed MIT Media Lab in the USA.

The XO was born from a desire to empower each and every child in the world with their own personal learning device. Purpose-built for young children and using solid open source software, the XO provides an ideal platform for classroom learning. Designed for outdoors, with a rugged design and a high-resolution sunlight-readable screen, education is no longer confined to a classroom or even to the school grounds. Learning time needn’t stop with the school bell – many children are taking their XOs home. Also important is the affordability and full repairability of the devices, making it cost-effective versus non-durable and ephemeral items such as stationery, textbooks and other printed materials. There are over 3 million XOs in distribution, and in some countries (such as Uruguay) every child owns one.

A One Education classroom in Kenya.

One Education’s mission is to provide educational opportunities to every child, no matter how remote or disadvantaged. The digital divide is a learning divide. This can be conquered through a combination of modern technology, training and support, provided in a manner that empowers local schools and communities. The story told above is already happening in many classrooms around the country and the world.

A One Education classroom in northern Thailand.

With teacher training often being the Achilles’ heel of technology programmes in the field of education, One Education focuses only on teachers who have proven their interest and aptitude through the completion of a training course. Only then are they eligible to receive XOs (with an allocation of spare parts) into their classroom. Certified teachers are eligible for ongoing support from OLPC Australia, and can acquire more hardware and parts as required.

As a not-for-profit, OLPC Australia works with sponsors to heavily subsidise the costs of the One Education programme for low socio-economic status schools. In this manner, the already impressive total cost of ownership can be brought down even further.

High levels of teacher turnover are commonplace in remote Australian schools. By providing courses online, training can be scalable and cost-effective. Local teachers can even undergo further training to gain official trainer status themselves. Some schools have turned this into a business – sending their teacher-trainers out to train teachers in other schools.

Students in Geeveston in Tasmania celebrate their attainment of XO-champion status, recognising
their proficiency in using the XO and their helpfulness in the classroom.

With backing from the United Nations Development Programme, OLPC are tackling the Millennium Development Goals by focusing on Goal 2 (Achieve Universal Primary Education). The intertwined nature of the goals means that progress made towards this goal in turn assists the others. For example, education on health can lead to better hygiene and lower infant mortality. A better educated population is better empowered to help themselves, rather than being dependent on hand-outs. For people who cannot attend a classroom (perhaps because of remoteness, ethnicity or gender), the XO provides an alternative. OLPC’s focus on young children means that children are becoming engaged in their most formative years. The XO has been built with a minimal environmental footprint, and can be run off-grid using alternate power sources such as solar panels.

One Education is a young initiative, formed based on experiences learnt from technology deployments in Australia and other countries. Nevertheless, results in some schools have been staggering. Within one year of XOs arriving in Doomadgee State School in northern Queensland, the percentage of Year 3 pupils meeting national literacy standards leapt from 31% to 95%.

A girl at Doomadgee State School very carefully removes the screen from an XO.

2013 will see a rapid expansion of the programme. With $11.7m in federal government funding, 50,000 XOs will be distributed as part of One Education. These schools will be receiving the new XO Duo (AKA XO-4 Touch), a new XO model developed jointly with the OLPC Association. This version adds a touch-screen user experience while maintaining the successful laptop form factor. The screen can swivel and fold backwards over the keyboard, converting the laptop into a tablet. This design was chosen in response to feedback from educators that a hardware keyboard is preferred to a touch-screen for entering large amounts of information. As before, the screen is fully sunlight-readable. Performance and battery life have improved significantly, and it is fully repairable as before.

As One Education expands, there are growing demands on OLPC Australia to improve the offering. Being a holistic project, there are plenty of ways in which we could use help, including in education, technology and logistics. We welcome you to join us in our quest to provide educational opportunities to the world’s children.

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.

Creating an Education Programme

OLPC Australia had a strong presence at 2012 in Ballarat, two weeks ago.

I gave a talk in the main keynote room about our educational programme, in which I explained our mission and how we intend to achieve it.

Even if you saw my talk at OSDC 2011, I recommend that you watch this one. It is much improved and contains new and updated material. The YouTube version is above, but a higher quality version is available for download from Linux Australia.

The references for this talk are on our development wiki.

Here’s a better version of the video I played near the beginning of my talk:

I should start by pointing out that OLPC is by no means a niche or minor project. XO laptops are in the hands of 8000 children in Australia, across 130 remote communities. Around the world, over 2.5 million children, across nearly 50 countries, have an XO.

Investment in our Children’s Future

The key point of my talk is that OLPC Australia have a comprehensive education programme that highly values teacher empowerment and community engagement.

The investment to provide a connected learning device to every one of the 300 000 children in remote Australia is less than 0.1% of the annual education and connectivity budgets.

