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PowerNotes on Generative AI – A Founder’s Perspective

By: Wilson Tsu
Posted On
July 5, 2023
Featured In
July 5, 2023
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The release of ChatGPT on November 30, 2022 put Generative AI into the public lexicon.  We may not fully understand the full impact of AI on education for a number of years, but I believe that education as we know it has changed forever. 

Generative AI is a transformative technology. At its leading edge, ChatGPT proved capable enough to initiate a tidal wave of investment and set off alarms across the educational landscape. AI technology is only in its infancy and the billions of dollars that are pouring into AI development will only accelerate its development. 

The March 14, 2023 release of GPT 4.0 was a huge leap forward. In just 5 months, ChatGPT went from struggling on most standardized tests to, with some exceptions, passing them with flying colors; from getting C’s on undergraduate and graduate-level assignments to getting A’s. 

While it is unclear whether future iterations will exhibit the same exponential improvement, it is certain that the capabilities of AI will improve over time. As such, students, educators, and society as a whole need to be prepared for what has already been a fundamental change to how we go about our business.

Generative AI Will Fundamentally Change Education

Change is hard. Most people resist change. And let’s admit it, for the most part, our education system resists change. As the founder of a young EdTech company, this has been a challenge. What I’ve observed is that building a product that improves learning isn’t enough. 

ChatGPT changed all of that. 

It is “the most easily accessible and lowest-cost cheating technology ever devised.” The fear of students using AI to cheat caused an uproar amongst faculty such that dozens of our partner institutions have convened special task forces to address AI’s impact on academic integrity. Apparently, fear is the greatest motivator for change.

I don’t buy into fear. But the reality is, everything is going to change—starting with the workforce. Unlike education, most industries have a huge economic incentive to adopt AI. And they are. The vast majority of people in my social circle already use Generative AI in some capacity for their work. AI gives them an advantage in efficiency and quality. In the corporate world, that’s all that matters, and it will matter for students in their chosen fields of employment. 

But how AI will play out in industry isn’t all roses and butterflies. Management is in the process of finding ways to “leverage AI” to increase productivity and cut costs (i.e., layoffs). Make no mistake, AI will lead to the loss of jobs—some predict massive losses. For the most part, professionals understand this. I’m finding that my conversations with friends eventually lead to the question of “how do I insulate myself from being replaced by AI?” Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always straightforward.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! 

AI presents society and education with huge opportunities. AI isn’t good at everything. In fact, it’s still really bad at some things. If people can adapt, jobs will shift. Whole industries will be born—industries we haven’t thought of yet. 

Ideally, people will be freed up to do things they love, instead of things they feel they need to do to live. Education needs to adapt to prepare students for this future. As an example, I send my two grade-school aged children to a private school in Chicago. In the parent interview, I asked them what is unique about them—what are my kids going to get out of this school vs. other schools? Their answer was “we are going to prepare them for the world of the future, for jobs that don’t exist yet.” That sold me. That is what education in today’s rapidly changing world needs to do.

I believe that AI and its derivative technologies will drive much of that change. Some believe that “it represents mankind’s greatest invention to date.” (Craig Mundie is no slouch)  With AI likely becoming an integral part of the future of education, it's crucial that we understand its implications and harness its potential in a responsible and effective manner.

Yes, There Are Reasons to be Concerned with AI

Let’s just say it: ChatGPT made it easier, cheaper, and faster than ever to cheat on written assignments and any take-home exam. Other AI “study” platforms allow students to easily ace multiple choice quizzes

Thanks to the spectacular media coverage on ChatGPT, everyone knows about it, including students. Anecdotally, every student I know or have talked to is using it. Some surveys suggest that nearly 90% of students have used ChatGPT to complete assignments. And they have been doing this since January 2023

Educational institutions are struggling to find solutions: ranging from all out bans, to in-class only use, to totally permissive use of AI. Some educators are even suggesting going back to blue books and pencils. 

