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Is Online Early-Childhood Education the Next Big Thing?

Utah rolled this online program out to thousands of young children in the state. The Obama administration funded it through its Investing in Innovation grant program to the tune of more than $11 million.

And now Waterford UPSTART, an educational software program whose creators say can help prepare children for kindergarten through 75 minutes each week of online learning, has received one of its largest money infusions—this time from a philanthropic effort organized by the same group that puts on "TED Talks." 

UPSTART is one of eight organizations awarded funding through The Audacious Project. The Audacious Project, housed at TED and now in its second year, raised $280 million to distribute among this year's grantees, though it did not publicize how much individual grantees received. The awards were announced April 16.

UPSTART—its name comes from "Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow," though it is used in many other states now—plans to use this money to roll out its program to all 50 states, said Andy Myers, the chief operating officer for the Waterford Institute, based in Salt Lake City. Its chief focus will be providing its services to children, in the year before they start kindergarten, who would not be able to access a traditional preschool program. 

"We know how competitive and prestigious The Audacious Project is," Myers said, noting that there were 1,500 applicants for funding this year. The funders "are really smart people trying to make a difference in the world." 

As UPSTART has expanded to more children—North Carolina is considering funding UPSTART as an alternative for children who are on a waiting list for its state-run preschool program—it has drawn serious criticism. Some early-childhood advocates say that it's an attempt to provide a cheap alternative that can't offer the deeper enrichment and social interaction that comes from a high-quality early-childhood program.

UPSTART also runs counter to recommendations that young children limit their time in front of screens, critics say. 

"What we're worried about is that by funding this online preschool project, it's really going to undermine efforts to understand what is really good and needed for young children," said Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, the co-director of the organization Defending the Early Years. "We don't want anyone to believe this problem [of access] is solved." Defending the Early Years and other organizations sent a letter to The Audacious Project before the awards were announced, urging it to rethink its decision. 

Myers said that UPSTART is not a preschool. Rather, it's a kindergarten-readiness program. In some places, the program has been used as additional enrichment for traditional preschool programs, such as Head Start.

"People don't realize we support and would love to see universal preschool. We support and love to see children having an opportunity to play. We really don't have any disagreement on those two points," he said. But not everyone has access to high-quality preschool. 

"We have something that we know works," Myers said. "To not make that available to families who have no other choice just doesn't make sense to us."


Related stories:

 for the latest news on policies, practices, and trends in early childhood education. 

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