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Ask Slashdot: Teaching Typing With Limited Electricity, Computers? 325

Posted by timothy
from the muscle-memory dept.
An anonymous reader writes "I am tasked with developing a service project to teach students in a Bangladeshi village how to type. The school has about 500 students, 12 computers donated to them in 2006, and a limited electricity supply. The students will be given job placement opportunities at a local firm in the city once they reach a certain proficiency. Therefore, we are trying to teach as many of them typing skills as possible. The problem: limited electricity, limited computers, many kids. I have some additional funding collected through donations. Instead of buying more computers, I am looking for a cost effective way that does not need a steady flow of electricity. I realize that to teach typing, I do not need a computer. I could achieve the same using a keyboard connected to a display. A solar powered calculator is a perfect example of a cheap device which has a numpad for input and an LCD for display. But so far I have not come across a device that has a qwerty keyboard and an LCD to display what's typed. I know there are some gaming keyboards that have LCDs built in but they are quite expensive. I am aiming to build a device that cost below USD 50. I considered using typewriters but they are in limited supply on the market. I also considered OLPC but it is double my anticipated budget. Do you have other suggestions?" Considering that (at least in China) sub-$50 Android tablets with capacitive screens are already here, I wish the Alphasmart line was cheaper, but apparently it currently starts at $169.
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Ask Slashdot: Teaching Typing With Limited Electricity, Computers?

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  • Typewriter (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:39PM (#41376531)

    What about an old fashioned typewriter?

    • Re:Typewriter (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anne Thwacks (531696) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:06PM (#41376961)
      My mother, now aged 85, learned to type using a printed picture of a keyboard, and exercises very similar to "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing". Its true there is no record of what keys you actually press, etc, but she could type a lot faster than I ever could, and is using an IPad as I type this.

      My point is: stop being obsessed with technology: anyone in the third world can have a photocopy of a picture of a keyboad, and probably has the motivation to try and learn with it. Once a week, use a real machine to test their progress if you have to. (Yes I have visited third world countries).

      • by na1led (1030470)

        stop being obsessed with technology

        I think the whole point is to learn technology, otherwise, what's the point.

        • Re:Typewriter (Score:4, Insightful)

          by MerlynEmrys67 (583469) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:30PM (#41377329)
          No - the point is to learn typing. Once you learn to type you can efficiently learn the technology of the limited computers. Frankly - the only class that has any value to me from high school was my freshman year typing class taught on an old IBM Selectric typewriter. Heck - the description in the summary is begging for a typewriter.

          Technology for technology sake is never the answer - old school devices still rule, there is usually never a need for fancy modern devices, they just make thinks easier and more convenient if you happen to have money (and in this case electricity)

          • No - the point is to learn typing. Once you learn to type you can efficiently learn the technology of the limited computers. Frankly - the only class that has any value to me from high school was my freshman year typing class taught on an old IBM Selectric typewriter. Heck - the description in the summary is begging for a typewriter.

            Technology for technology sake is never the answer - old school devices still rule, there is usually never a need for fancy modern devices, they just make thinks easier and more convenient if you happen to have money (and in this case electricity)

            I agree with you (wrt mechanical typewriters). I see a problems of logistics though (speaking from personal experience since I learned on a mechanical typewriter). You need paper (lots of it the better), ribbons and white-outs. It takes practice, practice and practice, with the actual output available for grading. Hammering at the keys, hitting an empty rubber drum won't tell the student whether he's making typing mistakes.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Another anecdote from 20+ years ago: I grew up using the hunt-and-peck method, and then I took a typing class my first semester in high school. The class used powered, mechanical typewriters with the correction ribbon removed so we wouldn't be tempted to backspace; our exercises were timed, and we had to start with a fresh piece of paper to fix any mistakes.

        I was doing very poorly in the class, so one afternoon I took the bold step of covering my hands with a piece of blank paper. This forced me to visualiz

      • For that matter, let them learn with a real PS/2 keyboard - just not connected to anything. That would still be quite useful for the look and feel part.