Whatever the eventual solution, it is clear that cheating needs to be addressed. And so many  EdTech companies are marching forward with what they believe are “what schools need…” More on this later. But before we get there, here are a few concerns educators have raised regarding Generative AI:

Concern Possible Mitigation
Dependence on Technology: Over-reliance on AI writing tools may lead to students becoming overly dependent on technology and miss out on essential critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills. It is important for instructors to understand how and when to incorporate AI and properly scaffold it to ensure the relevant skills are learned. I believe it’s time to rethink what skills should be learned in the first place, given that AI is being introduced into the classroom (for better or worse, many grade school children don’t learn cursive writing anymore).
Loss of Creativity: AI-generated content, while efficient, is sometimes incredibly boring (at least for now, though I could think of ways to train it so that it’s less boring). This could result in less inspiring but technically accurate educational materials and reduced motivation for students. How much of actual writing needs to be creative or engaging? Who needs to do that writing and who needs to read it? These are questions that instructors should consider when deciding which parts of assignments AI will be allowed in. Indeed, AI could reduce some of the more tedious tasks and allow students to be more creative with their assignments.
AI Hallucinations: AI just makes stuff up sometimes, less so with GPT4, but it still happens. Students that don’t take the time to reread and edit raw AI output could turn in or publish material that is just plain wrong. Instructors need to be cognizant of AI’s shortcomings and incorporate appropriate activities and warnings for their students. PowerNotes also has features designed to minimize AI hallucinations (discussed below).
Privacy: Currently, when anyone uses ChatGPT, they need to create an account with OpenAI using their name, phone number, and email address, then OpenAI owns all the users’ prompts and outputs. That’s not very private. PowerNotes allows students and faculty to use ChatGPT through our integration with OpenAI, so there is no need to create an OpenAI account—everything they see just comes through PowerNotes. More on this later.
Bias and Fairness: ChatGPT’s training data is based on the open internet as of 2021. You can imagine the biases built into that corpus. It will likely be up to instructors to talk about these biases so that students can better identify and account for them in their writing.
Fear of AI: In a conversation I had with one of our partner institutions, I was surprised to learn that some students didn’t want to use AI because they were afraid of it. That’s understandable. Most people don’t understand how Generative AI works yet and no one knows where it will go. But, as I mentioned earlier, I believe it is going to change the workforce whether we like it or not. Proficiency using AI will likely be one of the core skills required by future employers. I believe that those who will be replaced first are those who do not understand how to use AI efficiently. Simply put, they will not be competitive in the workplace (think about people in the 90’s that didn’t know how to use the Microsoft Office suite).

The Opportunities Generative AI Affords Are Significant

That’s a lot of concerns. But with good teaching, and some tools built for teaching with AI, many can be overcome. Plus, I’m an optimist and I think the potential benefits outweigh those concerns.

Benefit Potential Drawback
Efficiency: It’s going to save you time. Full disclosure: I used ChatGPT Plus (GPT4) to assist with this blog post (how I used it is below this post and it’s pretty interesting). I resisted using it at first, but I stared at a blank page for two days not knowing where to start other than typing a couple sentences out, erasing it, and typing more out, then erasing those because I just didn’t like how it was going. I was stuck. As you will see, I didn’t rely heavily on ChatGPT when I decided to use it, but it gave me ideas and directions and a few lines I liked, and I ran with it. After that, it took me a few hours to write this post. I also believe the quality of the post benefitted. People may lose some skills as mentioned in the Dependence on Technology section above.
Mental Health: Writing can cause anxiety (I was going to cite some sources here, but there were too many options—just Google it). I’ve written a ton and it still makes me anxious (see staring at the page for two days above). The “tyranny of the blank page” is a real thing. If used appropriately, Generative AI can help alleviate some of this anxiety by giving students a “zero-draft”—something to get them started. I think instructors will be surprised how student attitudes towards essays and research papers will change with AI-based tools. Some students may need to overcome anxiety caused by AI (see Fear of AI section above)
Equity: It is widely accepted that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often come into higher education with skills that lag behind their more affluent peers. It is also difficult for some disabled students or students for which English is their second language to convey their thoughts in a way that is congruent with the expectations of those that typically evaluate their written work. Negative feedback for factors that they often cannot control can lead these sometimes at-risk students to become more anxious or leave school entirely. I don’t think this is the result we as a society want. As a dean of one of our large public university partners succinctly put it: “we don’t want words to get in the way of great ideas.” I agree. Generative AI can help with this. I also believe that students shouldn’t be forced to lose their “voice” to conform to someone else’s ideals. Students should, however, know when and how to make that decision for themselves given their circumstances.
Broader Access: AI-generated content can make educational materials more accessible to a broader range of students, including those with disabilities or living in remote areas. Some students in areas without internet access or those that cannot afford internet access will still not be able to access AI tools.
Learning Environment: AI writing tools can help create personalized learning materials and resources, tailoring content to each student's learning style, pace, and interests. They can also help reduce the workload of educators by providing assistance in grading, feedback, and evaluation of student work. If done correctly, I believe these can be good things, but those are big “ifs.”
Things We Didn’t Think of Yet: To me, the biggest opportunity for educators are all the things yet to be thought of. Generative AI will not only spur entire industries that don’t yet exist, it will allow educators to innovate in ways that haven’t been conceived of yet. That is the most exciting aspect of what AI can do for education. There’s the whole Skynet/Matrix thing…

