Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Time4Learning review

I was interested to try out Time4Learning to see how it compared to other online educational programs we had tried such as ABCmouse, Reading Eggs, and Math Seeds (by the same company as Reading Eggs). While I am not inclined to use a computer program as a main school curriculum, I wanted to be familiar with this program in case we needed something to use in the future during travel, illness, busy seasons or for Toby to work on a particular subject without my help while I care for other needs or work. I honestly didn't expect that it would be completely compatible with my educational beliefs and goals, but was hoping to find some useful parts to it.

Our test subject, Tobias, is 4 years old and knows how to read well. I signed him up for the Kindergarten level but when our account was activated it seemed to be in the preschool activities, so I requested a switch to 1st grade, and then we had access to the Kindergarten and 1st grade activities. I'm not sure if I was doing something wrong or if their system was at fault in setting the "wrong" grade levels both times. Almost all my observations are based on the content of the Kindergarten/1st material.

  • basic navigation was fairly easy for 4 year old to figure out, although I would consider ABCMouse's "learning path" visually stronger.
  • Tobias usually enjoyed using the website
  • He did retain and talk facts he learned on this site
  • Many of the math activities seemed clearly explained and used real-life examples like calendars, measuring with objects, etc.
  • Although I have many criticisms of Time4Learning, I'm glad that computerized options that cover many core subjects are available for the times that people need or prefer them. Hopefully Time4Learning and other computerized curriculums continue to improve as they gain more users.
Educational Weaknesses:

