From a founder’s personal story comes a solution and a mission.
GUEST COLUMN | by Nhon Ma
More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, its long-term harm to students’ academic progress is only starting to become clear. Even though most students have been back in the classroom for some time, their test scores are still falling and their opportunity and skills gaps continue to widen.
Tutoring, or supplemental education, can make a significant difference in closing these gaps. Ensuring widespread access to it should be a top priority in helping students catch up from pandemic learning loss. But in the U.S., we’re far from that: less than 2 percent of American students receive high-quality tutoring.
‘This issue is personal to me: growing up, I attended the LA Unified School District in South Central Los Angeles, where almost none of my peers had access to tutoring.’
This issue is personal to me: growing up, I attended the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) in South Central Los Angeles, where almost none of my peers had access to tutoring. Only after I received a scholarship to an affluent college prep private high school did I notice the positive impact supplemental education had on students around me. It was then that I received tutoring for the first time – which played a big role in my ability to attend college and build my career.
Even as a young student, I recognized the difference that an affordable, technology-based tutoring alternative could have made for me and other LAUSD students. The advent of generative AI is an exciting step forward in our potential to increase students’ access to tutoring. Here’s how it can help create reliable, affordable supplemental education.
Closing access and learning gaps
Making tutoring more effective requires two key actions, according to a recent study from the University of Southern California: broadening access to more students and increasing the amount of tutoring students receive.
AI-based supplemental education can address both of these needs. For families who can’t afford traditional tutoring – which can cost anywhere from $20 to $100 per hour – technology can help bridge the gap, with some options even being free.
AI tutoring tools built on large language models (LLMs) are also scalable in a way human tutoring is not. They only require internet access to use, which most American students have at home after the pandemic-induced switch to remote learning. They can offer learning support across many subject areas, as well as meet students where they are. For example, they can support students in their native language and use many different teaching methods (chat-based dialogue, video, images, etc.).
Another benefit of LLM-based tutoring tools is they can quickly learn from users’ inputs and adjust to their preferences. In students’ case, this means responses tailored to their individual learning styles and needs.
For instance, an AI tutor can automatically serve a video to a student who has engaged more with videos than with text in past lessons. It can also incorporate direct asks from the student to use a specific format or approach. If a student needs a simpler explanation of a concept, they can ask for that and the AI will adjust its messaging.
Additionally, an AI tutor can proactively identify specific learning areas students may be struggling with and provide additional exercises—like practice quizzes or videos—to improve learning outcomes.
Support with social and other “soft” skills
AI tutoring tools have promising applications beyond academic pursuits, too.
During years of pandemic-induced remote learning, students didn’t just miss out on traditional classroom education. Their social and other “soft” skills also got rusty. Students from poorer families—the same ones who often can’t access tutoring—suffered the worst effects of this.
AI tutoring tools can supplement social-emotional learning and help these students navigate the new social situations they’re facing by sharing personal, confidential advice on topics like how to make friends and connect with teachers. These AI tools can be more useful than self-help articles or blogs because their responses are tailored to the student’s situation and challenges, rather than making broad generalizations.
There’s abundant evidence that supplemental education can help close skills gaps and improve learning outcomes for students. In the post-pandemic world, where there’s more urgency than ever to close these gaps, students’ access to tutoring is still inequitable.
Teachers and parents are working hard to support students, and supplemental education can be another key to help get them back on track. While the vast majority don’t have access to high-quality tutoring today, AI tools can help close the gap by providing affordable, accessible supplemental education.
Nhon Ma is CEO and co-founder of Numerade, a Los Angeles-based venture-backed high-growth edtech startup making knowledge and skills of world-class educators widely accessible and affordable to students of all backgrounds through exceptional video and interactive content experiences in STEM. Connect with Nhon on LinkedIn.