By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: July 9, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Like many 7- and 8-year-old girls online, Emily and Kayla Strickland are regulars to Barbie.com and the virtual world Webkinz.
But much to their mom's delight, the sisters also have been longtime fans of Starfall, an educational Web site whose star is quickly rising among parents, teachers and kids as young as 2 years old.
Like a Sesame Street program, the free Web site teaches kids their ABCs and the basics of reading through the use of audio and visual phonetics, games and animations. Exercises on Starfall include sounding out vowels ("ah"), reading books like The Little Hen and decorating a virtual character.
"We read a lot at home, but for them, it seems 'more fun' online," said Tressa Strickland, Emily and Kayla's stay-at-home mom and a former preschool teacher living in Waco, Texas. "I like the fact that they are advancing their reading skills and not even knowing it."
Beyond its child-friendly simplicity, Starfall signifies a small but growing force of change in an education field that's long been dominated by textbook publishers and software makers. Like other industries disrupted by the Internet or new technology, Starfall opens access to learning exercises for free online. It does so in a noncommercial way that entertains its audience much the way PBS has for previous generations.
Just ask Vik Mehta, a New York father who was astounded to see his 2-and-a-half-year-old son take to the site so easily. "He thinks it's a treat to go on Starfall," Mehta said.
That kids are starting out so young online highlights another trend. More toddlers and kindergartners are cutting their teeth on computers, thanks to kid-friendly sites like Club Penguin, Webkinz and Starfall.
Starfall's audience has grown to just less than a million monthly visitors by word of mouth. The site attracted 987,000 unique visitors in the United States in May, up 300 percent from the same period a year ago, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings.
In contrast, Webkinz, a virtual world tied to plush toys sold in stores, went from 279,000 unique visitors to 4.1 million during the same period, a more than 1,300 percent increase.
Proponents say sites like Starfall can help kids learn the ABCs while also mastering computer skills necessary to their future. But evidence to support the effect of educational sites is next to none, leaving some experts to wonder how they might shape a generation.
"Without question, technology is going to play an increasing role for young ones to school-age kids--at home predominantly and then more slowly in school," said Naomi Hupert, senior research associate at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit research group. "How well it's going to work (toward their education) is really a giant question no one really has an answer to because there haven't been enough well-crafted studies."
Still, Jared Schutz Polis, co-founder of Starfall and former chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, believes that because computers are becoming increasingly important to education and work, a site that teaches kids to read can prove beneficial to their future.
"Not only do they learn to read (on Starfall), but they also gain a familiarity with computers as learning instruments," said Schutz Polis, who also founded several charter schools, including the New America School.
Named because the founders thought the words evoked wonder and delight, Starfall came out of Blue Mountain Arts, a Boulder, Colo., publishing house that's been around since the 1970s. Blue Mountain Arts was behind the e-greetings phenomenon BlueMountain.com, which in 1999 was sold to Excite@Home for $780 million without having turned a profit. Like many others, Excite@Home flamed out in the dot-com bust, and it sold BlueMountain to American Greetings for $35 million just two years later.
In the meantime, Stephen Schutz, the founder of Blue Mountain Arts and the father of Jared Schutz Polis, continued operating the publishing company, which makes love- and-friendship-theme posters, books and poetry. In 2003, Schutz and his son founded Starfall with the desire to help children learn to read. (The elder Schutz was dyslexic as a child, so he has a particular passion for helping challenged kids with reading, according to his son.)
To create the site, the Schutz duo hired former teachers and curriculum experts to take a phonetics-based approach to language and the process of reading. The Flash-based site is designed for kids as young as 3 and as old as 10, Schutz said. And the team of four working on the site ensures that all of its content is navigable by kids.
"The focus of the site is to show that learning to read can be fun," Jared said.
He said the site has been so well-received that the company launched a Spanish version called Pumarosa in 2006. Later this summer, it also plans to launch a site designed to help Chinese speakers learn English. That site has yet to be named.
Like BlueMountain, the site is not profitable, however. It is run by money from Blue Mountain Arts, along with sales from workbook printouts on the site. It originally gave its printed materials away, too, but now tries to cover its costs by selling the materials to schools or parents who home-school their children. It doesn't sell advertisements, either--a fact that teachers seem to love. Schutz said the company is always looking for new business models, but for now, it has no plans to sell ads or charge for the site.
Barbara Cohen, educational-technology coordinator at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif., said she uses Starfall as a fun activity with her kindergarten and first-grade students in the computer lab. She said the site reinforces vowel and letter blends, and it meshes with the school's curriculum for "handwriting without tears," or the certain method it uses for teaching letters.
"I've observed individual kids who needed work with reading, and on this site, (they're) very engaged," Cohen said. "They're learning content, but they don't know that they are because it's so fun and engaging."
Cohen said her school has used the site for the past three years, but more so over the last year because it's caught on with more teachers. She said in her field of education and technology, she's seen a lot of expensive software designed to teach children a skill in place of the teacher. What she likes most about Starfall is that it's free, and it reinforces education that kids are getting from home and in the classroom.
"Computer as teacher just hasn't fulfilled the promise some people were looking for. I don't think the site will teach that child how to read. It's more like the glue," she said.
Send insights or tips on this topic to email@example.com.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit with children when they're online to ensure they visit only parent-approved Web sites. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends. To kids, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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