Early years online … the rise of ‘virtual pre-school’

Early years online … the rise of ‘virtual pre-school’

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Recent controversy over virtual pre-school provision raises broader questions over what priorities and values are driving our education systems.

[by Neil Selwyn: April 2019]

Legislators in North Carolina recently passed a bill to fund an online preschool program for ‘at risk’ children. This means that children aged 3 and 4 years can take their pre-school education at home in the form of online ‘kindergarten readiness programs’. Children engage with online games, ‘virtual field-trips’ and other digital learning activities, while parents are sent teacher’s guides and boxes of resources.

North Carolina families will be enrolled in the non-profit UPSTART preschool program, which already operates in Utah, Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, Ohio and Philadelphia. UPSTART sits alongside a growing number of similar services offered by for-profit organisations. The idea of online preschool education has been roundly criticised by educational experts and the news media – branded a ‘shockingly bad’ idea in the Washington Post. Yet despite such push-back, these forms of early years education provision look set to grow in prominence over the next few years.

There are many arguments against the prospect of providing preschool education online. Early childhood educators argue that learning at this young age needs to be highly social, based around relational interactions and hands-on play with peers. Kindies, playschools and other face-to-face preschool centres also fulfil an important socialisation function – with children learning to cooperate, collaborate and communicate with others. Preschool centres provide a place away from home where children learn to be sociable, respectful and independent.

In addition, are concerns related to young children’s over-use of technology. For example, some commentators have linked online preschool learning with possible health and behavioural consequences of excessive screen-based work – from eye-strain to disrupted sleep patterns. Suspicions have also be raised over the likely data-mining of valuable cognitive and behavioural data from these young learners’ interactions with the online learning systems. In short, many people feel uneasy about children being made to work at computers from such a young age.

Yet, however valid these concerns might be, there are good reasons why the virtual preschool model is gaining traction in these parts of the US. As far as some state governments are concerned, this is a cost-effective way of fulfilling their early years education commitments – the North Carolina proposals reportedly cost as little as $500,000 per year. Conversely, there is seemingly high demand for this form of early years provision, with thousands of parents reportedly signing up to online programs. Indeed, virtual preschools are a welcome alternative for home-schoolers and other families who want to keep their children ‘close by’ during their early years rather than sending them to state institutions.

There is also an important social welfare dimension to this use of technology. These services are targeted primarily towards low-income and/or rural families who otherwise would struggle considerable to find affordable early years education for their children. The North Carolina program is also targeted at other families in need of support – such as children of active duty military personnel. All told, the idea of online pre-school is seen to fit specific sets of circumstances and needs that are otherwise difficult to address.

All told, the prospect of online preschool education is not as straight-forward as it might first appear. Ultimately, the North Carolina example raises some important points of contention that need to be discussed in earnest all around the world. For sure, it is now technically possible to support the basics of the preschool curriculum via the internet. But is this what we want as a society … in other words, is this socially preferable?

One key point here is the primary targeting of these sorts of virtual schooling towards low-income disadvantaged families. This is a moral dilemma raised by digitally-driven ‘low-cost’ schooling innovations elsewhere in the world, such as the controversial Bridge Academies ‘school-in-a-box’ model in sub-Saharan Africa. In short, is it better to use digital technology to support cheap but limited quality schooling to families who otherwise might receive very little schooling at all? Alternately, should governments and state agencies simply stump up the funding required to support high-quality face-to-face pre-schooling for these families?

Providing high-quality universal face-to-face education is very costly. Growing numbers of education officials, for-profit providers and technologists are clearly beginning to take digital alternatives such as virtual pre-schools seriously. So, is this merely an instance of a technological ‘innovation’ providing an elegant and efficient ‘solution’ to educational problems? If not, what needs to be done instead? These are important choices, and it is crucial that we all begin to properly discuss the values and trade-offs implicit in what might otherwise seem to be another inevitable step in the ongoing digitization of education.