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Code' word is caution, say experts on trend among kids

By By Ankita Bhatkhande, Hindustan Times, Mumbai,

With kids cooped in homes owing to the pandemic since March 2020, parents are insisting that they learn coding. SHUTTERSTOCK

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 a 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 up in their homes owing to the pandemic and the resultant shift to online learning since March 2020, parents are insisting that children learn coding.“We wanted to take up an activity, and coding seemed to be an interesting option because she 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, engineer Pradeep Poonia and Dr Malpani started a social media campaign aimed at creating awareness among parents about what they said were false claims made by ed-tech firms 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. When companies claim they can teach kids machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), it’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,” said Poonia.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. The company then filed a ₹20-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 cost between ₹6,000 and ₹5 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’ 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. 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 Dr Malpani.Most ed-tech companies which 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 over 100,000 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 of Class 1-9, has over 150,000 students across globe.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.“Coding is a language, 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 activities before they can use these to programme,” she added.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 shouldn’t obsess about something just because everybody seems to be doing it. This would put an additional burden on the kids.”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?”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 create things, empowers and makes them confident of their natural destiny as creators. The outcome is not that significant as much as the process. While there are many open platforms available to learn coding, there is a 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.”Poonia said lack of awareness about such programmes especially among rural and less wealthy parents might have disastrous consequences.

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