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.

A Complete Literacy Experience For Young Children / Sridhar Dhanapalan by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.