Early Learning Digest

3 Benefits of Online Preschool

"Advocates say online preschool has the potential to address two serious problems with the current state of preschool: access and cost."

Grandmother reading to child

The Hechinger Report, a news site that covers innovation and inequality in education, recently published an in-depth piece on the growing popularity of online preschool, featuring the successes of Waterford UPSTART, our at-home kindergarten readiness program. The story was republished by PBS and has been making the rounds of other education outlets like Education Dive and more.

It begins with this scene: Mother and young daughter gathered around a laptop as the younger practices her reading skills using the Waterford UPSTART curriculum. It’s a sight we now consider familiar, and one we know—based on research—helps better prepare young children for kindergarten.

Here are three of the benefits of online programs highlighted in the article:

Online Programs Increase Access to Early Education Opportunities

Research shows quality early learning experiences are critical to children. But not every child has access to these types of programs. Waterford UPSTART helps address this inequality by supplementing existing opportunities with a high-quality curriculum or filling in gaps for students who otherwise might not have any formal early education experiences.

“In states like Mississippi, where state-funded pre-K only serves 4 percent of 4-year-olds, parents have to pay for preschool programs if their children do not get a pre-K seat. Nationally, less than a third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs. Advocates of online learning say programs like UPSTART, which is free for most families, may increase access to educational opportunities, which can be critical to ensuring the youngest learners don’t start behind and stay behind.”

For example, in Mississippi where we recently ran a Waterford UPSTART pilot, more than 40 percent of children live in rural areas where there isn’t always access to other programs or where transportation poses challenges. Waterford UPSTART provides additional access, academic preparation and responds to these challenges and related requests for parent choice.

Online Programs Cost Less

In Utah, the state funds the largest implementation of Waterford UPSTART, with nearly 15,000 children and their families enrolling in the program this year. The program is free to participating families and provides Internet and computers to families that need them. It costs about $800 per child.

In pilot states, which are scaled to fewer participants, Waterford UPSTART costs about $1,000 per child if the family has computer and Internet, and about $2,000 if the program provides them.

In comparison, NIEER says in its 2016 annual preschool report that states spent, on average, $4,976 per student on public PreK—and that’s just state programs and/or the state portion of funding.

Waterford UPSTART Prepares Children for School

Not all online programs are created equally. Research shows that Waterford UPSTART prepares children academically for kindergarten. In a report by the Utah Department of Education, researchers found children who participated in UPSTART  showed immediate growth in early literacy skills and then outperformed their peers on standardized tests from kindergarten through fourth grade.

Recent pilots in Mississippi, rural Ohio and Philadelphia all also show positive students gains regardless of demographics.

How Much Computer Time is Too Much?

The Hechinger article brings up another interesting point, noting that “experts worry putting small children in front of the computer for hours each week is a bad idea.” We totally agree. It’s important that technology use with young children is intentional, limited and high quality.

For children ages 2 to 5 years, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. They also suggest parents co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

Similarly, in their joint positioning statement on technology use in early childhood programs, NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center say, when used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.

“Effective uses of technology and media are active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering; give the child control; provide adaptive scaffolds to help children progress in skills development at their individual rates; and are used as one of many options to support children’s learning. Technology and interactive media should expand children’s access to new content and new skills.” —NAEYC/Fred Rogers Center Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media in Early Childhood Programs

Our curriculum and programs like Waterford UPSTART follow these guidelines by using technology to provide high-quality, interactive curriculum that adapts to each child’s pace and needs in a developmentally-appropriate amount of time (15-20 minutes a day). We also work to encourage parent involvement through family trainings and support programs.