Online learning for Pre-K children

by Kathryn Kennedy

As a researcher and practitioner in the field of K-12 digital learning, I’m frequently asked by people, “Are kids really learning online as early as Pre-K?” My answer to them is “yes.” It’s happening in part because of a Waterford Institute program called UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow), a nonprofit organization that helps Pre-K students prepare for Kindergarten. Thanks to a 2015 Obama administration grant totaling $11.5 million, UPSTART is bringing early math, reading, and science lessons to four- and five-year-olds. These lessons are 15 minutes a day, and the program is funded at the state, school, or partner level. Families do not have to cover the cost of the program.

The program helps children who have transportation issues or who do not have educational options in their area; children whose families cannot afford paid-for pre-school options; children whose families would rather not send their children to school at such a young age; and children who speak English as a second language or who need additional language support. In their fifth year, the program’s site shares Program Evaluations for every year it has been in place. Additionally, the site highlights case studies of how the program is serving young children. According to a PBS News Hour report, more states including Idaho, Mississippi, Indiana, South Carolina, and Ohio, as well as cities like Philadelphia are incorporating UPSTART. The program is aligned to early learning standards. A total of 1,577 students were served by UPSTART in year 5 of their implementation.

In some instances, UPSTART partners with local organizations to provide learning to children who would normally not have the opportunity to attend Pre-K. As an example, UPSTART partners with the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development to reach the remote regions of the state, especially those that are high poverty areas. UPSTART program requires parental or guardian support at home while the program supplies the technology and resources that families need to support their children. UPSTART offers coaches that help support children’s learning and their parents’/guardians’ facilitation process.

UPSTART is a robust example of a Pre-K online learning program. In general, Pre-K online learning raises important questions about the logistics of programs at this level. Programs that are offering or that are thinking about offering learning opportunities at the Pre-K level need to think about the following, for example:

  • What happens if a child does not have a family member to help them do their work?

  • Is there an access and equity issue with those children who don’t have the support they need at home?

  • Do children have the technology and connectivity they need to do the work?

  • Would it make sense for traditional schools or community centers to open up space to support this type of program so that the onus of care is not on the parents or guardians? 

Even with these questions in mind, it’s important to consider that programs are attempting to fill an area of non-consumption (as explained by the Christensen Institute). This effort can be an important step forward, if and when done mindfully and intentionally.

Will we see programs like UPSTART continuing to be replicated elsewhere? We will continue to keep an eye on the latest updates in this area and share them out.