Online education is becoming more and more mainstream, but how young is too young to participate?
It turns out the ripe old age of four is sufficient for the state of Utah, which has implemented an online preschool as an alternative to brick-and-mortar institutions.
“This year, more than 6,600 children across the state are learning by logging on to laptops at home in a taxpayer-funded online preschool program that is unlike any other,” writes Emma Brown of The Washington Post.
Utah’s program — Upstart (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow) — costs about $800 per student, which doesn’t even hold a candle to the cheapest traditional, state-funded programs in the country. In fact, it’s approximately half the cost of Arizona’s preschool program, which is the least-expensive in the country.
The Waterford Institute — a Utah-based nonprofit that sells software to schools — provides the program with software and training sessions for parents, as well as laptops and Internet sessions if the families wouldn’t otherwise have them. Parents then guide their children through the daily 15-minute sessions led by two animated raccoons named Rusty and Rosy.
It’s a sign of the growing interest among educators in using technology to customize learning, even for the youngest children.
The basis behind Upstart is to serve children in a state that didn’t otherwise have a state-funded preschool program. It primarily benefits at-risk children and children whose parents would have to travel a long distance to take them to a traditional preschool.
“Research shows that at-risk children who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to have positive life outcomes than their counterparts who do not attend preschool,” writes Brown. “They are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to get into trouble with the law or to go to jail.”
That’s all well and good, but are these students being cheated out of the social aspects of preschool? Not only does an online program rob children of behavioral teachings, it removes hands-on learning, a method of teaching that specifically benefits young kids.
The rebuttal by those associated with Upstart is that this program is geared toward parents who wouldn’t otherwise be sending their children to preschool. In other words, some preschool is better than no preschool.
“In some of the most rural parts of Utah and the country, there simply isn’t a bricks-and-mortar option or, if there is, it involves a long travel time,” said Claudia Miner, a Waterford vice president.
About half of families enrolled in the Upstart program in 2014–15 used it as a complement to a traditional part-time preschool. Megan Albrecht’s daughter was one of those students. She attended preschool for three half-days each week. Albrecht said the Upstart program was great, but stuck to the basics, only going over grammar and the alphabet.
“But Albrecht said Upstart is an important tool because it provides her a structure, and a daily nudge, to teach her daughter the alphabet and basic skills for kindergarten,” wrote Brown.
(State Sen. Howard A.) Stephenson said the cost of traditional preschool limits how many of the state’s 50,000 4-year-olds can be served.
It is that point made by Albrecht — that the program “nudged” her into going over material with her daughter – that may be the key. If children are going to learn anything from this program, parents must sit down and be involved with their children. Otherwise, it’s just a waste a money.
Mark Innocenti, a Utah State professor, believes the combination of online and traditional learning is best, but “remains concerned about relying on an in-home computer program to serve the poorest children, especially those whose parents work or speak English as a second language.”
For now, though, this is the best option while the state looks into raising additional funds to provide a true classroom option. That, though, would up the cost from approximately $800 per student to approximately $2,000, limiting the number of preschoolers that can be served.