My kids adore online learning activities. They see Mommy and Daddy work all day on their computers (we both work from home), so naturally they enjoy doing their own 'work' on the computer. For phonics/reading skills, I've been very happy with a combination of Starfall (free), PBSKidsPlay, and Reading Eggs, but I'm struggling to find an online kindergarten-level homeschool math curriculum that is going to work for us. I was very excited to have the opportunity to review Time4Learning for 30 days in exchange for my honest opinion. Time4Learning is an online program that includes both reading and math, but I focused on the math side, since that is where our current needs are. Unfortunately, we discovered that this tool just wasn't for us. I'd still like to include a full review to give other parents more information about how I made my decision...
My twins will be 3 years old later this summer, but are around early Kindergarten level in math. They know shapes, colors, counting to 20, counting backwards, counting by 2s, recognizing written numbers to 12, basic addition/subtraction (some mental, but mostly using manipulatives). Older children probably have different needs, but here is the criteria I'm looking for from an online educational curriculum:
1. A curriculum with linear progression - not just a collection of online games or a fancy virtual environment, but something where each lesson teaches new concepts and builds on the previous lessons (like ReadingEggs)
2. Many opportunities for reinforcing concepts - practice makes perfect.
3. Requires no reading or writing skills to complete (except relevant ones like recognizing numbers)
4. Engaging but not distracting - my kids don't need their online lessons to look like video games with a lot of fancy animation, just enough to be fun.
5. Easy to use - I usually sit with my kids during their computer time, but I want the interface to be easy enough that I could get them started and then be able to step away for a minute or two without them getting lost. One of my personal pet peeves is poorly-designed user interfaces.
Our Experience with Time4Learning:
I first set the girls up for the Pre-K Math Level. This provided a set of icons with different themes (like colors, shapes, zoo animals, etc), which contained a collection of learning activities. These were mostly the same base activities but different content (for example, a matching game that you play the same way each time, but with different types of items to match). I was extremely disappointed as these were horribly designed. The user interface was confusing, and the general impression I got was that the Pre-K math curriculum was put together as an afterthought, and given to junior-level Flash designers. The girls needed a lot of direction to explain how to use the activities, and they still ended up dragging objects to the wrong location or clicking on menu icons or static images instead of the objects in the game. The skills were too easy for the girls as well (felt more like preschool level than Pre-K from what I've seen from preschool teacher websites).
I requested to advance to the Kindergarten level, and Time4Learning changed the level for my account very quickly. This experience was much better. The activities were also theme-based (like 'under the sea'), but the Flash animations and interfaces looked much more professional. The usability also improved. However, some of the instructions were so long that the girls would frequently ask to play something else before the instructions were even complete. With the other computer-based programs we use, the kids can just sit down and get started without having to listen to lengthy instructions. Unfortunately this ended up being a deal-breaker for us. We struggled through a couple activities (struggled due to instructions and usability issues, not content - which was still a bit on the easy side), and would often end up on pbskidsplay instead based on the kids' requests. I soon realized that this program would just not work for us.
I've heard from other mothers who love the Time4Learning program, so just because it was not the right fit for my kids doesn't mean it won't work for others. I also have to note that because I'm particularly passionate about math education (and also especially sensitive to software design), I'm probably pickier than most when it comes to this particular subject (but don't Moms have every right to be picky about their children's education?)