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4 Proven Applications of Pre-K Online Learning That the Media Doesn’t Talk About

By Henry Kronk
November 05, 2018

For anyone who follows edtech, a trend appeared to emerge in October: eLearning in early education is bad. Whether it’s aggressively marketed ‘educational’ apps, the spread of the Utah state-funded UPSTART program, or plain old screen time, numerous publications (respected or not) came out unequivocally against pre-K online learning. Many of these articles exhibited strong bias, ignored existing research, or relied purely on personal anecdote to reach their conclusions.

The most widely read of these articles was undoubtedly a piece published in the New York Times. Its headline reads “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley.” To be fair, the Times’ Nellie Bowles did not posit one iota of scientific accuracy in writing her piece. But as a counterpoint, those quoted as sources of authority use pseudoscientific and incendiary language that might fit more appropriately in a fire-and-brimstone sermon. As one executive assistant put it, “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.” Others with no background in psychology posited that, in viewing their kids use mobile devices, “We glimpsed into the chasm of addiction.”

One can find a much greater degree of rigor in an article by the The Hechinger Report, which posits that, “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.”

The article quotes Josh Golin, the executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a non-profit advocacy group.

Pre-K online learning, Golin says, “just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children. 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.”

Dozens of Experts and Advocates Speak Out Against Pre-K Online Learning

The article also cites a statement released by numerous groups and signed by over 100 educators, experts, and advocates. The statement describes how pre-K online learning can lead to sleep deprivation, behavioral issues, setbacks in social-emotional learning, and even obesity. It concludes that “there is virtually no evidence showing that online preschool improves outcomes for kids.”

That conclusion is interesting, considering that The Hechinger Report covered another study in October which surveyed over 200 educational apps from Amazon, GooglePlay, and Apple that purportedly teach early math and literacy.

As lead author Melissa Callaghan writes for the Blog on Learning & Development, “the verdict wasn’t good.” But it also wasn’t all bad. The authors noted several benefits of mobile apps for learning, such as touchscreen interaction, goal-based learning, and positive reinforcement. 

In fact, Callaghan points out the huge potential offered by educational apps and provides guidance for how parents might effectively choose them.

“My first suggestion for consumers is to be purposeful in educational app selection. It’s important to do your research beforehand. There are several companies out there that test out their products – First 8 Studios, ABCmouse, and Duck Duck Moose, to name a few. There are also organizations that review children’s media, like Common Sense Media, which provide detailed descriptions and reviews of educational apps.”

UPSTART Secures Funding

The largest target of parent, expert, and advocate scrutiny lately has been UPSTART, a kindergarten readiness mobile program designed by the non-profit Waterford Institute. It began in Utah in 2009 and has since expanded to Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio, and Philadelphia.

UPSTART delivers one 15-minute lesson per day, five days a week, and focuses mainly on early literacy, along with some math and science as well. Those 15 minute lessons fall well within the recommended maximum of 1 hour of screen time per day set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Earlier in October, it received a $14.2 million grant from the United States Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement to pilot the program in Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho.

Each of these states have large rural populations where families might not have access to publicly funded preschool. Throughout the U.S., roughly 2.5 million learners live too far away to attend preschool. For reference, roughly 4 million learners enter Kindergarten every year. In other words, roughly 6 in 10 learners do not attend preschool.

Research shows, furthermore, that if kids enter Kindergarten without a leg up in pre-K, that can reverberate throughout their K-12 education. That effect is amplified amid less affluent communities and non-white communities. As a 2015 Department of Education report concludes, “Without a deliberate focus on children’s preschool experiences in our nation’s education law, we run the risk of limiting opportunity for a generation of children by allowing educational gaps to take root before kindergarten. As a nation, we must commit to ensuring that all young people – particularly our most vulnerable – are prepared for a future where they can fulfill their greatest potential through a strong education.”

For many kids, therefore, UPSTART or something equivalent might be the only preschool they get.

