As a nursing student at San Jose State University in California about three years ago, Jordan Jones sometimes found himself stumped by articles cluttered with medical jargon that made it hard to understand the information researchers discovered.
He turned to a tool developed by a group of college students that he’d read about online. Jones says it stripped away incomprehensible phrases and helped him explain diseases and treatments in language anyone could understand.
“One thing they teach in nursing schools is if you don’t understand, your patients won’t understand,” says Jones, 35. “If you send them home with information they don’t understand, they can’t use it.”
The tool comes from QuillBot, a Chicago-based startup founded by students at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When users enter text, the tool can regenerate the text with synonyms to add variety (changing, for example, “it's a nice day” to “It’s a lovely day”), reduce complexity and to fix grammatical errors.
In one sense, it functions much like a thesaurus. But the team behind it has grander plans, such as generating summaries of long articles and stories into shorter, easily-understood paragraphs.
To help them get there, QuillBot raised $4.25 million in a seed round led by GSV Ventures and Sierra Ventures. Service Provider Capital also participated.
The round closed just as the stock market crashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says CEO and co-founder Rohan Gupta. QuillBot saw a small dip in traffic when schools shut down and readied educators for distance learning, but traffic has since returned to normal.
Founded in 2017, the company has grown to more than a million users worldwide, according to Gupta. He says the tool works with natural language processing, a form of machine learning to analyze, manipulate and generate human language. QuillBot has a team of nine.
A basic version of the tool is available for free, with additional features available for users who pay for a subscription that costs about $80 a year or $15 a month. The paid version increases the number of sentences and characters that QuillBot can process at once, and provides versions of the tool users can add to Microsoft Word, Google Chrome and Google Docs.
The paid version also adds a mode to shorten sentences while maintaining meaning. Users can control how many words QuillBot replaces with synonyms, the caveat being that the more words the tool replaces, the less likely the sentence maintains its original meaning.
QuillBot also offers its application program interface—the set of protocols and routines that power the tool—starting at $20 a month.
Some users have lauded the tool as a means to get away with plagiarism. The company doesn’t support that activity and has heard from plenty of teachers who support the tool’s use for class, Gupta says.
Instead, he views QuillBot like a calculator. Like a TI-84 that frees students from the banality of addition and subtraction, QuillBot is meant to save students time on building-block lessons like grammar so that more time is spent on meatier subjects in language arts, like forming arguments and richer storytelling. “It’s what you write, not how you write it,” says Gupta, 24. “We see ourselves as solving mental math.”
About 60 percent of Gupta’s users are non-native English speakers who use the tool to correct grammar and find more precise words for communicating.
Heidi Faust, director of professional learning and research with the TESOL International Association, one of the largest professional organization for teachers of English as a second or foreign language, said in an email that automated tools for English learners can provide generic recommendations and fix common errors. But when the tools are not coded with language varieties in mind, they can cause new errors.
While most writing and grammar tools in the industry can offer simple practice and feedback, they have yet to reach a level where they support critical thinking and deeper comprehension. “As with anything automated, bots have the potential to be somewhat helpful, but never quite specific enough,” Faust said.
The tool may have use outside of education and in workplaces. Jones, the former nursing student from California, says he continues to use QuillBot as a registered nurse in the San Francisco Bay Area. He used the tool recently to break down research he found on social-emotional learning into simpler language to share with peers at the mental health facility where he works.