Early-Childhood Professionals Ponder Value of Internet Access
Bonnie Blagojevic has worked in child care for 17 years, but it was not until she began using the Internet six years ago that she became connected to early-childhood educators around the world.
A curriculum coordinator at the Sharing Place Child Care Center in Orono, Maine, Ms. Blagojevic has used the Internet for everything from getting information about monarch caterpillars to preparing workshop presentations with "colleagues" she has never met in person.
Ms. Blagojevic, though, is like most people who work in the early-childhood field: If they're tapping into the World Wide Web, chances are they're doing so at home.
"We have some computers, but we are not on the Internet yet," Ms. Blagojevic said of her workplace. "I think resources are a very big issue."
Computer use by young children is a sharply debated topic, but experts say that doesn't mean those who work with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers should not themselves take advantage of what the Internet has to offer.
Those who work in the field, however, often lack access to computers where they work. While cost is perhaps the biggest obstacle, some early-childhood educators say the value of Web access simply hasn't received the recognition it deserves.
Some observers say members of the field would place a higher priority on using technology if their professional association, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, took the lead. But the more pressing issues of low pay, high turnover, and poor quality take up most of the NAEYC's attention.
"We certainly appreciate the value of technology, but we are often aware of the broader context," said Barbara Willer, the deputy executive director of the Washington-based organization, which represents more than 100,000 educators and other staff members.
A group of NAEYC members dedicated to the use of technology—called the NAEYC technology and young children caucus—has been in place for several years, but that group is not formally recognized by the association. The NAEYC's Web site does not link to the new site operated by the caucus, and the leaders of the caucus had to find server space elsewhere to run their listserv.
However, Dara McCormick Feldman, an early-childhood instructional-technology specialist for the Montgomery County, Md., school system and the president of the caucus, said she believes the association is "slowly starting to see the benefits."
The informal nature of the caucus was never meant to "downplay the importance" of technology, Ms. Willer added. That's just the way the association is organized.
Ms. Feldman said she believes NAEYC leaders are most worried about equity. For example, much of the association's accreditation process is still conducted by hand because so many early-childhood programs don't have computers.
"They think once they do technology, it's going to take away from people who don't have it," Ms. Feldman said.
'The Disparity Is Enormous'
While a fair amount of research has been undertaken to determine how technology is being used in K-12 schools, almost no information is available about how much access early-childhood teachers and child-care workers have to the Internet and how they are using it.
Sharon Milburn, a professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University-Fullerton, came close to collecting some hard data when she surveyed members of the California Association for the Education of Young Children, an affiliate of the national group, about their use of technology. But she doesn't yet have funding to finish the project and analyze the results.
"Just from flipping through [the surveys], the disparity is enormous," Ms. Milburn said. "Most of them know where they can get access, but they don't necessarily know what they can do with it."
A survey of the general population conducted last year by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Technology and Information Administration provides some insight.
The study found that whether a person has access to the Internet depends largely on income. Only 16 percent of people who make between $5,000 and $10,000 a year use the Internet. Those without access who earn less than $25,000 name cost as the main reason they do not use the Internet. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, child-care workers make an average of $7 an hour.
The report, "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," also said that someone with a college degree was far more likely to own a computer or have access to the Internet than someone who did not graduate from college.
While many teachers in early-childhood programs have attended college, people who have only a high school diploma often staff such programs.
"This is a professional-development issue. [Internet access] will make these women much more employable," said Mav Pardee, the vice president of the child-care network for Beansprout Networks, a company that provides free Web sites to child-care centers to help them communicate with the families they serve.
Moreover, training is one of the main services that the Internet offers people who work in the early-childhood field.
For example, in late 1998, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, based in Washington, launched Learning Options, a collection of online courses for family-child-care providers, Head Start staff members, and others involved in the field. The goal, said Michael Patti, the association's Web administrator, is to form a partnership with a university and eventually offer all the courses that someone would need to earn a child-development-associate credential or a two-year degree.