        [Otherwise, PS2 keyboards are easy to interface and power - you could build something cheap ($10) out of a PIC and a 1 line LCD display]

      • My mother, now aged 85, learned to type using a printed picture of a keyboard, and exercises very similar to "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing". Its true there is no record of what keys you actually press, etc, but she could type a lot faster than I ever could, and is using an IPad as I type this.

        My point is: stop being obsessed with technology: anyone in the third world can have a photocopy of a picture of a keyboad, and probably has the motivation to try and learn with it. Once a week, use a real machine to test their progress if you have to. (Yes I have visited third world countries).

        That won't work. I speak from personal experience (borned & raised in a third world country). I learned typing with a mechanical typewriter. You have to have a physical feedback from the type writer to develop the necessary muscle memory.

        You also need paper to see that you are typing, and to see if you are doing it right or wrong. And when you commit errors, you need to see how often you made them and where on the keyboard layout. Finally you develop the speed to type with a high degree of correctnes

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      What about an old fashioned typewriter?

      The summary says: " I considered using typewriters but they are in limited supply on the market."

      So...exactly how did that get modded 'insightful'?

    • What about an old fashioned typewriter?

      I learned on regular typewriters in middle school in the late 80's. Worked fine for me. Of course he's got to buy ink and paper. If he could find them, he could probably get used typewriters free. Brother still makes electric typewriters, but that doesn't really solve the problem.

  • by multipartmixed (163409) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:42PM (#41376581) Homepage

    If you just want to learn to type, you could possibly provision some purely-mechanical keyboards.

    The displays would not need to be particularly high-tech; you could go with a hemp or wood pulp WOD (write only display) that works by mechanically striking the pulp with an embossed pigment delivery die.

    • by Fox_1 (128616)
      I know this (the parent) is a joke, but the basis of learning to type is drill and repitition. I see nothing wrong with just geting a bunch of keyboards, don't bother to get computers for them and have the kids drill.
      A A A A
      S S S S
      ASDF
      etc.
      If the kid is going to hit the letter 'W' 12 times in a row, they don't need to see it actually show up on screen or paper, that's not the point, the point is to establish the muscle memory. Make sure the kids have the finger movements down in drill before yo
      • by PNutts (199112)

        Heck, you can even pair them up and monitor each other.

      • Two kids per keyboard, one to touch type, the second to hit him when the wrong key is pressed. Kids are plentiful, they make great computer substitutes.
    • by cvtan (752695)
      Gee, this is almost the same acronym as the wood-insulated gate write-only memory, the WIGWOM.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    "I considered using typewriters but they are in limited supply on the market"

    " I also considered OLPC but it is double my anticipated budget."

    "Do you have other suggestions?"

  • by localman57 (1340533) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:46PM (#41376651)
    It would be fairly trivial to combine a low end Arduino platform, old PS2 keyboards, and an HD44780 based 40x2 LCD into a system that would cost under $30 each, and run on 4 AA NIMH batteries. You could recharge the batteries when the power was available.
    • by MightyYar (622222)

      You don't even need the LCD. There is no reason for the student to review their results real-time. Just a simple circuit to read the keypresses and store them for later retrieval. You could probably operate the device on a watch battery for a year.

    • by rgbscan (321794)

      Indeed... buy it now... $9.99

      http://www.ebay.com/itm/ALPHASMART-dana-wireless-Portable-Word-Processor-100-Tested-Working-DANA-/370652122952?pt=BI_Typewriters_Word_Processors&hash=item564c968f48

  • AlphaSmart (Score:3, Informative)

    by akerasi (1076913) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:46PM (#41376655)
    Old AlphaSmart devices can be had VERY cheaply on e-bay. You already know what they are, since you did mention them, and other than mechanical typewriters, they may be your best bet. Just need a pile of AA batteries.
  • Pair typing. It's agile and totally moar extream.