Why AI-Based Detectors Aren’t the Answer

When ChatGPT was released, education freaked out because of the potential for cheating mentioned above, and immediately, edTechs began working on ways to detect such AI writing. We explored the same thing (but we did it differently, more on that later)!  Everyone (except us) looking for a solution to AI cheating started building AI-based detectors to sniff out AI writing. We intentionally chose not to go in this direction for a number of reasons: 

  • Philosophy: Current academic integrity products have already taken a punitive stance—they are designed to catch cheating. We wanted to build a product that had a more collaborative means to promote academic integrity. Our Insight score measures the correlation of student work to the final output. This “proof-of-work” philosophy is built on transparency and accountability, and creates an environment where the impetus for cheating is minimized.

  • Obsolescence: Most AI-based detection algorithms are tuned to a specific AI writing algorithm. That might have been okay in January 2023 when ChatGPT was the only game in town, but what happens when GPT4 (March 2023) or the next version is released? What happens when other AI’s are released by Google, Meta, and others? The bottom line is that AI detector tools will always lag AI writing tools because they are reacting
  • Gaming the Detector: Students are savvy. They got around plagiarism detectors, and they can easily get around AI detectors. Just search on Reddit or YouTube. It doesn’t take much effort. Indeed, products already exist whose only purpose is to defeat AI detectors. As a side note, AI writing may make plagiarism, as we know it, obsolete (along with contract cheating). I’m not sure why a student would intentionally plagiarize if they could generate original content with AI in less time. It will be interesting to see if plagiarism rates fall after the introduction of AI writing tools. 
  • Lack of Evidence: It is unclear what AI-based detectors will give you when they indicate that a student used AI in an assignment. Combined with high false positive rates, using AI-based detectors for enforcing academic code violations might not be practical.
  • The Future of Writing: For me, this is all that matters: if AI writing is part of the future of writing, like all of our partner schools have indicated, then using any detector is almost meaningless. Detection is irrelevant if AI writing is taught and used in the classroom. So if educators are to prepare students for a workplace that uses AI-based writing, then we need to evolve beyond detection.

PowerNotes: Delivering All the Benefits of AI Without the Risks

Prior to AI, PowerNotes was built to provide students and faculty with an efficient workflow for research, note-taking, and writing. We then made that workflow visible to instructors and administrators so they could provide formative feedback. In effect, we emphasized the process of learning over the final product. 

Our focus has always been process over product because process is where the learning occurs, and frankly, outcomes are more susceptible to academic integrity issues. AI and essay mills can create final papers, but it would be very difficult if not impossible for them to fake the process. 

With this in mind, PowerNotes has built a transparent and efficient process that allows students to track and document their research and learning, while allowing faculty to view and comment on their progress. For faculty, student research and learning has historically been an opaque process—until PowerNotes. 

When students use AI tools to write, the opacity of the process (doing everything on OpenAI’s website) is what prevents faculty involvement in the learning process and is the cause for concern with respect to academic integrity and guided learning. To address this problem, PowerNotes has developed three AI-focused features:

1. Safely Bring AI Into Your Curriculum: With PowerNotes Brainstorm™, instructors can introduce AI into the classroom in an environment that promotes transparency and accountability. PowerNotes has integrated ChatGPT (other AI writing tools will follow) into our project outlines so students can launch ChatGPT sessions directly from PowerNotes as if they were on OpenAI’s website. This provides several benefits for students and faculty over using ChatGPT directly, including:

  • Transparency for Faculty and Students: Brainstorm sessions are documented and cannot be deleted. AI outputs that are used in the student’s outline can all be tracked back to specific Brainstorm sessions. All Brainstorm sessions are visible to faculty and any edits to AI outputs can easily be compared with the originals providing faculty with a holistic picture of how AI was used in an assignment.

