Innovative application helps students learn to write

Handwriting problems affect nearly 25% of children aged 5 to 12. These problems, if not managed early on, can negatively impact them throughout their school years. EPFL startup School Rebound has provided a concrete solution to this problem by developing an application that uses tablets and artificial intelligence to better detect potential handwriting problems and support children as they learn. The subscription app is called Dynamilis, and can be used by all children learning to write – with difficulties or without – at home or at school. Dynamilis has already been downloaded more than 10,000 times and will be released soon in England and the United States.

While Dynamilis was free during its testing phase, it switched to a subscription model this past March. After a free trial week, parents, therapists, and schools are offered a monthly or annual subscription. Costs depend on the number of children using the application.

L. Boatto, A. Peguet, T. Asselborn, S. Viquerat, P. Dillenbourg © 2022 Dynamilis / Sven Viquerat

Strengths and weaknesses at a glance

School Rebound was founded in 2021 based on the research done by CEO Thibault Asselborn for his PhD thesis at EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction Laboratory (CHILI). “Some children have handwriting problems that may stay hidden for months. Because the problems are not obvious, parents and teachers may hesitate to consult specialists,” says Asselborn. “During this time, the students can accumulate learning difficulties as these handwriting problems monopolize their concentration and prevent them from developing other skills. This could cause students to lose confidence and develop significant educational blocks.”

As part of his PhD research, Asselborn helped develop an algorithm that can rapidly analyze a child’s handwriting. The child only has to write for 30 seconds on an iPad with an Apple Pencil for the application to establish their handwriting profile. “The tests we ran in the lab lasted about 20 minutes, but they didn’t take certain factors into account, which may reduce the accuracy of the analyses,” says Asselborn. Dynamilis evaluates dynamic aspects of handwriting that the human eye can’t see such as stability, pressure, speed, and angle. “Our app gives detailed analyses about the motor aspects of handwriting. This can give parents an initial indication before determining whether their child has difficulties with handwriting and, if so, to what degree. If the difficulties surpass a certain level, they’re recommended to go see a specialist.”

Learning dressed up like a game

Based on a child’s handwriting profile, the app recommends personalized activities to practice the fundamental aspects of handwriting – all while playing games. “The in-app tests don’t look like medical tests in the strictest sense,” says Asselborn. “It’s important to have an air of fun to avoid making children feel like they’re taking an exam, which can put them on edge.” The playful aspect during the testing phase is crucial for the School Rebound team and their Chairman, Pierre Dillenbourg, also head of CHILI. “While we were developing Dynamilis, our aim was to help children,” says Dillenbourg. “To do that, we knew we had to go beyond a simple handwriting-analysis program and give them activities to support learning and, for the more severe cases, correction. Games are an effective solution for children who are having problems in school because of their issues with handwriting.”

These activities, developed with game-design experts, can be done by children at home to help them improve their handwriting or at school for enhanced learning. For children with handwriting difficulties, the activities can be done with a therapist.

Close collaboration with therapists and schools

“We worked with nearly 50 therapists to develop our app and we received encouraging feedback,” says Dillenbourg. “The alacrity and precision of Dynamilis’ analyses lets them dedicate more time to children during their sessions.” Children may also use the app to continue practicing between sessions, concentrating on certain aspects (like pressure) which are difficult to practice on paper.

School Rebound teamed up with many schools to test the application on students. “We worked with schools in the Geneva, Vaud, and Neuchatel cantons as well as the Bern University of Teacher Education, the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), and the International Schools of Lausanne and Geneva,” says Asselborn. The collaboration with Swiss schools is continuing as a pilot project in 12 Vaud canton schools. “We’ve gotten letters from teachers who’ve seen their students improve leaps and bounds,” he adds. “Some students even come before class to practice.”

Science and ethics council

School Rebound has created a science and ethics council composed of experts in dysgraphia, dyslexia, data science, and education. “Our scientific model and rigor are important, and are what set us apart from other existing applications,” says Dillenbourg. Dynamilis is not alone in its market, “but is the only application that combines a complete handwriting analysis with personalized learning activities.”

Author(s): Leila Ueberschlag
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