Most schools have resumed in-person learning, but that doesn’t mean that edtech, or educational technology, is being used with any less frequency in classrooms and at home. Local edtech companies continue to grow and put a new spin on how students learn.
The main impetus for this growth was that schools, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, were forced to rapidly adopt virtual and online learning, which led to edtech companies creating new or improved digital learning tools.
Numerade, a Pasadena-based educational technology company, uses artificial intelligence in its online tutoring services. Founded in 2019, the company has also created a library of videos designed to maintain the attention of students.
“Machine learning and AI technologies have been the root of our core business since the beginning,” Nhon Ma, chief executive and co-founder of the company, said. “Specifically, our AI tutor is a deep-learning model that understands a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses. And based on that, we build learning plans and paths in order to support students such that they arrive at understanding and then also meet student success.”
Ma attended schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District system for most of his childhood. For high school, he received a scholarship to attend a private school in North Hollywood.
“That really opened my eyes towards this discrepancy of access; my peers had access to amazing resources such as tutors and educational opportunities,” Ma said. “I realized that most of the peers that I grew up with just didn’t have that luxury to have these opportunities, especially tutoring.”
After college, Ma spent some time in New York working in finance, before moving back to the Golden State for a position at Google. In this role with the tech giant, he realized how technology could improve other industries, including education.
Numerade has had over 100 million users nationwide, according to Ma. “In California, and specifically L.A., students from all school districts have used Numerade,” Ma said. “I’m especially proud that students from the LAUSD have leveraged our services.”
The company uses a subscription model that is priced at $18.99 a month. With the understanding that not all families can afford that ongoing expense, Ma said the company works with teachers to create packages for students that vary in price. Last November, Numerade entered a partnership with the digital learning platform Clever to provide students with free access to its video lessons.
Michael Williams, an associate professor at Pepperdine University, said schools are looking for technology that has a recognizable impact on measures that matter to educators the most, such as attrition and graduation rates and overall success.
“If there’s a technology that has a clear impact on those measures that matter to us, we are much more interested in those business cases and therefore those technologies,” Williams continued. “I think some of these technologies are maybe a technology in search of a problem. They have some new technology, and they think, ‘we can apply this to education, and it would be a fun way for students to interact with content.’ And there is probably a lot of benefits that they could offer, but those kinds of businesses don’t really move the needle on things like graduation, attrition or students’ success in a way that that education would really buy into.”
With all of the stories about student’s use of generative AI bots, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, some are worried that technology will affect learning in a negative way. Williams said this idea isn’t new.
“If you go back to almost any technological breakthrough — personal computers, information processing that allowed us to do complex math more quickly, even calculators and things like that — we see this sort of kneejerk reaction that says, ‘Hey! If people don’t need the calculator in their head, if they have this calculator to do the work for them, are they really going to learn this stuff?’” Williams said. “I think that’s what’s going on right now with ChatGPT, but fundamentally, the way humans learn hasn’t changed in a long time. We basically learn through repetition and experience, so finding ways to create valuable learning experiences and then repeat those learning experiences will enable student success regardless of what tools they’re using.”
Another concern is the fear that some investors may hesitate to fund edtech companies because of the large number of schools lacking the resources to purchase edtech products. Williams is not overly concerned about the issue.
“Education is one of the top five sectors in our economy; a very large percentage of our GDP goes into education,” he said. “There’s a lot of resources there at all levels, so there’s plenty of money that’s in education as an industry.”
Pressure for products
Felix Ruano, co-founder and president of the digital learning company Subject, said the current generation of students has high expectations for product design and user experience. Because of this, edtech companies are not exactly competing with each other, but are instead competing for the attention of students.
Founded in 2020, the Beverly Hills-based company has a subscription-based business model. It has a catalog of about 70 courses comprised of short-form videos. Ruano did not disclose the price of its services, but said it sells directly to schools across the country, not individuals. Some of its customers include the Montebello Unified School District and Bright Star Schools, which operates several charter schools across Los Angeles.
“The really important thing is those courses are fully accredited, which means if … you needed to take an AP course or take an extra course because maybe you failed it the first time, you can complete those courses on our site,” Ruano said.
Subject is among the many companies within the edtech sphere aiming to make educational services more accessible to all students. Ma said that prior to creating Numerade, he noticed edtech lacked innovation and a sense of community, but advances in the sector is changing that for students and educators alike.
“What I would like to see happen in edtech circles is around this notion of the democratization of education, specifically supplemental education,” Ma explained. “This industry of supplemental education has been largely out of reach for the vast majority of students and families. Four or five years from now, we believe that every single student will have access to this type of supplemental education through AI tutor platforms like ours that really put the educator and student first and drive real understanding.”