  • Minimizing AI Hallucinations: In addition to standard prompting where users ask the AI questions and the AI draws upon its training for answers (we call this “Open Prompting”), PowerNotes also allows “Closed Prompting.” Open Prompting can lead to incorrect results as the AI has been known to completely make things up or “hallucinate.” This is a particular problem when the AI is asked to identify sources for attribution. Closed Prompting attempts to minimize those hallucinations. As students find, evaluate, and read sources in PowerNotes and start to save, organize, and annotate passages, student curated content is pulled into our system. This content can then easily be used as part of the input prompt in a Brainstorm session. This Closed Prompting has advantages over Open Prompting in that the sources and facts that the AI is drawing upon are now limited to the research that the students have gathered—sources that have already been evaluated and verified by the student. We have found this generates more targeted and factually correct responses from the AI.

  • Enhanced Privacy: If you or your students are using ChatGPT through the OpenAI website, OpenAI will know who you are and they will own your prompts and outputs. That’s not very private. This is a huge concern for institutions doing research. PowerNotes does not use the same interface to ChatGPT that individuals use, instead we use OpenAI’s commercial APIs to interface with ChatGPT. This has two huge benefits. First, all queries and outputs to ChatGPT through PowerNotes will be anonymous—all OpenAI will see is prompts coming from PowerNotes, not individuals. Second, OpenAI does not keep user data that comes through its APIs for LLM training purposes (only for security and abuse purposes and only for 30 days at which time the data is deleted). PowerNotes will have the data but will not use it for any purpose other than for the student’s individual use or their instructor to review.

2. Practical and Effective Academic Integrity Tools: With PowerNotes Insight™, faculty can quickly get an indication of whether AI has been used in an assignment. Rather than using AI to detect the use of AI writing, PowerNotes compares the work the student has done in PowerNotes (research, annotations, organization, and AI queries) and compares it to their final submission. This patent pending technique covers use of AI as well as contract cheating. Insight has several advantages over AI-based detectors, including:

  • Detecting Inappropriate Use of AI: Rather than just detect whether or not AI has been used in an assignment, our Insight score provides an indicator to faculty if students used AI tools inappropriately. Brainstorm sessions are factored into the calculation and do not negatively impact the Insight score. Use of AI outside of PowerNotes will be detected by the system. So students should use Brainstorm sessions for all their AI interactions in order to avoid potential claims of inappropriate AI usage. Faculty can even customize how the Insight score is calculated by setting assignment parameters that include the use of AI.

  • Proof-of-Work: Because we use a proof-of-work concept to calculate the Insight score rather than AI, PowerNotes avoids all the drawbacks of AI-based detectors mentioned above. It won’t matter which AI is used, students cannot easily “fake” their work, and we will provide faculty with an activity log as evidence of all the work the student has done in PowerNotes. More importantly, with our Brainstorm feature, PowerNotes allows instructors to confidently teach AI concepts that will give their students an advantage in an AI integrated workforce.

  • Evidence: In addition to allowing teachers to see student progress, PowerNotes will also provide an activity log that documents every action that students have taken in PowerNotes including all interactions with AI (prompts, outputs, and edits to outputs). We believe this would only be needed as a last resort, because if students are doing the work, and that work is transparent to instructors, it would be very unlikely that students would cheat. Students using PowerNotes can also provide evidence that they didn’t cheat.

3. Increase Research Efficiency and Understanding with AI: PowerNotes also helps researchers during the research process. PowerNotes Discovery™ is a new feature added to our browser extension that, with a single click, allows researchers to:

  • Summarize Articles: Produce a summary of any article or webpage in real-time.

  • Find Related Research Topics: Generate a list of related research topics and find resources on those topics through Google or in your library catalog.

  • Query the Article: Query specific articles in a semi-closed environment. Only questions relevant to the article are answered using the content of the article. 

All of our AI features can be individually turned on or off by the institution of individual faculty members depending on their comfort level with using AI. 

AI Is Part of the Future

With the release of ChatGPT, the educational landscape has changed. All the students I’ve spoken to are using it. Industry is integrating it into their workflows. It isn’t going anywhere and it’s only going to get better and more ubiquitous. While most of the press on AI’s impact on education is around cheating, I believe that AI also provides a wealth of opportunities to improve education, productivity, and writing generally. 

We created our AI tools to allow teachers to harness those opportunities while also alleviating their fears around this new technology. It’s a work in progress. As we build additional products with and without AI, our goal is always to work with our partner institutions to give instructors tools to increase their teaching options, are pedagogically sound, and meet the educational needs of tomorrow. 

If you’d like to join us on this journey, reach out and let’s start a conversation.