  • Allow me to be among the first not to duplicate roc97007's comment:

    Considering that (at least in China) sub-$50 Android tablets with capacitive screens are already here

    The problem with trying to type (or to game) on a tablet with a capacitive touch screen is that most such screens have no texture to indicate the positions of the keys. A touch typist positions his hands relative to the keys by feeling the bumps on the F and J keys and the edges of the other keys, and he can't do that on a typical tablet [pineight.com].

  • by mbone (558574) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:48PM (#41376689)

    Go to the district in Dhaka in that sells used stuff. Buy some manual typewriters. They, obviously, do not need electricity.

  • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:51PM (#41376753)

    Question: "... I considered using typewriters but they are in limited supply on the market. ..."

    Slashdot: "Typewriters"

    • by Zocalo (252965)
      If he can't get hold of typewriters in a country sandwiched between India and Burma, then he's not looking hard enough or just plain hasn't looked. There must be thousands of the things lying around that left over from the latter days of the British Empire, probably the most pedantic bunch of "fill it in in triplicate" record-keeping bureaucrats that the world has seen. Sure, some of them probably need some work, but you have a ready supply of about 500 kids who could muck in there, and maybe learn a th
      • by mbone (558574)

        Exactly. My experience is in the sub-continent is that nothing usable gets thrown out or, if it does, someone grabs it from the trash and makes use of it.

  • Hunger Games to see who gets to use the computer.
  • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:55PM (#41376797)

    about 500 students

    The students will be given job placement opportunities at a local firm in the city once they reach a certain proficiency

    OK huge call center moving in

    The problem: limited electricity, limited computers,

    The solution seems obvious, ask the call center how they're dealing with having limited electricity and limited computers. If the problems seem insurmountable to them, then your problem doesn't matter because the call center will not be opening. If they have a solution, presumably you can copy their solution.

    Also some simple math here... you've got 500 students and 12 computers. Hmm. You can't really "practice" for too long at a time, even under ideal conditions. So 500 / 12 computers = 41 students per computer. Probably the best way to do this is 48 half hour practice sessions per day. So some kids session will be from 2:30 am to 3 am local, so what, welcome to transcontinental call center operations, he's gonna have to get used to it sooner or later.

    Frankly, the biggest call center problem isn't slow typing. As long as the kids know the alphabet and numbers before learning to type, you'll be OK.

    • The students do not live in the city. They live in a village. They will move from the village to the city where the call center is located once they learn how to type. I imagine there is much less trouble getting a reliable supply of electricity in the city. The call center also, presumably, has a larger budget.

    • by Bigby (659157)

      I think he should put the financial burden on the "local firm". If they want a work force, supply the education center. If the "local firm" works in unbalanced shifts, maybe let the classes run in the "down" shift. That shift might actually be during the day...I am not sure of the market of the "local firm", so I don't know for sure.

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @01:56PM (#41376805) Journal
    Well, I don't know much about what an average Bangladeshi village has on hand but I'm going to wager that it's a very wide spectrum. So my personal advice is no matter what you find to be your solution, you should provide the DIY equivalent any DIY-able components of the pieces. In this way you can treat yourself as a one man thinktank and you can publish this stuff under CCBY3.0 [creativecommons.org] and your project may enjoy self sufficiency without requiring your constant attention.

    So to start at the core of it, I would personally select a $25 non-ethernet (Type A?) Raspberry Pi, an $8 USB keyboard [monoprice.com] and $5 flash card [amazon.com]. From there those little devices have the RCA Video (analog) out and also an HDMI out. So if one of your computers goes bad, you can always rig it up to one of these little guys. However, I also understand that you need more displays. Now this is where you have the option to become a rockstar superman. If you are not afraid of code and working GPIO pins [elinux.org] I would suggest purchasing some of these little guys [parallax.com] first getting it to simply display and read across what they are typing and secondly maybe use one row to take in a file that progresses in typing difficult and displays that on the first line while it waits for input and validates on the second line (might even have room to use LEDs or something else on the RPi for score keeper/carrot/stick. If you document all this, it might turn out that the villagers get wise on how to ripe a seven segment display out of anything and hook it up to these GPIO pins?

