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PowerNotes Gives Researchers the Power to Organize, Write, and Learn
by
Posted On April 23, 2024
In the 3 years that I was working as a systems librarian at the New York Law School, I saw the final stages of an information shift from research using printed materials to research that was primarily online. In this environment, sales of 3" x 5" notecards fell dramatically, as students looked for new tools to organize their material. I tried to ease the culture shock in this changing world by making our online catalogs more efficient in providing access to the digital materials the students needed and using transaction log analysis to see how they went wrong. It was the biggest revolution in information since the Gutenberg press, and I was proud to be a small part of this shift.

Little did I dream that a second revolution was in the works. As I am now retired from the academic library world, I can see it from the sidelines, as artificial intelligence (AI) finds its way into libraries to both enhance their mission and complicate their existence.

PRODUCT LAUNCH

In 2016, Wilson Tsu, a lawyer, decided to leave his position in a Chicago law firm and address a problem that he had noticed in law school. He thought that the tools for legal research writing were clunky and confusing. His prior background as an engineer had given him the skills to design a new tool for integrating online research into a unified file containing an outline, citations, and original writing. He launched a startup called PowerNotes and began to market the tool of the same name to law schools.

PowerNotes soon gained widespread acceptance in the legal world, and Tsu began to recognize its potential in academia beyond law schools. College writing programs began using PowerNotes, and the company added the capability to share content with other team members so it could be a more collaborative tool.

HOW IT WORKS

PowerNotes is downloaded as an extension in Chrome. Once it is activated, a skeletal outline form appears on the right side of the page, and a user may begin to name the sections and add material. The user then highlights a portion of text in an online article and pastes it inside a section of the program. As it is added to the appropriate section of the outline, PowerNotes will create a citation, which will become the basis for the bibliography at the end. Users can add their own commentary to each entry. To organize their work, users can access their own PowerNotes dashboard on the website. Visit PowerNotes’ YouTube for a video tutorial. In addition to creating a research paper, it can also be used to systematically create class notes.

PowerNotes’ recently added AI features include summaries of chosen articles and suggestions for other articles on the same topic. PowerNotes can even take information from the article and generate research questions, then provide the learner with links based on those questions, guiding them through the research process.      

A TALK WITH THE CREATOR

In March 2024, I spoke with Wilson Tsu, the founder and CEO of PowerNotes. A son of immigrants, he told me that his parents always emphasized the power of education. He related how he moved from a career in engineering to joining the legal profession by studying at Northwestern University and landing a job at a top Chicago law firm. His actual goal was to be a teacher, so PowerNotes was a natural outgrowth of his evolution. Aptly, PowerNotes has been evolving constantly since it was released.

For example, Tsu expanded the program to do more than just organize data for a writing project. He added an AI component, Insight, that allows instructors to integrate PowerNotes with their existing learning management systems. Tsu told me that when this is used in a class setting, the teacher can look in on the student’s work and see aspects such as the time spent on the project and how the pieces of research came together. Tsu told me that the teachers can control the extent of the AI component seen by the students. He stressed that his main goal is to make use of AI in an ethical manner.

I mentioned a problem that I had noticed late in my academic library career. Students often had no idea of how much work goes into the creation of scholarly articles. The whole process of peer review, editorial judgment, and revision was invisible to them. At worst, the material was simply seen as “stuff I got from the computer,” just like what’s found in Google. Interestingly, Tsu said that his program addresses this disconnect. When a university student does a topic search on the internet, it displays the best results, but it also includes a sample of the same topics searched in the scholarly databases owned by their library.

As part of PowerNotes’ evolution, Tsu told me that the company is looking beyond the academic world and developing products for K–12 education, mostly in high schools so far. One of the key features of ethical use is student privacy. Student data is entirely locked up from the prying eyes of social media or other corporations.

LATEST DEVELOPMENT

In November 2023, PowerNotes announced the AI Unity Initiative, an effort to promote AI in education. It is a pilot program that provides a collaborative platform for institutions to jointly explore AI applications, share findings, and formulate informed policies for effective and ethical AI utilization in education. Early-adopting institutions in this project include the University of Arizona, the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, and the University of North Carolina–Charlotte.

CONCLUSION

AI seems to be here to stay, so librarians and educators will need to make the best of it. In an article for Government Technology, Tsu says, “I think AI is going to force change. It’s interesting to see how people will adapt to change, and it’s really about giving people the tools to do that.” I suspect that he is riding the right wave.


Terry Ballard is a former systems librarian, retired after a 50-year library career. He is the author of three books and more than 100 articles, mostly about library automation. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

Email Terry Ballard

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