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online preschool
LeMya Vaughn completes an activity on her kindergarten readiness program, UPSTART. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

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Some online preschool programs boast “award-winning curriculum” and offer money-back satisfaction guarantees. Others offer subjects like science and art and virtual field trips to animated farms. One kindergarten-readiness program offers children the promise of academic growth in as little as 15 minutes a day, five days a week. It receives funding from the state of Utah to provide online learning to rural children and has launched pilot programs in several states across the country, including Mississippi.

But dozens of early childhood education experts are warning that these online preschool programs, which are used by thousands of children nationwide, are no more than a “marketing scheme” and may actually do more harm than good.

“It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Children at that age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and caring teachers … none of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

Online preschool programs could lead to behavior problems, sleep deprivation, and delays in social-emotional development as a result of screen overuse, according to more than 100 educators, experts, and preschool advocates who signed on to a statement released today by Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in partnership with more than a dozen other organizations. The groups also criticized the inability of online preschool programs to provide relational learning opportunities. “[The] online experiences falsely marketed as ‘preschool’ sabotage the development of these essential relationships,” the statement reads.

Online preschool programs have been growing in recent years, and thousands of parents have signed their children up. The programs offer everything from educational games to a full preschool curriculum complete with boxes of activities that are shipped to a student’s home and a teacher’s guide for an adult. Most online programs are offered by for-profit companies, although perhaps the fastest-growing is UPSTART, which was developed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute and is advertised as a kindergarten-readiness program. That program has been used by children in Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio and Philadelphia, and is used by 30 percent of Utah’s 4-year-olds. In 2013, the Waterford Institute received an $11.5 million federal grant to expand the program to rural children in Utah.

In Mississippi, most children who participated in a pilot UPSTART program during the 2015-16 school year used it to supplement an in-person preschool program. Nationwide, many parents use the program as the sole preschool program for their children. This year, UPSTART, partnering on the pilot with federally-funded Head Start centers in Mississippi, will provide the program to 1,000 preschoolers. Children will use the program at home in the evenings and attend Head Start during the day.

Claudia Miner, chief UPSTART officer for the Waterford Institute, said UPSTART is meant to overcome distance and travel obstacles that many rural families face when trying to enroll children in preschool. It’s also meant to support parents’ choice. “If a parent wants to keep a child in the home, which we know some parents do, [UPSTART] can help them get ready for school,” Miner said. She cautioned opponents of online preschool programs against grouping all programs together. “I believe quality is an issue,” Miner said. “Just like quality in preschool is an issue.”

UPSTART encourages parents to be involved in their child’s learning, Miner said. Parents receive frequent calls from a representative who provides developmental information about preschoolers, monitors their child’s usage to make sure they are not overusing the program and provides offline activities parents can do with their child.

In a 2017 Hechinger Report story about UPSTART, parents lauded the program for providing flexibility and contributing to improvement in their child’s reading ability. Some parents chose UPSTART as their child’s primary preschool program because it gave them flexibility when juggling the schedules of other siblings. Others chose it to complement an in-person preschool program, hoping the program would help prepare their children for kindergarten.

Research shows that children who have access to high-quality preschool reap benefits. They are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to be held back. Children who lack access to quality preschool “are often the target of these online programs,” according to the statement. In today’s statement, the advocacy groups claim that students who receive an online education in lieu of a high-quality in-person program are at even more of a risk of being left behind their peers. Diane Levin, a professor of early childhood education at Boston University’s Wheelock College and co-founder of Defending the Early Years, said it may seem as if children are learning from online programs, but it’s a “rote” kind of learning. “Young children learn best when they have hands-on, concrete real experiences with the world,” Levin said. “The more in-depth the learning from that is … the more solid the foundation is so that when they get older, they can move on to the next stages of cognitive development.”

The combined Defending the Early Years/Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood statement also highlighted concerns beyond developmental needs, including the potential for data mining. “I do think there are serious concerns to be explored around data, privacy, and data exploitation,” said Roxana Marachi, an associate professor of education at San José State University. She is concerned data collected on young children now could be stored and used against them in the future. “There is a rapidly growing marketplace with financiers interested in the capture of cognitive and behavioral data from young children. The earlier the data extraction, the more valuable it’ll appear for predictions of later outcomes.”

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