Some 1,000 people are enrolled in the program, and 600 have completed classes, Mr. Patti said.
"We thought rather than wait until someone who didn't know the field was doing this, we would be proactive," he said.
But some experts warn that Web-based education is insufficient without face-to-face interaction with an instructor and other students.
"It scares me that we are training people to be caregivers over the Web," Ms. Feldman said.
Kathrin W. Greenough, an assistant professor of early-childhood education at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, started teaching by audio-conferencing and computer conferencing two years ago. Her students—many of whom are Head Start teachers who have never been to college—live in remote areas of the state.
While leading a workshop at the NAEYC's annual conference last fall, Ms. Greenough said she creates opportunities for the students to interact and, during the summer, meet face-to-face.
"I think interaction is the way people learn, both children and adults," she said. "My main issue is, am I practicing what I preach?"
The Online Community
Those who monitor Internet use say it is interaction through listservs or "online communities" that many early-childhood workers value even more than the Web pages they use.
"It's a lot of fun to watch. Those who have been in early childhood for a long time really mentor those who are new," said Kathy Reschke, who moderates a listserv called Kidcare, which is operated by Iowa State University's cooperative extension service.
She believes most of the providers who participate in Kidcare operate family-child-care homes. But she's not sure whether that is because they have more access to the Internet than those who work in centers or because the topics raised on the list relate more to such businesses.
Even when centers do have computers, they are often used only for administrative purposes.
Ms. Feldman said that in her suburban Maryland district, schools usually don't want to share computers with the early-childhood programs simply because they don't think the children—or the teachers—need them.
Some employer-sponsored child-care centers—those that are operated by companies and government agencies for their employees' children—seem to place more importance on connecting their staff members to technology.
Within the past few months, all 291 centers operated by Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a large provider of corporate and government-sponsored child care, became connected to the same e-mail system. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company also runs a Web site with information for parents, providers, and those interested in entering the field.
Centers that are affiliated with technology companies have a particular advantage, said Ilene Hoffer, a spokeswoman for the company. "When they build out the centers, they build in the networking and the cabling," she said. "The infrastructure is already there."
Connected in Pennsylvania
At least one state is bringing the World Wide Web to the early-childhood field the way most states are equipping K-12 schools. The goal of CyberStart, an initiative announced by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge in the fall of 1998, is to wire all 4,000 of the state's licensed child-care centers to the Internet.
While the program, which will be piloted in roughly 100 urban, rural, and suburban centers over the next year or two, is meant to introduce children to the Internet and prepare them to use technology when they enter school, officials note that professional development for teachers is an added benefit.
"We want to get them over their hesitancy of working with computers," said Janet Calhoun, the special assistant to the secretary of public welfare.
Child-care providers who use the Internet and are comfortable with technology gain credibility with the parents they serve, said Ms. Milburn of CSU-Fullerton, particularly if those parents want their children to use computers as well.
She stressed that the benefits to early-childhood educators go far beyond just the social interaction that e-mail and listservs provide.
"This field tends to draw people who think they are people people, not computer people," she said. "But I tell them, 'You can be a computer person, and here's what it can do for you.' "
For example, Ms. Milburn said, they can follow the latest changes in legislation and policy that affect child care and early-childhood education. Directors can download documents and reports for their employees that would otherwise be expensive to order.
In addition, a rapidly growing number of Web pages—offered by government and nonprofit organizations as well as businesses—are designed specifically for those who work with young children.
But some experts believe those who are targeting the early-childhood field have a long way to go.
"Some of it is good quality, but there's a lot of junk," said Diane Rothenberg, the associate director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education in Champaign, Ill., who also leads a workshop on Internet use at the NAEYC's annual conference.
While she called early-childhood educators an "underserved and underrepresented population on the Web," Ms. Rothenberg said she can see by how quickly she can cover the basics in her workshops that awareness and access are growing tremendously.
"This is a golden opportunity for us to provide much more meaningful technical assistance," she said.
Vol. 19, Issue 17, Pages 1,18