At its best, technology can widen and transform our world. Though we may debate the value of living so much of our lives online, many people successfully navigate a world in which they have access to, for example, in-store and online shopping; network TV and online streaming; print books and e-books. Early childhood educators and other adults pursuing credentials and degrees have increasing access to coursework that is both in-person and online. So, it should come as no surprise that some people are wondering how the digital age could and should impact early childhood education. Preschool is about relationships and the learning that happens between children and teachers and among the children themselves. While there are tools online that can support children’s learning, the reality is that there is no online equivalent to preschool.
There are a number of articles online debating the value of “online preschool.” At the same time, more and more states are using taxpayer dollars designated for early childhood education to make investments in commercially based technology applications as though they are the same thing.
Digital technologies can enrich learning, just like blocks and paint can. There are many commercially based online learning applications for young children. Some promote early reading skills; others introduce math and science concepts. Many of these technologies can be helpful to early childhood educators as they are creating classroom experiences and to parents as they are working to boost their children’s learning and engagement.
But even as the field embraces all that digital technology can contribute to early education, it must attend to research that clarifies technology’s limits. For example, there is cautionary research in the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council’s 2015 report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Framework. This 700+ page document decisively identifies the first eight years as a profound developmental period that impacts the whole life. Crucial, complex areas of development include the relationship between language and mathematics, self-regulation, social and emotional development, responsible decision-making, physical development, self-management, and relationship skills. The science and evidence are clear that if we as a society focus on these developmental areas in the early years, the return on investment will be worth the dollars invested.
High-quality early education offers other crucial benefits as well, including helping families go to work. Recent evidence from a study in the District of Columbia indicated that universal preschool boosted women’s participation in the workforce by 10 percent. Since no technology company offering “online preschool” could conceivably claim these benefits as part of their program, they have focused their marketing efforts on the most narrow “school readiness” outcomes and, in doing so, have shortchanged children, families, business, and our society of all the benefits that should be reaped through investment in the early years.
Using public dollars intended for early childhood education to give children access to a 15-minute-per-day online program does not expand access to preschool. It doesn’t address the crisis in the supply of quality, affordable childcare. It doesn’t help parents participate in the workforce. It doesn’t help families choose an “alternative” option for or version of pre-K because it is something else entirely. To what extent we want to encourage parents to access online literacy and math curricula to help their 3 and 4-year-olds prepare for school is a conversation for another column. In this one, the only question is whether these technology-based programs can be “preschool”—and the answer is no.
Yet the Waterford Institute, creator of the commercially based app UPSTART, has been aggressively expanding across the country on the theory that the answer should be yes. Their expansion has included the investment of tens of millions of federal, state, and philanthropic dollars based on their promotion of the program as a cheaper alternative to preschool that meets the highest level of national program standards. To that end, at various times Waterford Institute has placed NAEYC’s logo on its website and used NAEYC’s logo in outreach materials. It actively refers to UPSTART as being aligned to NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standards.
To be clear, NAEYC has strict non-endorsement policies. NAEYC’s Governing Board policies and procedures expressly prohibit NAEYC from endorsing or supporting any commercial products.
It is impossible for an online program to meet NAEYC program accreditation standards because those standards occur in program environments where well-prepared early childhood educators are building personal relationships with each child, helping families meet their unique needs, and instigating a wide variety of rich learning opportunities across all domains of development—including facilitating small and large-group activities in which children learn from each other. The NAEYC standards measure relationships; curriculum; teaching; assessment of child progress; health; staff competencies, preparation, and support; families; community relationships; physical environment; and leadership and management. Under each standard are dozens of specific assessment items, for a total of more than 350 criteria on which programs are assessed. Early childhood programs spend months preparing for the accreditation process. They go through extensive portfolio preparation and policy documentation, and the entire professional staff is involved in preparing their classrooms for a site visit. It is misleading to imply that an online experience that lasts 15 to 20 minutes per day is in any way comparable to a high-quality, full-day, full-year early childhood education program.
Technology-based programs are just that, and we recommend that you evaluate their efficacy for the supporting role they can play in a child’s learning. “Online preschool” is an oxymoron.
Technology-based apps are not preschool, and they are not high-quality childcare. It is impossible for them to meet or align to NAEYC program standards, and they should not be funded with public taxpayer dollars that have been designated for high-quality early childhood education. Taxpayer dollars need to fund the kind of early childhood education that evidence shows supports families and truly prepares children for school and for life.
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