For low socio-economic status schools, the cost is only $80 AUD per child. Sponsorships, primarily from corporates, allow us to subsidise most of the expense (you too can donate to make a difference). Also keep in mind that this is a total cost of ownership, covering the essentials like teacher training, support and spare parts, as well as the XO and charging rack.

While our principal focus is on remote, low socio-economic status schools, our programme is available to any school in Australia. Yes, that means schools in the cities as well. The investment for non-subsidised schools to join the same programme is only $380 AUD per child.

Comprehensive Education Programme

We have a responsibility to invest in our children’s education — it is not just another market. As a not-for-profit, we have the freedom and the desire to make this happen. We have no interest in vendor lock-in; building sustainability is an essential part of our mission. We have no incentive to build a dependency on us, and every incentive to ensure that schools and communities can help themselves and each other.

We only provide XOs to teachers who have been sufficiently enabled. Their training prepares them to constructively use XOs in their lessons, and is formally recognised as part of their professional development. Beyond the minimum 15-hour XO-certified course, a teacher may choose to undergo a further 5-10 hours to earn XO-expert status. This prepares them to be able to train other teachers, using OLPC Australia resources. Again, we are reducing dependency on us.

OLPC Australia certifications

Training is conducted online, after the teacher signs up to our programme and they receive their XO. This scales well to let us effectively train many teachers spread across the country. Participants in our programme are encouraged to participate in our online community to share resources and assist one another.

OLPC Australia online training process
Online training process

We also want to recognise and encourage children who have shown enthusiasm and aptitude, with our XO-champion and XO-mechanic certifications. Not only does this promote sustainability in the school and give invaluable skills to the child, it reinforces our core principle of Child Ownership. Teacher aides, parents, elders and other non-teacher adults have the XO-basics (formerly known as XO-local) course designed for them. We want the child’s learning experience to extend to the home environment and beyond, and not be constrained by the walls of the classroom.

There’s a reason why I’m wearing a t-shirt that says “No, I won’t fix your computer.” We’re on a mission to develop a programme that is self-sustaining. We’ve set high goals for ourselves, and we are determined to meet them. We won’t get there overnight, but we’re well on our way. Sustainability is about respect. We are taking the time to show them the ropes, helping them to own it, and developing our technology to make it easy. We fundamentally disagree with the attitude that ordinary people are not capable enough to take control of their own futures. Vendor lock-in is completely contradictory to our mission. Our schools are not just consumers; they are producers too.

As explained by Jonathan Nalder (a highly recommended read!), there are two primary notions guiding our programme. The first is that the nominal $80 investment per child is just enough for a school to take the programme seriously and make them a stakeholder, greatly improving the chances for success. The second is that this is a schools-centric programme, driven from grassroots demand rather than being a regime imposed from above. Schools that participate genuinely want the programme to succeed.

OLPC Australia programme cycle
Programme cycle

Technology as an Enabler

Enabling this educational programme is the clever development and use of technology. That’s where I (as Engineering Manager at OLPC Australia) come in. For technology to be truly intrinsic to education, there must be no specialist expertise required. Teachers aren’t IT professionals, and nor should they be expected to be. In short, we are using computers to teach, not teaching computers.

The key principles of the Engineering Department are:

  • Technology is an integral and seamless part of the learning experience – the pen and paper of the 21st century.
  • To eliminate dependence on technical expertise, through the development and deployment of sustainable technologies.
  • Empowering children to be content producers and collaborators, not just content consumers.
  • Open platform to allow learning from mistakes… and easy recovery.

OLPC have done a marvellous job in their design of the XO laptop, giving us a fantastic platform to build upon. I think that our engineering projects in Australia have been quite innovative in helping to cover the ‘last mile’ to the school. One thing I’m especially proud of is our instance on openness. We turn traditional systems administration practice on its head to completely empower the end-user. Technology that is deployed in corporate or educational settings is typically locked down to make administration and support easier. This takes control completely away from the end-user. They are severely limited on what they can do, and if something doesn’t work as they expect then they are totally at the mercy of the admins to fix it.

In an educational setting this is disastrous — it severely limits what our children can learn. We learn most from our mistakes, so let’s provide an environment in which children are able to safely make mistakes and recover from them. The software is quite resistant to failure, both at the technical level (being based on Fedora Linux) and at the user interface level (Sugar). If all goes wrong, reinstalling the operating system and restoring a journal (Sugar user files) backup is a trivial endeavour. The XO hardware is also renowned for its ruggedness and repairability. Less well-known are the amazing diagnostics tools, providing quick and easy indication that a component should be repaired/replaced. We provide a completely unlocked environment, with full access to the root user and the firmware. Some may call that dangerous, but I call that empowerment. If a child starts hacking on an XO, we want to hire that kid 🙂


My talk features the case study of Doomadgee State School, in far-north Queensland. Doomadgee have very enthusiastically taken on board the OLPC Australia programme. Every one of the 350 children aged 4-14 have been issued with an XO, as part of a comprehensive professional development and support programme. Since commencing in late 2010, the percentage of Year 3 pupils at or above national minimum standards in numeracy has leapt from 31% in 2010 to 95% in 2011. Other scores have also increased. Think what you may about NAPLAN, but nevertheless that is a staggering improvement.

