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Picking the brains of NZ’s most innovative tech solution: Writer’s Toolbox

Earlier in 2023, Writer’s Toolbox were awarded the Most Innovative Creative Technology Solution at the Hi-Tech Awards, so we sat down with the mastermind to pick his brains on what the relationship of artificial intelligence (AI) and education look like.

Over 10 years ago, Dr Ian Hunter, an academic for 20 years, previously an associate professor at Auckland University saw a problem, a gap that university students were facing.

“They had the knowledge, they knew their stuff, but they really struggled to put it clearly and powerfully on a piece of paper. And this is not an ability gap, this is just a writing gap,” he says.

As an avid writer himself, Hunter was shocked at how writing was being taught across the schooling years between the ages of five to 18, and this was a problem he wanted to solve.

The best way to tackle a widespread problem like this was to look at the past.

“What really resonated with me was how we used to teach writing in the lath 19th and early 20th century, they call it the Age of Composition, where writing was taught by principles,” Hunter explains.

“We used to teach matters of form, of style, the rules of composition. And this really resonated with me. I thought, yes, we’ve got to reclaim some of this.”

Taking this in, Hunter wanted to repackage this for the teachers and children of the 21st century, and what doesn’t speak 21st century more than AI.

Using machine learning models, Writer’s Toolbox is able to build algorithms that instead of giving answers, are able to teach.

“We’ve taken the best of what we’ve assembled from composition theory, from neuroscience, from discovery learning, from applied linguistics, and packaged all that up behind the delivery of the system,” Hunter says.

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“That has been probably one of our competitive advantages. We have assembled, now, over the past decade, our own proprietary database of a billion words of student writing, how kids write, and how kids write is very different from how adults write.”

What differentiates Writer’s Toolbox from the likes of AI-powered ChatGPT, is it is not a generative piece of technology, but rather an educational intelligence tech that uses computing power to teach children and teenagers, whereas these AI generators are programmed to work for adults.

He adds that people using ChatGPT are throwing data at the technology, who in return are spitting it out.

Dr Ian Hunter.

But Writer’s Toolbox is collecting the data and finding teachable opportunities in aspects where children or teenagers are deficient in their abilities and walking with them on the journey to find the answer.

The company has seen improvement in writing skills, with a longitudinal study between 2016 to 2020 showing that writing skills have improved by two to 10 times higher in the Queensland, Australia region

Now over 10 years since the birth of Writer’s Toolbox, the company has been awarded at the Hi-Tech awards for the Most Innovative Creative Technology Solution for 2023.

“It was a very gratifying moment for all the team involved. These things are never just the product of one person’s efforts. It was very gratifying to have that recognition from the community and from the experts and the judges along the way,” Hunter says.

Writer’s Toolbox has invested just over $10 million on building their AI and that is all reinvested profits.

The family-owned company has been cash-flow positive since day one and is experiencing a growth rate of 86 percent year on year.

“It’s just going gangbusters,” he says.

The team at Writer’s Toolbox is working on their next big thing: solving the problem of teachers telling their students they have failed and how to fix it, with their new tool that mirrors the test and can identify what went wrong and how to fix it immediately.

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles. To get in touch with her, email [email protected]

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