Even if the above weren’t true, there’s still reason to explore pre-K online learning for any student. Because despite what “more than 100 educators, experts, and preschool advocates” say, there’s actually a good deal of peer-reviewed research supporting numerous applications of mobile learning. The following represent just a few applications.

1. Early Literacy

Educators generally hold that the more discrete a subject—the more it can be broken down into progressive steps where step 1 leads to step 2 and so on—the more suited it is for digital delivery.

By far the most research into pre-K online learning has focused on early literacy. A good deal of this research, furthermore, has found solid merits in it.

Much of this work stresses that, while benefits have been proven, the quality of the digital learning in question needs to be a primary for parents. As Michelle and David Neumann find, “Evidence is building that suggests tablets have the potential to foster emergent writing and letter knowledge. Although the impact of tablets on emergent literacy is not yet fully known, developing themes highlight potential benefits and hindrances of tablets for emergent literacy. Two important considerations are the quality of emergent literacy apps and the importance of scaffolding young children’s use of tablets at home and pre-school to support emergent literacy development.”

2. Emerging Writing

Writing goes hand in hand with early literacy. A 2013 study found that iPads were actually quite well suited to help students understand and bridge the gap between drawing, penmanship, and typing.

As Beth Beschorner and Amy Hutchinson write, “The children in this class clearly viewed themselves as writers as they created varying forms of writing in the digital environment of the iPad. For example, children were able to write using letters or symbols and/or write drawings using several apps. The Doodle Buddy and Drawing Pad apps were both frequently used by students to write messages using letters and/or drawings formed on the screen using their finger, typed text using the keyboard, digital stickers or stamps, and photographs taken with the iPad. Children talked extensively about their writing on the iPad saying things like, “I am writing hearts on the page.” and “I am writing this for my mom.””

3. Early Math Education

A survey of young learners in Greece came to the conclusion that, not only can tablet-delivered math teaching supplements work, they can even work better than traditional instruction. And yet, hesitation to harness pre-K online learning still exists. As the authors write, “even though educational software has been available almost 30 years now, the educational community of kindergarten education initially resisted the use of computers in the teaching of young children. Many educators, inspired by Piaget’s theory of the developmental stages of children, considered that young children need only the physical activity and the ability to handle tangible objects in order to consequently achieve understanding of the various abstract concepts. However, since the mid-1990s, researchers found that virtual manipulations which are facilitated by computer software are similar to physical manipulations and therefore, the use of ICT could effectively support the learning process, particularly in mathematics, and the educational development of children as a whole.”

4. Second Language Learning

Many parents choose to teach their kids a second language at a young age because they are so receptive to learning new schools and they’ll likely retain it throughout their lives. One couple quoted in the New York Times article regularly show their child Italian TV and movies because, “me and my wife were like, ‘Where would we like to visit?’”

This couple might be more effective in directing their child to a screen that is actually intended to teach him or her Italian. ESL teacher Chontelle Bonfiglio has created a list of her favorite mobile apps for language learning.

In truth the efficacy of mobile-delivered language learning is much less established than reading, writing, and early math. Still, one might expect it to be better than simply putting a kid down in front of a screen playing content in a different language.

It should be stressed that these examples of effective pre-K online learning should not be taken as fundamental truths. There are undoubtedly numerous apps and software programs out there looking to merely cash in on parents’ interest in educating their child. Others, though designed with good intentions, may fall flat or be deemed ineffective. Still, pre-K online learning as a whole should not be written off. And one has to wonder what the experts have been up to who signed the statement quoted by The Hechinger Report. A quick search on just a couple academic publishing databases will easily reveal that there are, in fact, peer-reviewed reports which conclude that pre-K online learning has its merits.

The authors of Moodle’s blog summed things up with the following, “As usual, activism moves forward even if evidence does not. Thorough impact evaluation of programs like non-profit UPSTART, the largest in the US, would show the value of the approach. But deciding if it is better would also take evaluation of all the other, online-free approaches. It should go beyond parents opinions, no matter how dependably laudable they have been over the years.”

Featured Image: Patricia Pruden, Unsplash.


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