    So how to power this? Well the easy way would be to use what you have already available for power but get some of these guys [monoprice.com] and daisy chain these guys [chinabuye.com] from one of your existing computers until they don't produce enough power. I would suggest researching that screen and the Pi and figuring out what their power draw is. Maybe get some cheap fuses to protect your hardware. A lot of broken appliances still have good electric motors in them and electric motors often produce energy as turbines if you spin them. Now, the big problem is how do you clean the power if people are cranking these turbines with their hands or connected to a bike's gear set? That's something I'm not much of an expert in. I do know the Pis run off of two rechargeable AA batteries just great but you also have to take care if they're planning to try to charge those batteries with a hand cranked appliance motor. From my understanding it's pretty tough to not screw stuff up if you're dealing with human generated power. Had to keep that steady and to find existing ways to clean it down to what tiny sensitive devices need.

    The upswing of all this would be that the RPis are versatile, any of those students could really do a whole bunch of things with these. And if you make this a part of the Raspberry Pi wiki, you might get people helping you with those screens -- might. At least others will be able to use your work.
  • You can plug a USB keyboard into any recent Android phone or tablet. Obviously, you can charge them when you have power and use them for many hours. If you look around, you should be able to get a Coby or other Chinese Android tablet and a cheap full-size USB keyboard close to your price range (you also need a USB-to-Go cable, but they are less than $1). I've used them and they are perfectly fine tablets. Students can also use them for reading books.

    There are also some typing tutors, although more geare

  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:06PM (#41376963) Journal

    You have effectively eliminated all of the commercial solutions with your boundary conditions. You indicate that you don't have reliable power - that means you need a power generation device - or a power storage device - as part of your kit, or a device which does not require external power, but you have ruled out typewriters.

    You have $50, total, per piece, into which you would like to provide a monitor of some type. Given that you need a display device, a power supply, and a usable input interface, you have nearly priced yourself out of the market with this parameter alone. To that you need to add a keyboard and an interface (a raspberry pi would work) to the display. But even at the rock bottom price of a Pi, you've in for $30-35 between these two devices.

    I suppose if you can come up with a display with a DVI or HDMI input, plus a power supply, for under $20, you can get close. With the world market these days, if you need it to be cheaper than a COTS solution (commercial off the shelf) - you need a different budget or enough units to justify hardware production runs.

    Have you considered seeing if Dell will ship you a crate of 6 year old laptops for $40 a piece, and you can throw away or keep for salvage the ones which don't work?

  • Well... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:07PM (#41376993) Journal

    New alphasmarts are hilariously overpriced; but used ones can easily be a factor of ten cheaper, so that isn't a bad route to go down. You'll need to fleabay or otherwise scrounge; but you can get them at pleasingly low prices.

    Another option, if the locals have some TVs, might be 'famiclones' or their slightly more modern ilk. The ones that just have controllers are no good; but there is a genre of 'c64' styled keyboard-based ones. RF and/or composite out to a TV, keyboard, usually some sort of BASIC or other typing environment of some degree of not-entirely-useless. Nasty; but cheap, cheap, cheap at the right dodgy flea market.

  • by na1led (1030470) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:11PM (#41377059)
    VTech makes cheap battery operated laptop like learning computers, with full Qwerty keyboard. - http://www.amazon.com/VTech-80-60580-80-60583-Learning-Laptop/dp/B00078ZJ10/ref=sr_1_14?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1347991838&sr=1-14&keywords=vtech+laptop [amazon.com]
  • It's a bit above your $50 price tag, but moments googling "typing tutor toy" [google.com] took a total of 0.8 seconds to complete and brought me this solution [amazon.com] not far from your price range.

    I had something like this as the oldest of 8 kids, the batteries were C or D and lasted for months/years. It was sturdy enough to easily endure the abuse that 8 kids put it through. We weren't "nice" to it.

