On October 10, 2018, Defending the Early Years (DEY) and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) co-authored a statement about how online “preschools” deny children the hands-on, face-to-face school experiences that research shows is critical to both early learning and success in later life. In 2015, the state of Utah sponsored the first state-funded online “preschool” of its kind, called UPSTART. Since then, thousands of families have enrolled in the program and the company has expanded pilot programs to at least seven other states.
As educators and advocates we are deeply troubled by this growing trend to falsely market technology and machine learning as an acceptable way to teach young children. All of our knowledge about human development demonstrates that children learn best through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and relationships with caring adults. By adopting online pre-k, states are harming kids and families for the benefit of private industry. This practice disproportionately impacts children and families in under resourced areas, raising questions about privacy and masking gross financial inequities by inflating statistics that ‘all children’ have access to preschool. Over 100 leading early childhood experts and organizations have signed the position statement.
Click here to read the statement and see the signatories.
Click here to join the campaign and email your state representatives to reject public funding of online preschool. Tell your state legislators that online preschool should be prohibited. We need fully funded universal preschool instead.
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CRITIQUE OF UPSTART ONLINE PRESCHOOL LESSON
In this one-minute example of an UPSTART lesson, the benefits are difficult to recognize and the problems abound. Presumably, this lesson is designed to help preschoolers practice letter/sound connections and read short words that follow a consonant/vowel/consonant pattern, even though most preschoolers are not yet ready to learn to read. Unfortunately, there is so much here that can be confusing to a young child. And remember, UPSTART recommends that children complete these lessons on their own, wearing headphones, so there will not be an adult present to help a child work through any confusions.
To begin with, the scene is very busy and is overloaded with distracting images.
There are random letters on top of nine animals. The letter/sounds do not have any correspondence to the animals. For example, the pigs do not have “p” but rather “o”, “a” and “e”. The hens have and “h” but they also have “b and “r”. The cows have “t”, “m” and “d”. These random letters have no connection to the animals they are on and continuously change throughout the activity.
The player clicks on a cow to make the word “pig”. Again, there is no logical connection to this. The cow makes a /g/ sound and then a “mmmm” sound for a moo. In fact all the animals make their animal sound along with the letter sound. That is confusing for someone who is learning about letter/sound correspondence. The words that are formed jump into a small grid on the right that is difficult to see amidst the visual clutter: pig, big, bag, bat. There is no picture to go along with the word that is formed. A picture would help the child connect the newly formed words to their meanings. As the words are quickly read aloud by the computer program, they are highlighted in yellow, but that is difficult to even see with all that is happening on the screen.
In the end, there is even more sensory over-stimulation as the lights flash and bells/whistles ring.
Any logical system for learning letters/sounds will always use a visual image that connects with the letter/sound that is being taught. C is cow, h is for hen, p is for pig, and so on.
What is a child really learning with a program such as this? It is hard to tell. Perhaps they are learning to click on random objects to make lights flash and bells ring.
Note: This sample lesson was featured in the Washington Post article “Preschool is good for children, but it is expensive, so Utah is offering it online.” October 9, 2015.
Disrupted Childhood: The Cost of Persuasive Design
Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair on Screen Time
“We Tested Apps For Children. Half Failed to Protect Their Data”
AppCensus: Learn the Privacy Cost of Free Apps // UC Berkeley, International Computer Science Institute
Sample privacy/security analysis of widely used “ABC Mouse” app (scroll over bolded parts)
How Game Apps That Captivate Kids Have Been Collecting Their Data // The New York Times
Online Preschool: “Innovation”? Or Exploitation? // Invited presentation for Screen Time Action Network Conference, Boston, MA http://bit.ly/onlinepreschools
Six Ways and Counting that Big Data Systems are Harming Society // Dr. Joanna Redden, Data Justice Lab
Critical Perspectives on Social Impact Bonds and “Pay For Success” Contracts
Promises and Perils of Social Impact Bonds // Ken Saltman, Education Analysis Policy Archives (2017)
Bonded Life: Technologies of Racial Finance: From Slavery to Philanthrocapitalism // (Kish & Leroy 2015)
Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking // National Education Policy Center
Transparency and the Marketplace for Student Data // Fordham Center for Law and Information Policy
The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education // Zeide, 2017
Raising the Ideal Child? Algorithms, Quantification, and Prediction
The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement
Data Exploitation // Privacy International
K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center
Parent Coalition for Student Privacy