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Academic Innovation | 7/8/2024

‘This is Electricity’: How AI Tools are Transforming Doctoral Student Work

By Jennifer Persons

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Under the guidance of Dr. Jessica Parker, graduate students at MCPHS are using generative AI to improve their academic writing and research skills.

When Dr. Jessica Parker asked her students if anyone was interested in working with artificial intelligence (AI) for the semester, the response was cautious yet intrigued.

“I was a bit naïve about the ways we could use AI,” said Stephen Flaherty, DHA '26, MPH, one of Dr. Paker’s students. “At the same time, so many of my colleagues are using AI tools and talking about how we can use them to provide better care, so it was an opportunity.”

Bringing this technology to the Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA) program at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) was a natural next step for Parker, EdD. She has been interested in generative AI since it became available to the public because she saw the opportunities it presents across academia.

“I’ve talked with many educators at different universities who compare AI to the creation of the calculator,” Dr. Parker said. “This is not the calculator. This is electricity because of the level of innovation and transformation we’re going to see across our society.”

Dr. Parker has created several AI tools to help advanced degree students improve the quality of their work and make progress on their research, which can be a hurdle.

“Students often get stuck in the independent phases of their research, including proposal writing and the institutional review board approval process,” she explained. “What they need is personalized, high-quality feedback, and I needed a way to scale my time and resources to give them that.”

For Dr. Parker, AI presented a potential solution to this persistent problem. Four students in the Academic & Scholarly Writing in Healthcare course agreed to test Dr. Parker’s theory. They left the semester with a whole new perspective on AI.

“Like anything, there is a right way and a wrong to use these tools,” said Sierra Escoffier, DHA ’26, MS. “I choose to see them as an asset for increased productivity.”

Customizing AI for Students

In addition to being an adjunct faculty member at MCPHS, Dr. Parker is co-founder of an academic and consulting business for graduate students. She saw generative AI as the perfect supplement to that work.

“I’ve been supporting master’s and doctoral students for years and have worked hard to have a reputation of integrity as I coach and guide them,” she said. “That approach has directly influenced how I build AI tools.”

In early 2023, she started testing large language models and conducting research to understand their capabilities in academic contexts. She built custom tools using prompts, inputting them into an AI model so it can study the prompts and generate responses to her questions based on what it learned. For example, Dr. Parker wrote prompts about her assignment criteria and grading rubrics, creating a tool that could provide feedback to students just like she would.

Then, in the fall of 2023, Dr. Parker wanted to see how well AI could function in an academic setting. She recruited students from the DHA program to conduct a small research study. First, she introduced them to ChatGPT and other generative AI models to teach them the basics.

“Dr. Parker instilled in us that you need to treat AI like a peer,” said Alexandra Acaba, DHA ’26, MSW, MHA, who works in healthcare operations at a clinic in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “You have to customize it to get beneficial feedback.”

Dr. Parker also incorporated her novel AI tools into her class. These tools, which are accessible to any student through her new company, Moxie, were linked to specific assignments.

“Students were expected to use the tools at least once per assignment to get formative feedback before they turned it in for a grade,” Dr. Parker said. “They loved it. They were more engaged with the work, had increased agency, and had more autonomy during the learning process.”

Flaherty, who works at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, shared a similar perspective. “The tools Dr. Parker created were, functionally, the best and most interesting tools. Being able to upload your paper directly into the tool for specific feedback about that assignment was much more streamlined than using ChatGPT.”

By the end of the semester, the students weren’t just accepting AI, but staunch proponents for it. They even co-authored a manuscript about their experiences and are seeking publication.

“The feedback from both Dr. Parker and AI has significantly improved my writing skills and bolstered my confidence in academic discourse,” said Shannon Jablonka, DHA ’26, MS, an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force. “I strongly advocate for the integration of AI into all levels of academia.”

The ‘AI Sandwich’

Dr. Parker plans to incorporate AI and her custom tools into more of the DHA curriculum. She believes they will be especially helpful for students during their Applied Practice-Based Research Projects, the program’s redesigned capstone project.

“The program is now more rigorous and impactful, and these AI tools will help make the process more seamless,” she said. “We have access to AI tools to help from conceptualization all the way through post-publication and peer reviews.”

But as this happens, Dr. Parker will ensure students understand the limits of AI and are equipped to use it responsibly. Her go-to ethical framework is what’s known as the ‘AI sandwich.’ Initially, students can use AI to brainstorm ideas and overcome writer’s block. In the middle, the student does all the heavy cognitive work. Finally, they return to the AI to get feedback and guide the revision process.

“It’s a simple concept that any educator can use if they want to start utilizing these tools,” she said. “We should reframe our perception of generative AI not as something that automates work, but something that augments it.”

Dr. Parker successfully instilled this mindset in her students, encouraging them to be cautiously optimistic about the technology’s capabilities.

“Instead of fighting AI, you have to see it as a tool that’s going to help you as long as you can leverage its utility,” Acaba said. “AI will never eliminate peer or professor collaboration, but it can be extremely useful, especially in an online program like this one, when those options are not available to you.”

Other students in the group agree: AI in academia needs a human behind it.

“AI has enormous capabilities, but it’s not the end-all-be-all,” Flaherty added. “It’s a partnership, a natural extension of what we already do that makes our work better.”