Toddlers and Technology

Can Computers and Smart Devices Bridge the Education Gap?

By Spencer Sutherland

July 31, 2014

In every political campaign and legislative session in the United States, there’s a conversation about education. It usually starts with how to improve it and ends with how to fund it. In recent years, that conversation has broadened to include pre-kindergarten education as well.

Pre-K programs have even grabbed the attention of President Barack Obama, who emphatically declared, “If we want America to lead in the 21st Century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible—from the day they start preschool to the day they start their career.”

That’s a great goal, but we’ve got a long way to go. Internationally, the United States ranks near the bottom of the pile in terms of the number of children in preschool programs, teacher-to-child ratio and total investment in early childhood development.

Though the American education system is tightly tied to legislative funding, the need for improved learning is about more than just political posturing—it’s about science.

“The first five years of life, the brain is like the internet and all the links are being built through the interactions with the people in their world,” says Geri Mendoza, instructor in the department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. “All the synapses that need to happen to recognize symbols, to be able to scan a page, all happen earlier than age 6.”

A Digital Solution to a Utah Problem

Though children’s brains are wired to learn at a young age, Utah faces unique challenges in educating kids before preschool. Much like the rest of the country, funding is a persistent issue. Distance also plays a factor; in Utah’s rural counties, some 4-year-olds are a two-hour bus ride from the nearest Head Start preschool location. Also, a number of Utah parents are simply more comfortable providing early learning in the home, rather than sending their child to school a year earlier.

Five years ago, the Utah legislature decided to look to technology for a solution. The state gave $1 million in funding to the nonprofit Waterford Institute to roll out an at-home adaptive learning program called UPSTART. The software-based program’s goal is to make preschoolers—especially those from low-income, rural or Spanish-speaking families—ready for kindergarten. The program is free for qualified students and can be used on its own or in conjunction with traditional preschools or home learning.

“Children really need to come into school at a kindergarten level to be set up for academic success,” says Claudia Miner, executive director of UPSTART. “The problem is that some children who haven’t had any pre-kindergarten training are so far behind that learning becomes a bad experience for them. Once they have that mindset, it’s really hard to get them out of it.”

After an in-person placement assessment, children in the UPSTART program are asked to use the computer software 15 minutes a day, five days a week. The software contains thousands of games, books and songs that teach reading, math and science skills. The lessons automatically change, based on the child’s learning level.  

“With the software, the children are served up activities that will reinforce where they already are and also push them forward in their learning,” explains Diane Weaver, marketing director at the Waterford Institute. “Every child has a unique learning path. If you put two children on the UPSTART program side-by-side, within 10 minutes, they’re on completely different games. It’s really impressive.”

The results have also been impressive. Since the launch of UPSTART, 7,000 children have completed the program. These students scored well above control groups in literacy measures and generally entered kindergarten at an above-average reading level.

“One of the hallmarks of the program is that the gains are consistent across geography, parent education level and language,” Miner says. Children from low-income homes made the greatest progress in the program.

UPSTART recently gained national attention when it received the federal Investing in Innovation grant. The grant will allow UPSTART to serve as many children in the upcoming school year as the last five years combined.

Too Much, Too Soon?

Now that laptops, tablets and smart phones are everywhere—including in young children’s hands—many parents and educators worry that children are spending too much time in front of
a screen. 

Mendoza says parents don’t need to be afraid of technology. “Digital literacy is the way of the future,” she says. “But with any activity—including computers—it’s about being intentional, purposeful and mindful of developmental levels.”

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