Software engineer Sonia Uppal enrolled her son into Artificial Intelligence (AI) and coding classes with a popular ed-tech platform, only to be taken aback by the advanced concepts that the teacher was introducing the 10-year-old to. "She was teaching him objects and classes. The instructions sounded like she was talking to an engineering student," Uppal told BOOMLive. She discontinued the course after three classes, realising completing it would put immense pressure on the child.
Bengaluru-based Uppal's son is excellent at chess, and his reasoning skills made the techie wonder if he'd be also interested in coding, which essentially is creating technological solutions using programming languages.
Like Uppal, many education professionals and technology experts believe that starting children on coding early helps them develop logical reasoning skills. However, with the lore of high salaries associated obsessively with engineering in India, coding courses for school children as young as seven years old, are often sold and consumed as very early steps to a career in technology in the future. The result — many children end up collecting more certificates in an already competitive school education atmosphere in India but the courses may not always holistically improve their cognitive skills or spark a deeper interest in technology.
BOOMLive spoke to parents, lawyers, technology and education experts and examined some of the curricula of coding courses offered by popular ed-tech companies to peel layers of the ed-tech boom in India driven by a rising interest in learning coding as an extracurricular activity for children. Some experts questioned if ed-tech companies — who often hire university students and technology company interns as instructors with no teaching experience — have the adequate tutoring facilities. Others pointed out that instead of teaching how to write code, several of these 'coding' courses instruct children to copy and paste blocks of pre-written codes provided by the company — something that doesn't really give them a leg up in either higher education in technology or jobs, in the future.
What ed-tech ads say vs. what children learn
Coding languages like HTML, C++, and Java are already taught in several privately-owned Indian schools, but children are mostly just taught to print messages and solve basic math problems via programming. So the past few years have witnessed an increasing number of parents enrolling their children, sometimes as young as 6-years-old, for coding classes with a host of ed-tech companies like Byju's (Whitehat Jr.), Unacademy, Coding Blocks, Edurific and Lido, among others. Coding courses in some of these companies are even offered to 5-year-olds. These courses cost anything between Rs 7,000 and Rs 2,00,000 for a fixed number of classes.
BOOMLive reviewed the prices of individual coding classes across ed-tech platforms in India and most ranged from Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 per class.
For context: annual fees including various charges in a school like Delhi Public School RK Puram roughly comes to Rs 1,70,000. Some coding courses in India, therefore, could cost people as much as one full year in school.
However, these concerns haven't slowed down the business. The Indian ed-tech industry has received around Rs. 30,000 crore in funding over the past 1.5 years and Byju's, a company founded merely a decade ago, is now valued at Rs.1.2 lakh crore, with an estimated turnover of Rs. 10,000 crore this year. In 2020, the Ministry of Education announced that children would learn to code in Class 6 as per the New Education Policy (NEP).
Dr Debayan Gupta, who teaches computer science at Ashoka University, pointed out that the high investments in these courses were often driven by the need to 'show-off' completion certificates, mostly for social vanity for parents than any actual concern for a child's cognitive development.
Consider the curriculum for a beginner course at Whitehat.Jr titled "Advance Coding with Space Tech." Priced at Rs 99,000 for 144 classes, the course description on the website claims it will teach children everything from basic game development to animation, creating chatbot applications, database management and apps that can project and analyse satellite imagery.
Gupta, a PhD in computer science from Yale University and an assistant professor at Ashoka University reviewed the curricula and concluded that while some of the concepts can be introduced to adolescents and children above 15 years of age, the course was not meant for a 7-8 year old kid. The website doesn't mention an age requirement for the course.
"I assume young children learning things as complex as 'Interactive Gaming Apps', 'Chat Bot Apps' will just be joining pre-made blocks of code together rather than actually coding. Concepts like Logic Gates and Binary strings are far too complex for kids -- this is something one can just about introduce to teenagers. As for space, what can you explain about 'space tech' to a child beyond the simplest things?"
One of the claims made in the curricula overview provided by WhiteHat Jr said that with the completion of the course, the students will be able to publish apps on Google Play. And as promised, WhiteHat Jr has uploaded several apps made by students on Google Play. Only, most of them don't actually work.