I believe that character, habits, spiritual growth, physical activity, time outdoors, allowing for creativity, and building relationships are of primary importance for future success at this age, more than the 3 Rs (we do spend time on those and I'm proud of Toby's growth in those "academic" areas). As for academics, I believe that kids in this age group learn information and skills best from real life activities, interaction with people, games, and good stories and books. Computers can provide games and drills, stories, and pictures and videos that educate about the real world (especially things we aren't likely to see in our everyday life). While I don't expect a computer program to instill character or develop gross motor skills, I think that Time4Learning could have done a much better job in all those areas that computerized programs are able to provide.
  • Science and language arts extension lessons promote superficial familiarity with various vocab/concepts but are low on depth. For example, the computer asks: "What is brown and holds plants: soil or chocolate". Seriously? That's either on the very bottom level of Bloom's taxonomy or not even on the chart. A few "joke" questions for fun are OK with me, but the amount of this type of question disturbed me. Other questions weren't quite as laughable, but usually had obvious answers and were low on Bloom's taxonomy. One style of education I am drawn to is based on Charlotte Mason's writings and how she ran her schools in England, and she encouraged narration (telling back or writing back a summary/response/discussion) for a way to solidify things in a student's mind and see what they know (instead of quizzing on a variety of specific facts). If you can't tell it to another person, you don't really know it well. Narration isn't very compatible with computer-based learning (nor is it required of 4-5 year olds in Charlotte Mason's advice), but better-designed questions could check for deeper understanding.
  • Science almost exclusively used stylized cartoons (for example, a simple zigzag representing lightning) instead of detailed drawings or real photos or videos of animals, plants, and weather. In an activity about pollution, a muddy-looking fish jumps out of the pond and gets a shower to clean off. The vocabulary of pollution types are covered, and the child is told how sad and bad it is in a sing-song rhyme, but the nature of the animations seemed flippant and stereotyped. Real photos convey more information, as well as a bit of a real connection with or appreciation of nature (as much as you can get on a computer).
  • No real literature. Another Charlotte Mason term is twaddle: books that are insignificant, "not worth talking about", books that make all the connections for the child instead of letting them think for themselves. I think a few simple-storied books for teaching reading have their place, but they are not literature. Nearly 100% of the "books" that Toby read or listened to on Time4Learning I would consider twaddle. The plots are unmemorable or nonexistent and all the illustrations are all the same type of cartoons. I'm sure it would be difficult, copyright-wise, to include wonderful children's books such as Owl Babies, Blueberries for Sal, Beatrix Potter, Goodnight Moon, etc. But perhaps the cost of doing so would be worth it. Or at least kids could be introduced to books that had a variety of illustration styles, or some of the classic nursery rhymes, fables, poetry and classics that are in the public domain. It appears that the higher grades to utilize real books such as "The Giver" and "The Black Stallion" but I can't tell if it is just excerpts or the whole book. It says that you do not need to purchase the books to use Time4Learning, so either they are providing the entire text or just using chapters/bits of the book as material for a language arts lesson. I think that anything that claims to cover core subjects should be including real, whole, quality literature.
Design, Navigational, and Misc. Negatives:
  • low quality, overstimulating and repetitive music in the playground games and other portions of the website. This is modeled after entertainment (games, movies), not education, and promotes a short attention span.
  • constant and repetitive commentary from the characters that wasn't related to the content of the activity: "oh boy, we can do this!" "this is going to be fun" "you found all the pictures that begin with P!" spewed out between every little question. I think it is too much positive reinforcement (it becomes meaningless) and teaches kids to just ignore much of what they hear. Another example is repetitive instructions:  ("click the check mark when you are done" after EVERY portion of the game)…encourages kids to zone out and ignore most of what is being said. Often even if you are done with an activity, you have to wait until the characters quit blabbing before you can click the arrow to move on. Especially with some of the math games, I think it would have been more fun and 3 times as much practice to design a boom-boom-boom type of game where you click the answer and you are either right or wrong and it moves immediately to the next question. Like a quick-paced card game. Cut the talk.
  • Some quizzes were hard to navigate with small radio buttons. This made Toby dislike the quizzes, even though he enjoyed the quizzes in Reading Eggs. Not all quizzes have the same navigation: Some you clicked "next" when finished with a single question, some you had to click "2" "3" etc. on the top of the quiz to move from question to question and then click "turn in" when the entire quiz was done.
  • Overall graphic design I would describe as cartoonish; more flat-looking and less polished than the cartoon illustrations in ABCMouse or Math Seeds. I would prefer something cleaner looking, with more white space, in order to focus on the content and not be overstimulating. Or maybe a little more variety, such as the variety naturally found when reading books with various illustrators. A little more beauty, please.
  • The Playground section (reward games) allows the student into other game websites in addition to Time4Learning games. Often I found that these sites had flashing ads (never found anything too objectionable…yet) and opened in a new window on the computer screen, which made it harder to navigate back to the game menu. The navigation and the skill/interest level varied a lot with the off-site games and often I'd find Toby sitting dazed and confused in front of a high paced typing game that he didn't understand at all but didn't want to leave because it was a "game". I would have utilized an option to turn off these off-site games if there was one.
  • There were a few things I had to discuss with Toby because my perspective or belief differed from that presented. It is always good to supervise a young child's independent work.
  • If I set his account to require 15 minutes of activities before allowing games, I noticed that if I logged him in and we got distracted, the games would become active even after 15 minutes of being logged in and doing absolutely nothing. We did not run into problems with Toby trying to take advantage of that aspect, but that would be high on my list of things to "fix".
Wish List…if most of the "negatives" were fixed I would consider paying $20 a month for this product, but I might still wish for:
  • Foreign language. Basic vocabulary and phrases are something that can be taught/reviewed using a computer and would make this product more worth paying for in my opinion. 
  • More music education. One of the activities talked about practicing various skills including a musical instrument and showed a very short clip of a trumpet player. A computer would be a decent way to become familiar with the families of instruments and the instrument names as well as some other music content (common folk songs, lives of composers). I consider music a basic, not a bonus, but I realize that may not be the norm.
  • Capability for the child to record oral answers or short narrations that the parent could later mark as satisfactory or not for completing/passing a lesson. It would take some practice for the child to know what to do, but it could be well worthwhile.
  • Different types of reports and ways to view progress. Due to the layered nature of the units and all the sub-activities within each one, it was hard for me to see at a glance how much Toby had completed. There are some reports and planning tools, but also helpful would be graphs that showed things like what percentage of the math activities were complete. If I were paying for a certain number of months (perhaps a 9 month school year or a 3 month summer) I would want to encourage or require my child to pace themselves through the subjects, but without having to print out a detailed plan that specified daily activities.
  • Another option that would have helped me pace and balance the activities would have been the ability to set up a folder's worth of activities I chose, and have only those available for Tobias to choose from.
Overall impression: I would give this 1 or 2 stars out of 5 and discourage anyone from using this for any significant part of your child's Kindergarten-level education. I find it disappointing that the market supports a product with what I view as sub-par content and implementation; even the local school district has approved this as a curriculum they will pay for through their HomeLink program.
I'm sure it's a big job to get so much content built and polished up. I wish Time4Learning the best of luck in shoring up the weaknesses of this program to better serve their customers and potential customers. If you choose to use this product, supervise carefully and be sure to supplement in the areas that you feel are too shallow. I would consider looking at this product again in a few years if I heard there was improvement in the areas that were not satisfactory to me.

Thank you, Time4Learning, for the chance to try it out and compare, even though it was not the right thing for our family.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I'm a T4L user myself, so I found your review very interesting. You make some very valid points and I appreciated your honest assessment. I do supplement our T4L experience with other things - like handwriting and hands-on science activities, but I've found overall it works well for us as the backbone of our homeschooling plan. I have not tried the other programs you mentioned, Reading Eggs and such, but I might need to check them out! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!