In federal parliament, Robert Oakeshott MP has been very supportive of our mission:

Most importantly of all, quite simply, One Laptop per Child Australia delivers results in learning from the 5,000 students already engaged, showing impressive improvements in closing the gap generally and lifting access and participation rates in particular.

We are also engaged in longitudinal research, working closely with respected researchers to have a comprehensive evaluation of our programme. We will release more information on this as the evaluation process matures.

Join our mission

Schools can register their interest in our programme on our Education site.

Our Prospectus provides a high-level overview.

For a detailed analysis, see our Policy Document.

If you would like to get involved in our technical development, visit our development site.


Many thanks to Tracy Richardson (Education Manager) for some of the information and graphics used in this article.

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.

OLPC Australia talk at OSDC 2011

Update: my talk has been covered by OLPC News.

Here’s the video of the talk I said I’d be giving at OSDC 2011, titled Australia’s Toughest Linux Deploy­ment:

In it, I outline our educational programme and how the technology fits into it. Some key points:

  • we have a better version on YouTube of the video I show in the talk
  • we maintain a Policy Document, which provides an overview of our overall programme
  • OLPC Australia have two core principles in addition to OLPC’s original five
  • we have some support in government at different levels — for example, we were praised in federal parliament and the print media (paywall) by a prominent federal Member of Parliament
  • we have deployments across remote Australia — a feat that can only be managed through building self-sufficiency
  • our programme is showing beneficial results, and we are engaged in longitudinal and detailed evaluation
  • we have a comprehensive educational programme, with online training and certifications (such as our XO-cert course)
  • we are breaking dependence on special expertise and infrastructure — building sustainability and grass-roots support is key
  • deployments are made at the classroom level, which is more manageable than saturating a whole school at once
  • we don’t provide XOs without training — a teacher must earn a certification before they can receive XOs for their class
  • our support is focused on enabling schools and communities to help themselves, and each other
  • we have innovated in the technology space, with offerings such as the XO-AU OS, XO-AU USB, XOP and XS-AU
  • contextualising learning, for example through localisation, is a powerful tool to improve engagement from the child, school and community
  • we invite people to join our development efforts
  • there’s a nice surprise mentioned towards the end, which I shall elaborate upon in the near future 🙂

For those of you who have seen me speak about OLPC Australia at SLUG, this is a much more polished talk.

Speaking at OSDC 2011 on OLPC Australia

I am speaking next Thursday at the Open Source Developers’ Conference 2011 in Canberra. The title is Australia’s Toughest Linux Deployment. Yes it’s a play on the ruggedness and flexibility of the XO’s design to meet the needs of remote communities.

Here’s the talk abstract:

A 300,000 seat Linux deployment is nothing to sneeze at. What if those seats were actually children’s laps? By providing a flexible learning platform, OLPC Australia aims to create a sustainable and comprehensive programme to enhance opportunities for every child in remote Australia. What’s more, we plan to achieve this by 2014.

In focusing on the most remote areas of the continent, the mission is by no means easy. These areas are typically not economically viable for a business to service, hence the need for a not-for-profit in the space. Expertise for hardware and software is virtually non-existent. Settlements are small and spread very far apart. Environmental conditions, cultures and lifestyles vary wildly. They are very different worlds from the coastal cities where the bureaucracies are based.

Even within communities, differences abound. Schools often stand in stark contrast to their surrounds. Government and business interests have also made their marks.

This talk will outline how OLPC Australia has developed a solution to suit Australian scenarios. Comparisons and contrasts will be made with other “computers in schools” programmes, OLPC deployments around the world and corporate IT projects.

For example, standard sysadmin practice typically mandates tight, centralised control over all systems and infrastructure. The OLPC Australia approach is the exact opposite. By promoting flexibility and ease of use, the programme can achieve sustainability by enabling management at the grass-roots level. The XO laptops themselves are built especially for education. They are extraordinarily rugged as well as being inexpensive. They are also totally repairable in the field, with minimal skill required. Training is conducted online, and an online community allows participants nationwide to share resources.

Key to the ongoing success of the programme is active engagement with all stakeholders, and a recognition of the total cost of ownership over a five-year life cycle.