Is Online Preschool a Good Enough Alternative for Young Kids?

In many underserved areas of the country, to the chagrin of some early childhood experts, online early learning programs are growing as an alternative to traditional brick and mortar preschools.

by / July 10, 2019

To the surprise of many, online preschool not only exists, it’s expanding. Thanks to some states’ desire to offer such programs to children with limited or no opportunities to attend traditional preschool programs, “online preschool” and “virtual kindergarten readiness” are getting lots of attention.

Quality school-based early learning classes are understood to be an important factor in students’ ongoing academic success, but the lack of such opportunities is very real for many kids. To address that need, Waterford, a digital curriculum company, with funding support from the Utah state Legislature, created UPSTART in 2009 and began offering the virtual program to underserved Utah children as an online alternative for preschool. Since then, thanks to both public and private funding, UPSTART has expanded to 16 states. In some states, Internet access and a laptop are provided to the families of qualifying children.

The UPSTART initiative has been hailed by some as a valid age-appropriate way to advance young children’s school readiness. But it’s also widely criticized by early learning experts and advocates who contend the program is pushing young kids into computer-based learning programs at too early an age.

Full disclosure: Though I’ve spent most of my career working in educational technology, prior to that, as I’ve written here, I trained as a Montessori teacher and for 10 years worked with young kids and consider children’s years from birth to five to be of sacrosanct importance.

Waterford, UPSTART’s creator, is a respected player in the ed tech field and known for creating quality, research-based applications for young students. I’ve worked with elementary schools that have used the Waterford Early Reading Program with first and second graders and found it effective. So having Waterford involved in the UPSTART initiative may mean it’s about as good as one can hope for a virtual pre-K program.

Additionally, UPSTART is designed for 4- and 5-year-olds to use with a parent — not as a “plug ‘em in, walk away” type program. The prescribed objective is for parents to sit with their child and use the program together for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. This 75-minute weekly total is within the screen time guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

UPSTART’s recent spate of bad press is primarily due to it receiving a 2019 Ideas grant from the Audacious Project, a philanthropic arm of the TED organization. With funding support from a number of foundations, Audacious has allocated over $20 million for the expansion of UPSTART to additional states — a move decried by many early childhood experts and advocates.

However, given the challenges many families face in accessing early learning opportunities for their kids, why not online preschool? Are the potential downsides of the UPSTART program of such dire consequence that families shouldn’t avail themselves of this opportunity and perhaps get a free computer and Internet access to boot? And why has the support for UPSTART created such a stir among early childhood educators that two children’s advocacy groups, Defending the Early Years (DEY) and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), compiled a joint statement lobbying against UPSTART and other such virtual kindergarten-readiness programs?

In short, those denouncing online preschool believe the resources given to UPSTART and other such virtual pre-K programs should instead be allocated to grow quality brick and mortar preschools for kids in underserved areas. They also maintain that any school-readiness advantages these virtual programs might provide are overshadowed by the programs’ potential negative effects on children’s neurological development. And they further contend that those who most stand to benefit from online preschool are not the children, but rather the tech companies selling such programs.

I see many ways that ed tech is providing important learning opportunities for kids. But for their overall well-being, I also believe children younger than five should primarily be learning with parents, teachers, caregivers and other kids in a hands-on, non-digital realm. So, count me among those who view virtual pre-kindergarten programs as a wrong-headed way to address a serious need.

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.

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