  • combined keyboard, monitor, mouse, AND UPS into one easy to cary package.

    the UPS part is a must for unreliable electricity.

    depending on what your budget is, how about a single large, UPS for the entire room? or even a small generator?
  • Limited supply or not, manual typewriters are the right answer for several reasons:

    1. From the submission, it seems that everything else that is not in limited supply is too expensive in either cash terms or electricity usage.
    2. High technology devices are more likely to fail, and if they fail, are much more difficult (or impossible) to fix.
    3. Even if the limited electricity supply goes away, a manual typewriter still works.
    4. A decently constructed manual typewriter will outlast any electronic device.

  • Parallax Propeller would be a good CPU for this. It has ready-made libraries for PS/2 peripherals and LCDs, including video output if you'd need that. A project like this would run on a few dozen milliamps at 5V. A single solar battery charging a car battery could easily supply a few full classrooms of those.

  • by steveha (103154) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @02:55PM (#41377647) Homepage

    I just checked eBay, and there are still plenty of Handspring Visors left for sale cheap. Those things go a very long time on a pair of AAA cells. You don't want the color model, you want the black-and-white that takes AAA cells.

    Then for a keyboard:

    http://www.amazon.com/LandWare-GoType-Keyboard-Handspring-Visor/dp/B00004TF4V [amazon.com]

    Finally, buy a stack of NiMH AAA cells and some chargers.

    These should suffice for learning. The keyboard is a little bit small, but I was able to type on it, and my hands are not small.

    I don't know if there are any actual typing tutorial programs, but you might be able to get a college student to write one for you as a project.

    I do remember that there is at least one "typing speed" program for PalmOS. It was intended for users to test their writing speed using the stylus, but it should work for typing.

    steveha

  • I know you said you can't afford OLPC computers. You could try just asking people to donate them, and see if you get any.

    I used to have an OLPC and I gave it to a school in India. Before I handed it over, I bought a $10 USB keyboard, a USB mouse, and I installed a program called "Typing Turtle". Also, I bought an an SD card, and installed a copy of Wikipedia for Schools [schools-wikipedia.org] on it (this is a collection of Wikipedia articles, vetted to remove any vandalism, and indexed so you can use them as pure static web pa

  • by Triv (181010) on Tuesday September 18, 2012 @04:11PM (#41378693) Journal

    Seriously people, stop suggesting typewriters - they're a bitch to repair assuming you can get parts, which you probably can't, are way overbuilt for what he requires of them and, at this point, probably cost more than his $50 budget anyway; all he needs is a qwerty layout with error-checking to make sure the kids are on the right track.

    Just because something is mechanical or non-powered doesn't mean it's simpler, easier, or cheaper. Try to answer his actual question without getting all condescending about it.

    --Triv

  • by aqui (472334) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @09:09AM (#41385847)

    Toys R Us has a $20 CDN toy laptop with QWERTY keyboard:

    http://www.toysrus.ca/product/index.jsp?productId=11495909 [toysrus.ca]

    add 2 sets of rechargeable batteries: $2*6 = $12
    http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__25023__Turnigy_AA_LSD_2400mAh_Low_Self_Discharge_ready_to_use_.html [hobbyking.com]

    and a charger: $6
    http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__27991__NiZN_AA_1_5A_Battery_Charger.html [hobbyking.com]

    You can charge the batteries when you have power.
    Alternatively reduce the number of batteries and chargers to less than 1 set per computer and pool the leftover $$$ to get a solar panel to power a charging station

  • by vux984 (928602) on Wednesday September 19, 2012 @12:36PM (#41388715)

    Posted this elsewhere deep in a thread... wanted to make sure you saw it:

    I suggest:

    50% of your students get OLPC @ 100$; 50% get a 5$ disconnected keyboard. They rotate between exercises.

    Or 1/3rd get OLPC and 2/3rds with disconnected keyboards, and rotate. Every third exercise they're on the real keyboard.

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