EduTech co-founded by Heriot-Watt graduate receives $1m Bitcoin donation

QuillA non-profit, co-founded by a Heriot-Watt graduate, has received an anonymous donation of $1m from one of the world’s largest holders of Bitcoin. Quill, which helps children become better writers, said the money will be used to develop the online tool’s artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.

Since 2014, more than 700,000 elementary, middle, and high school pupils attending over 5,000 schools across the United States have used Quill to improve their writing and grammar. Although mostly used by schools in the US, it has been adopted by some in Scotland such as Invergordon Academy.

Over the last year, the Quill team has begun incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide feedback on open-ended writing and grammar activities in schools. The technology, featured by Fast Company and The 74 Million, will enable more than one million students to write and receive feedback on 100 million sentences during the current school year.

In recognition of its potential to help educate tens of millions of pupils, the Pineapple Fund awarded Quill a $1m donation earlier this month. According to The New York Times, the fund was launched last December by an anonymous donor who goes by the nickname “Pine” and claims to be among the 250 largest holders of Bitcoin in the world.

The fund is providing $86m in Bitcoin donations to innovative nonprofit organisations; Quill joins a cohort that includes Charity:Water, the EFF, Pencils of Promise, and the Internet Archive.

“Due to the fluctuations in Bitcoin, by the time we cashed it out on January 5 the donation was worth $1.2m,” said co-founder Donald McKendrick, director of technology at Quill. McKendrick was an early employee at Float, the Edinburgh-based cashflow forecasting app firm.

“I taught myself to code, and ended up frequently buying a bunch of people from Codebase lunch in exchange for coding wisdom,” he recalled. “Basically, if it wasn’t for [Edinburgh incubators] Techcube and Codebase, I wouldn’t have been able to pull this off.”

Quill works with curriculum developers to create interactive writing; in each activity, students construct claims and provide reasons that support those claims. Quill’s algorithms instantly serve helpful feedback so that students can quickly develop their writing and critical thinking skills, and teachers can save hundreds of hours spent on marking homework.

The Pineapple Fund’s donation will be allocated to Quill’s engineering team. Over the next four years, it aims to develop new open source algorithms that can analyse the quality of evidence and clarity of the logic in children’s writing. The algorithms will provide Quill with a strong foundation for evaluating student writing in thesis statements, paragraphs, and essays.

To develop the algorithms, Quill is working with researchers from Stanford and Harvard universities. As an open source organisation, the Quill team has worked with more than 100 volunteer educators and developers to build the software. It aims to bring together thousands in the future to create a suite of educational tools.

Quill said its content will always be free for students and teachers “so that every student, regardless of income, has a chance to become a better writer”. In support of these efforts, Quill recently won support from the AT&T Foundation to develop a mobile app and the Heckscher Foundation to conduct a randomised control trial research study.