Academic Resources Blog

Online Preschools and Their Developmental Impact

Friday, Apr. 26, 2019

Whether preschool programs benefit children has been a hotly contested subject for years, but recently, there’s been mounting evidence to support the claim that preschool is hugely beneficial to the development of young children. 

Numerous studies have shown that attending a quality preschool program better prepares children for kindergarten, helps them develop skills more quickly in areas like reading and math and sets them up for education success later. In 2017, a study published by the Brookings Institution supported these claims. It stated: 

Convincing evidence shows that children attending a diverse array of state and school district pre-k programs are more ready for school at the end of their pre-k year than children who do not attend pre-k. Improvements in academic areas such as literacy and numeracy are most common; the smaller number of studies of social-emotional and self-regulatory development generally show more modest improvements in those areas.”

While all students seem to benefit from preschool, there are two categories of student who appear to gain the most: 

  • Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those who have had “early experiences of economic scarcity and insecurity.”
  • Kids who grew up in a dual-language home. Dual language learners, experts suggest, have a stronger neural structure at a young age than their single-language counterparts, allowing them to absorb new information more quickly and switch between multiple tasks more effectively. This helps mitigate pre-literature and pre-math skills that could be underdeveloped.

The authors of the report were quick to state that every child can benefit from preschool, however, and that part of what makes pre-K schooling so beneficial is a diverse environment. Kids can learn, interact and grow by working with each other. 

They also stated that the quality of education received is important. A substandard program could be a detriment to children in the long run. A well-organized curriculum encompassing play, emotional and social skill development, games, art, music and movement in conjunction with conventional rote learning can be a huge benefit, especially when taught by a caring and capable teacher. 

Today, a new debate has emerged around preschool education: online versus brick and mortar classroom schooling. An online curriculum taught at home with guidance from a parent seems appealing, especially when backed by claims of higher test scores and increased performance. But does online learning really work? In this article, we’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of both online and conventional preschools. You’ll see what both sides say about the issue as they weigh the pros and cons. 

What You Need to Know About Online Preschool 

Online preschool programs have been gaining ground, especially in states that don’t fund public preschool education. Many sell themselves as kindergarten prep programs without explicitly calling themselves preschools, and they’re offered by for-profit and nonprofit companies. Advocates of online preschool say it gives kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a preschool program the chance to bridge what’s known as the “achievement gap” and enter kindergarten on a more equal footing with their peers. 

One program in particular called UPSTART has seen a drastic rise in enrollment since its inception. Begun in Utah, the state-funded program has exponentially expanded and receives enthusiastic support from many of the parents involved. It reports its children show progress after completing the program, and data seems to support that. Information provided by the company shows increased test scores, according to a PBS article on online preschools. Parents have also said they like the flexibility of online programs, as it allows them to juggle a busy schedule, especially if there are multiple siblings with differing educational needs.

Children enrolled in UPSTART and similar programs complete online education modules that take them through exercises designed to teach them how to complete simple equations and sound out words. Done entirely online, the recommended screen time is 15 minutes per day, though enrollees often exceed that amount. Sometimes the programs are completed in addition to conventional classroom schooling, but in rural areas, it may be the only option for some. 

Online preschools are often easier to pay for, should a state decide to fund them. UPSTART recently received millions in state funding from the Utah government, and has expanded into other states attracted by the idea of providing education without large overhead costs. Another big incentive of UPSTART’s program is that it provides a laptop and internet access to those who qualify for the duration. 

For-profit models like ABCMouse’s Early Learning Academy and CHALK charge anywhere from $20 per month to $99 for a one-year subscription. 

Experts Argue Conventional Schooling Still Has Benefits

While advocates argue online education means more children with access to learning for a lower cost, some experts in the educational field aren’t so sure. Calling it “the latest high-tech industry push to target young children,” a group of educators and those working in the education field signed a statement decrying its use as a replacement for conventional preschool. 

Those in favor of conventional preschool claim that online learning teaches only a small part of the skills children need to properly develop fully, specifically rote learning skills called “narrow skills.” The math and English drills provided by online programs may help children read at a higher level and improve test scores, but people like the National Institute of Early Education Research’s (NIEER) Shannon Riley Ayers believe that self-regulation, oral language skills and self-awareness can’t be developed by a focus on narrow skills alone. 

Narrow skills constitute only “a small slice in terms of what they need . . . and the many, many skills that we want our young learners to have,” Riley-Ayers said in the article linked above. She added that she didn’t think online preschool “could ever replace a high-quality early childhood brick-and-mortar-type place.” 

Opponents of all-online preschool have also raised concerns about the data gathered from these young learners being used for nefarious purposes, and apps passing themselves off as educational when they really aren’t. Whether brick-and-mortar or online, the quality of the preschool is vital. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement saying that excessive screen time at an earlier age, especially if that time was spent on non-PBS (public broadcasting system) content, is a predictor of poor executive functioning.

The jury is still out on whether nontraditional schools can completely replace brick and mortar preschools, and many choose to adopt a hybrid model of in-school and online preschool training for their children. Quality online programs do appear to provide a benefit to young learners. Perhaps in the future a balance can be struck between the worlds of the classroom and the computer.

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