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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

A Few Hidden Gems among AI Apps

In the flurry of launches of generative AI apps this year, there are some that I find are gems that don’t get enough attention. These are ones that I think colleagues in higher ed might use every day.

First, let me note that I have no investment in, have received no compensation from, or stand to gain from, the companies that produce or sell the apps mentioned in this article. These are applications that I have encountered in my readings for the UPCEA daily curation lists such as the Professional, Continuing and Online Update by UPCEA. I have tried them out, found them particularly useful, and put them in my “frequent-link box” so I can quickly access them throughout the day.

Let me begin with ChatGPT Plus. I found it well worth the $20 a month to get access to the GPT-4 version as well as the promise of front-of-the-line when times get busy. The new version, GPT-4, has the highest reasoning and conciseness ratings of the three versions that OpenAI supports: Default GPT-3.5, Legacy GPT-3.5 and GPT-4. If you use it once or twice a day, I think the plus version is well worthwhile. The time saved adds up to more than $20 in monthly wages.

I most often recommend this one as the first among alternatives to ChatGPT-4. Perplexity.AI is a top choice for colleagues in higher ed. I have found it to be a highly-reliable, quick-response generative AI chat. It is like ChatGPT with a few important differences. It is a search/chat interface that uses an OpenAI’s GPT 3.5 model to power its chat tool and search interface. Perplexity AI was founded by Aravind Srinivas, who worked as a research scientist at OpenAI. However, Perplexity AI is not a commercial product of OpenAI, but rather a demo inspired by OpenAI’s WebGPT. Perhaps the most valuable feature is that it automatically embeds citations within the responses! You have to ask for sources of information at the end of your searches done with ChatGPT. Having it presented up front, in response to every prompt, is useful, not only for those of us in higher ed, but everyone, to ensure the veracity and to uncover any potential bias in the response. Simply click on the URL-based citations, to check their relevance and accuracy.

Perplexity.AI also provides a short list of a few follow-ups in the form of possible prompts that it “thinks” you might want to consider to get a more complete response. Just click on one of those to get it added to your inquiry. Oh, and the initial responses are usually relatively concise – one or two paragraphs – that are ready for targeted expansion with follow-up prompts. There is no rambling, no padding, just the relevant information. In brief, it is a very quick-response tool that allows you to build a longer, more complex response – all with built-in citations.

Another of my favorites is ChatPDF. I love this app! Perhaps you are like me in that you are often viewing longer .pdf files. Government reports, commercial product promotional material, specification sheets, monthly/annual reports, financial reports, legal documents, training manuals, formal academic papers, book chapters, and so many more of our resources are held in .pdf or extended .docx format (which is easily converted to .pdf). This app responds to prompts such as summarizing, priority listing, a host of analysis approaches, and most all of the other GPT prompts to enable you to efficiently summarize and analyze your documents. The free version covers 120 pages, 10 megabytes, for three .pdf documents analyzed with 50 question prompts a day. The $5/month version covers 2,000 pages, 32 megabytes, for 50 documents and 1,000 question prompts a day. Your data is kept confidential in a secure cloud storage and can be deleted at any time.

I am a fan of Bing’s Image Creator. It is powered by DALL-E, which was revealed by OpenAI in a blog post in January 2021, and uses a version of GPT-3 modified to generate images. It is faster than some other image generators. As ChatGPT explained it to me (3/1/2023), “The difference between Bing’s image creator and DALL-E is that DALL-E is designed to create images that are more sophisticated and specific to the user’s input, whereas Bing’s image creator is more focused on quickly generating relevant images based on the user’s query. Overall, both Bing’s image creator and DALL-E use natural language processing to generate images, but the difference lies in the level of detail and sophistication of the generated images.”

The next generative AI favorite of mine is not really an app, rather it is an explanation of how to get GPT to create Excel spreadsheet formulas. This is a great utility for ChatGPT that fits right into the spreadsheet format that is favored by so many higher ed project directors and administrators. It also can write for Google Sheets which is popular in many shared environments.

Finally, here’s a look ahead into much more fully-integrated generative AI in business and productivity software. Eric Hal Schwartz writes in that Microsoft has released Microsoft 365 Copilot suite of models to 20 business customers that infuse generative AI into every Office application.

The samples are stunning! Schwartz explains: “The AI’s integration with Microsoft’s services allows it to turn raw data into Excel graphs, design and animate a PowerPoint presentation, and translate a meeting transcription into a long-term strategic plan for a company. The natural language prompts only require a vague description of the user’s goal and a connection to the relevant documents or meeting transcriptions to gather the data.” There are videos attached to the article that demonstrate the advanced capabilities that GPT performs using only very cryptic prompts. It is unclear if this will become a part of Microsoft 365 and if it will carry additional charges.

Those are my hidden generative gems, from the simple to the resplendent. Do you find any of these to hold possible promise for your work? Will they enable you to be more efficient and effective at your job? As AI expert Jaspreet Bindra is quoted as saying “ChatGPT will not take your jobs, someone who knows how to use it, will.”


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching + Learning blog.

A man "Ray Schroeder" is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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