Coding courses for kids pick up amid pandemic, but experts raise red flags
For eight-year-old Aashna Sheth, the lockdown period turned out to be a time to learn new things online. Aashna, who studies at a south Mumbai school, learnt mandala art and also took up an online coding course for beginners. Over the past few months, she has created her own website and is also working on developing an app to address the problem of hunger in India.
With children cooped in their homes owing to the pandemic and the resultant shift to online learning since March 2020, parents are insisting on children to learn coding.
“We wanted to take up an activity, and coding seemed to be an interesting option because Aashna is really interested in computers,” said her mother, Namrata.
Several experts are, however, worried about the negative repercussions that programmes offered by ed-tech companies could have on young minds. Over the past one year, several engineers and technology enthusiasts have been publicly flagging concerns about coding programmes that are currently being offered in the market.
In mid-2020, Pradeep Poonia and Dr Aniruddha Malpani started noticing issues in the way companies that teach coding to students operate. They later began creating awareness among parents about what they said were false claims made by ed-tech companies to sell their coding programmes.
“Indian parents might get swayed to get the first movers advantage, thinking that their kids will get an edge over other children, but that won’t happen. What these six year olds will learn in a year, a high school kid can learn in a couple of days. And coding won’t make anyone smarter,” said Poonia, an engineer.
He added, “These companies are selling coding by telling it will make the children logical, but first one needs to be logical and then learn coding. When companies claim they can teach kids machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), that’s a complete sham. Without subjects like calculus, probability etc. which are taught in Class 11 and Class 12, no one can actually understand the mathematical models behind the codes.”
Poonia’s campaign on social media, which made a reference to advertisements released by WhiteHat Jr that promised big fat packages for students who learnt coding, became a hit. Soon enough, the company filed a Rs20 crore defamation suit against Poonia, and the case is still being heard in Delhi high court. It also sued Dr Malpani over the matter.
Coding programmes in India cost between Rs6,000 and Rs5 lakh, depending on the difficulty level of the course and the number of sessions opted by the child.
Several companies offer ‘free trial classes’ and ‘easy EMI (equated monthly instalments)’ options to lure parents into taking up the programmes. These programmes are offered to children between the ages of three and 15. In many cases, parents are promised that coding would make their children eligible for the top paying tech jobs in the Silicon Valley in the future.
Dr Malpani, an angel investor who funds social impact start-ups, said ed-tech companies are fleecing parents by repackaging freely available content with tacky advertisements and false claims.
“If a child is genuinely interested in trying out coding, they can use open source websites like code.org which are free to use and can teach them the concepts required at their own pace. In fact, the programmes offered by ed-tech companies are not even teaching real coding to the kids. They are just teaching them to move blocks in an assisted environment. Even if the child learns something, the content that the firms are teaching has already become obsolete,” added Malpani.
Most ed-tech companies who are offering coding for students have seen a surge in the demand for its various programmes after the lockdown in March 2020. For instance, Toppr, an ed-tech platform has seen a 500% surge in the demand for coding programmes post lockdown. Super coders, a programme launched by Vedantu in April 2020, already has more than 1 lakh registered students. Of them, over 50,000 students have already taken coding classes through the portal. WhiteHat Jr, a company which runs four different levels of the programme – Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced and Professional – for students in Class 1-9, has over 1.5 lakh students across India, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia and conduct more than 40,000 classes every day.
Swati Popat Vats, president of the Early Childhood Association who has written a book about coding for kids, said that while coding opens up a lot of possibilities for higher order thinking among children, a fair amount of caution in how it is taught is the key.
“When you teach implementation before understanding then there is a problem with coding and that is the mistake by many companies that sell coding. Analog comes before digital, which means screen-less coding before teaching the coding language. Coding is a language with which we communicate with computers, and like in any language you teach the sounds, letters, speaking first before writing an essay. Similarly in coding, children should be taught the hands-on basics of sequencing, algorithms, debugging, conditionals etc. with games and activities before they can use these to programme,” she added.
There is a concern among experts that the obsession for coding might put pressure on children into taking up yet another activity which is driven around fierce competition, and an expectation to excel. City-based psychiatrist Sagar Mundada said, “Kids can instead be taught to build social skills by taking up hobbies and pursuing group activities instead of remaining glued to the screen and taking up coding. Parents should not obsess about something just because everybody seems to be doing it. This would put an additional burden on the kids,” he added.
Abhit Kalsotra, co-founder, GTROPY Systems, a location-based analytics company, has worked with some big tech companies such as Microsoft and Nokia in the past. He said, “If everyone is getting a job in Silicon Valley, why do we need entrance exams to get into top engineering colleges? Let’s talk about a hypothetical example: Google starts putting IoT (Internet of things) sensors in football to monitor the physics when any player touches and kicks the ball. Now will Google hire guys who have done such drag-and-drop coding or engineers who have passion for physics and can write codes well?”
Karan Bajaj, founder and CEO of WhiteHat Jr, believes that any seismic shift in a field is met with some resistance.
“Coding is a tool which allows a child to build and create things, empowers and makes them confident of their natural destiny as builders and creators. The outcome is not that significant as much as the process is. While there are several open platforms available to learn coding, we all know that there is a dramatic difference between a personalised training and self-learning as children need feedback, recognition, and encouragement during their early years which self-learning can be limited to offer.”
While the movement against the coding market for children is still very active on social media, Ruchita Dar Shah, a parent who runs online parenting platform First Moms Club, said parents need to be extra cautious before jumping the coding bandwagon.
“While there is no harm to enrol children who are genuinely interested in such courses, I am worried that off late it has become an obsession for parents, so much so that they expect returns from it, like expecting kids to develop websites or apps instead of just letting them learn for. For children who are especially younger, it makes no sense to force them into an activity which they are too young to understand or develop a liking,” she added.
Poonia said even as the movement against these programmes is picking up, it needs to be amplified further across different parts of the country. Many like him worry that the lack of awareness about such programmes especially among rural and less wealthy parents might have disastrous consequences. “Parents save a lot of money for the education of their children and when companies mislead them, it is really disturbing,” he added.