Category Archives: syndication-floss

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.

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.

Creating an Education Programme

OLPC Australia had a strong presence at linux.conf.au 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
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 🙂

Evaluation

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.

Credits

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