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Report on E-business

Daycare goes live to air

Digital technology and the Internet let
working parents peek in on their kids

Friday, May 25, 2001
Special to The Globe and Mail

Even though Bronwen Heins is the busy president of an Ottawa real-estate firm, when her three-year-old daughter is stacking blocks, playing with dolls, throwing her food or napping angelically while at daycare, her mother doesn't have to miss a thing.

That's because digital video-recording technology combined with the Internet lets her keep a real-time eye on her preschooler Mehana's antics. Whenever Ms. Heins feels like tuning in, she can fire up the computer on her desk and watch live streaming video of her daughter's daycare day.

Mehana attends the Kanata Research Park Family Centre, a non-profit daycare in the heart of Ottawa's high-tech neighbourhood, which is working to make live video available to all parents over the Internet by July.

A handful of parents, including Ms. Heins, has been testing the technology since February. When the system is fully operational this summer, parents will be able to log on to the Net from any computer, head to the daycare's Web site and type in a password to open up windows displaying their toddlers finger-painting or having lunch.

The cameras are on 24 hours a day and, from strategic positions in the corners above each program room, capture wide-angle views of what is happening.

The footage is digitized, compressed and streamed to a video server. Through a broadband connection, the live footage is transmitted instantaneously from the server to the Web site, where parents can view what's being captured by the cameras in real time.

The technology being tested belongs to March Networks Corp., which specializes in developing broadband multimedia applications. The company -- which is located in the same research park as the daycare -- is donating the cameras and the technology in exchange for the opportunity to test and showcase its product.

Bandwidth is being provided by Toronto-based telecom firm Maxlink Communications Inc. The daycare will pay a minimum $500 monthly to Maxlink, but there will be no extra cost to parents, says Kim Hiscott, the daycare's executive director.

"It's not simply a surveillance tool -- it's a two-way channel for interaction," says Peter Wilenius, vice-president of marketing and general manager of the security and monitoring systems group at March Networks. "It's meant to foster more communication, whether it's video, photos, report cards or e-mail exchanges. The idea is to encourage interaction by parents."

The Kanata centre appears to be the first daycare in Canada to offer live, streaming video. At least two other daycare operations -- Kinder Campus Ltd., an individually owned Edmonton centre, and Peekaboo Child Care Centre Inc. of Mississauga, which runs three local centres and has a fourth franchise in Kitchener, Ont. -- already offer Web-cam technology. But parents see still images, refreshed every four to 12 seconds, depending on Internet-connection speed.

That puts Canada behind the United States, where Web-cam technology has been slowly gaining popularity for several years. About 300 of that country's 100,000 daycares currently offer it, estimates Jodi Larsen, a spokeswoman for Olympia, Wash.-based WatchMeGrow LLC,a supplier of Web-cam technology to daycares.

Live streaming video is just one component of the KRP Family Centre's plan, says Ms. Hiscott. Its Web site will also feature what she calls "on-line interactive portfolios," a Web-based exchange between parents and the daycare.

The area will be password-protected, and parents will be welcome to upload messages, photos and other material, says Ms. Hiscott, who expects two-thirds of the portfolios' contents to be generated by parents. Parents will be e-mailed every day to let them know when their children's portfolios have been updated.

"This is where we'll document the children's learning and development, and where there will be ongoing communication between parents and teachers," she says. "Web cams on their own are still a neat thing -- they do promote a certain openness. But it's kind of like looking at a playground from a distance -- you don't see the details, there's no explanation of what's going on. That's where these interactive portfolios come in."

Ms. Heins says she's excited because of what the technology lets her do. "It's not about checking up on the teachers. It's about interacting with [my] child. The best part is that it keeps me closer to my child," says Ms. Heins, who runs Kanata Research Park Corp., the landlord and property manager of the high-tech research park.

Debra Paufler, owner and director of Kinder Campus, says she wanted the technology because she viewed it as a way to involve parents in their children's care.

"Many wonderful things" have happened as a result, she says. "The main benefit has been increased respect for our staff because now parents can see how hard they work and what they actually do all day."

She says it also alleviates "mommy guilt," inspired by toddlers who cry when they're dropped off.

"We tend to have mellow kids and high-maintenance parents," she says. "Parents leave and think, 'My child is crying all day at daycare.' When you log on and see them happy and playing instead, you don't have to feel so guilty."

Another benefit is that grandparents and other out-of-town relatives can share parents' passwords and view the kids as well. Parents who travel frequently on business also really welcome the opportunity, Ms. Paufler says.

Ms. Hiscott says it is also a conversation opener between parents and children. "Normally if you ask a young child what they did all day, they'll say, 'Oh, nothing.' But if you've seen them playing with blocks or paint, you can ask them specific questions that lead to much more colourful answers."

At Kinder Campus, the service is free to parents, so most with Internet access use it. Peekaboo parents pay $19.95 (U.S.) a month; about a quarter of parents opt for the service, says Lee-Anne Arkell, owner of the Mississauga centres.

Both Ms. Paufler and Ms. Hiscott say their staff members have welcomed the idea. "Early-childhood educators are used to being watched all day," Ms. Hiscott says.

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