April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Virtual Preschool? Believe It or not, It’s a Thing

SLJ1503-FirstStepsI’m having a nightmare. In it, my editor has pitched me an idea to cover virtual preschool. In my nightmare, I think: “Virtual preschool? I don’t even have my own flying car! But maybe my parents didn’t love me enough to subscribe to virtual preschool, where I would have become so smart that I would have built my own car, because the virtual preschool would surely have promised to ‘inspire the genius.’” Then I wake up to discover an email from my editor about virtual preschool, one called Vinci: Inspire the Genius.

Now, I admire anyone who has an idea and runs with it, especially a woman who, in 2011, was named one of the Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs/Mompreneurs to Watch by Forbes magazine for creating the first Android-based tablet for kids and toddlers. The woman? Dan Yang. The tablet? Vinci, which in Italian means “to win.”

In four years, the Vinci brand has grown to support both physical classrooms and, yes, virtual classrooms geared toward parents. Subscription-based curricula can be accessed via monthly or yearly packages, with four different levels to choose from. The base level, the Elephant, costs $6.99 per month, with parents supplying their own Android tablet. The other three packages include the Vinci tablet (about $150) and wireless downloads of new curriculum packets to the device. The highest level offered, the Cheetah ($59.99 per month), offers parents 90 minutes of one-on-one conferencing and assessment of their child with a real teacher via phone or Skype. Curricular units include digital books (not trade titles, but ebooks created specifically for the program), video, songs, and Vinci apps. The site also sells accessories such as toys and books at additional cost.

SLJ1503-FirstSteps-PQRead for yourself a recent interview with Yang to form your own opinion about virtual preschool. Here is my main concern. When asked the question, “What does your company ultimately want to achieve?,” Yang’s response was: “Closing the achievement gap and giving every child the opportunity to succeed.” A noble and wonderful goal for any early childhood company to have. But how does a fee-based virtual curriculum help close the achievement gap, when research consistently shows that it is not the upper middle class that we need to worry about but low-income children, who can’t afford the Vinci curriculum? Research also shows how vital it is to enrich a young child’s vocabulary; to let them explore their physical environments, and to read and talk to children as much as possible. How does handing a tablet to an 18 month old encourage parent-child interaction? While the Vinci website boasts its “award winning curriculum,” many of the honors come from tech companies. I couldn’t find any endorsement from trusted early childhood organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or Zero to Three. In fact, in a recent article about Vinci’s Virtual Preschool, Kyle Snow, NAEYC research director, when asked about the concept said, “My first reaction was concern.”

If Yang truly is committed to giving every child the opportunity to succeed, why doesn’t her website mention public libraries, where families of any means can attend quality early literacy programs, and borrow age-appropriate materials?

I could actually make a strong argument that public libraries have dabbled in the concept of “virtual preschool” for decades, as these institutions offer 24/7 access to ebooks, audiobooks, and other resources via their webpages. Some public libraries—San Francisco, Denver, and Jersey City, to name a few—offer a “Dial-a-Story” service where a child can hear a story read to her over the phone. The New York Public Library posts brief versions of toddler story times on YouTube. Public libraries will never have to worry about being replaced by virtual preschools or virtual libraries, for that matter—because they continue to offer a community space where parents can mingle with and interact (in person!) with other young children and parents as they toddle, giggle, and turn pages together. Because ultimately, living in a society where preschool education is entirely virtual and we no longer play, read, write, sing, and draw in communal spaces together would be the real nightmare.

This article was published in School Library Journal's March 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa G. Kropp About Lisa G. Kropp

Lisa G. Kropp is the assistant director of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst, NY, and a forever children’s librarian.

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  1. Nightmare, indeed. Especially when parents are warned AGAINST letting their children have too much screen time at an early age – in fact, the official recommendation by the AAP is that children under 2 are not exposed to TV or computers at all, and then limited time after that. My 3 year old has only watched a few hours of tv in his life and his knowledge of my iPhone is limited to viewing family photos. And guess what? He talks better, has a longer attention span, and is more socialized than most other kids his age. I wonder why…