Could this app make learning difficulties easy to beat?

The iSmart app is intended as a one-stop shop for students with learning difficulties

A local initiative has given birth to a smartphone app with multiple functions aimed at children with learning difficulties, as well as their parents and teachers. Claire Caruana spoke to the three women behind it.

Product designer Annalise Duca.Product designer Annalise Duca.

When her son was still at school, Kerry Freeman was constantly frustrated by his never-ending struggle to keep up.

“I’d ask what homework he was assigned at school but he would just shrug because he’d only manage to scribble something here and there,” she recounts.

Books and other materials were readily available for students with some kind of learning difficulty like her dyslexic son, who is now an adult. But at that time she found they were just not enough to entice children.

And despite the new resources that have come on the market over the last few years, Ms Freeman has not seen much improvement: students with learning difficulties still struggle, she says.

So six years ago she decided to try and do something about it. Teaming up with business developer Angele Giuliano and product designer Annalise Duca, the trio have now developed a multi-functional app for smartphones and tablets that makes it easier for these students to keep up in school as well as be more open to learning. And it’s not just children who are catered for by the app but their parents and teachers too.

“We decided to apply for EU funds to get the project off the ground and that’s when we came up with iSmart, a tool that groups all the students’ and their carers’ needs in one place,” Ms Freeman said.

The app, which will be available for Android and iOS devices next month, is described as replacing multiple apps for reading, writing and studying, and is presented as an ideal solution for schools, psychologists, parents and students.

Among its features are text-to-speech and speech-to-text functions, specially-designed mind mapping, letter colouring to help students focus on the text, as well as special text formatting. The programme is designed to help students aged between six and 16.

“As we carried out research and spoke to parents, it was clear that despite there being a lot more available resources today, those with children with learning disabilities still claimed not to have enough support,” Ms Duca said.

There are already several apps that offer guidance to such students. But one thing unique about iSmart is that it groups everything – from a diary to write homework on to an eBook reader that allows a user to change the font to one designed specifically for people with dyslexia.

The app not only makes it easier for students to keep tabs on their work but also allows parents and educators to work closely together while assisting the child.

“Today there is definitely more awareness but we need to keep in mind that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.”

The team has piloted the app in three schools abroad so far – in Turkey, the Czech Republic and in Sweden. “The tool was very well received,” Ms Giuliano said.

By testing iSmart in three countries, the team was able to gather information on students from three completely different backgrounds and learning environments.

“A common trend in all three countries that also ties to Malta is the frustration level. We also found there is more awareness in some countries than in others.”

The team found that often, children labelled as having learning difficulties flourished when given the right tools.

“I had seen it with my son as well: as soon as he found other ways to learn, using computer programmes, he taught himself a lot of things. The normal approach doesn’t always work with these kids but computers do,” Ms Freeman said.

The iSmart team is asking for support via crowdfunding in order to keep costs for users to a bare minimum. The campaign closes early this week.

“The app will be available this month but people can still offer their support now, through our crowdfunding campaign by pre-purchasing the tool,” Ms Giuliano said.

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