Indiana has shown itself to be creative when it comes to innovative education initiatives, to the great benefit of Hoosier students, parents and taxpayers. Efforts like charter schools and the voucher program give all students the opportunity for choice and a good education that only more affluent students have had in the past.
But education officials should be wary of becoming so enamored of innovation that they are willing to spend money on anything just because it's new. Such caution is warranted with the state's venture into online learning for pre-school students.
Even ordinary preschool education has its critics who say it helps mostly middle age kids and that a lot of its positive benefits fade after a few years. Online pre-school education adds a list of other concerns.
Indiana's program is very modest. The legislature this term set aside $1 million so poor children can enroll in pilot programs like UPSTART, which serves 100 youngsters and features computer-based,15-minute reading readiness lessons. But big problems can grow from small mistakes.
For example, says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, interacting with a computer and not real people and real things means students may not fully experience the “world of learning and feeling” that a rich early education program could provide. “The online preschool can, in 15 minutes, drill kids about items on the test, but that's not developing the fundamental domains of deep knowledge and understanding. Dumbing it down to letters and numbers is really unfortunate.”
And students whose first learning experience is with a computer might well miss early lessons in how to interact with other students in a learning situation. Socialization is not an unimportant skill. By the time kids become teenagers, many parents find it difficult to tear them away from electronic devices. How much tougher will it be if they get hooked before they turn 6?
And Madeleine Baker, CEO of Early Child Alliance, points out that the online structure may not be feasible for children whose parents are struggling to make ends, making its inclusion in a package aimed at poor children a bit puzzling” “The $1 million for in-home learning clearly wasn't for what we call the working poor.”
State officials need to think carefully about exactly what they hope to accomplish with this program, and study it closely to make sure it's filling an educational need.