The reviews on Google Play on Med Maze, a medication-sharing app created by a WhiteHat Jr student, confirm Gupta's apprehensions. Several users left comments on the reviews section of Google Play accusing the app to have been built on Thunkable, which allows users to build apps by putting together pre-written codes.
Karan Deep Singh, a developer at the popular payments app CRED said that he downloaded some apps created by children aged 8-11, including Med Maze and Manya's Pickaboo, a photo-identifying app. Singh, who has worked as a full-time developer with various tech startups for over five years, said, "Pickaboo was fairly clean but Med Maze was riddled with issues when it came to inputting data like emails and passwords."
Singh added that it was highly impressive that kids that age attempted to create such apps, but when the apps get more complex and require inputting data like email and passwords, children are unable to fix the bugs because they are dealing with pre-written blocks of codes.
Two versions of Manya's Pickaboo have been uploaded on Google Play and on both, commenters have complained that the app doesn't work and is a non-functional copy of Google Lens which no one would have any use for.
What Dr Gupta describes as 'joining pre-made blocks of code' is block-based coding, a form of coding education that is fairly popular among ed-tech companies across the world with a wide range of pioneering free learning resources like Scratch.io also available online. Block-based coding is essentially an introduction to the core idea behind coding -- that is problem solving. Programmers drag 'blocks' or multiple lines of code together to build simple applications.
However, encouraging kids to upload their block-based code applications to app stores makes the student attach an unhealthy exhibitionist attitude to learning and also exposes them to needless criticism. Rama Adithya Varanasi, a Ph.D. scholar, who has worked extensively on educational technology at Cornell University explained, "When these apps are put on the app store, someone will comment and say these are a lazy attempt at app development. These apps are published under the children's real names -- imagine the psychological trauma that the kids have to endure because of the negative reviews on their apps."
"For kids, we need something more tangible. When you drag and drop the jigsaw puzzle, the application generates relevant code. Temporary abstraction from the code can encourage kids to focus on problem solving and learn development basics while not getting intimidated by the syntax itself. The focus is on learning, not on usability," Varanasi added. Several ed-tech platforms use such block-based coding applications like Thunkable, Microsoft MakeCode Arcade, and more, which are similar to Scratch.io.
"Your code will always be read by another person, either for work, or collaboration, or even if you come back to your own code after a long time. Readability has many different approaches. You can add comments, give better names to variables, format code well. All these things can help someone new to the code understand it better," Sundaram said.
"Readability is again important in order to facilitate collaboration between developers to create better quality products, but block-based coding does not pay too much attention to making the snippets of code readable. Readability is also not a priority for block-based coding platforms which should ideally focus on teaching students problem solving," Varanasi explained.
Gautham Dayal, a creative education researcher at Shristi Manipal Institute of Art, Design, and Technology reviewed the coding courses offered by Edurific and Coding Blocks and concluded that they did not have a clear vision beyond 'lets get people anxious that their children need to code'.
Dayal, who holds a doctorate in mathematics and was the head of mathematics and computer studies at a K-12 school was also puzzled that a beginner's course in coding on Edurific sought to teach students Python and Java. "Learning how to code at the beginning should be language agnostic — if you learn to reason you can pick up any language," Dayal told BOOMlive.
Even if parents do sign up for these platforms so their children have marketable skills, Varanasi confirms that there's no real value to classes and certifications put together by ed-tech platforms apart from creating an enthusiasm for coding among young people. Colleges in India do not consider these certificates to admit computer science students, and colleges abroad are not aware enough of these companies to consider these certifications seriously. The situation is similar with respect to finding coding jobs, both locally and internationally.
"If kids are interested, they will learn by themselves and perform well in the examinations required to get into computer science programs. The best these classes can do is facilitate that interest," Varanasi said.
Who is teaching children to code?
Nivedita Krishna, the founder of Pacta, a law firm in Bengaluru that has dealt with ed-tech related disputes explained that a majority of consumer complaints she has worked on had to do with 'unsatisfactory service', i.e the children enrolled into coding courses neither enjoyed the classes nor learnt anything.
BOOMLive reviewed LinkedIn profiles of dozens of coding tutors employed by ed-tech companies and quite a few men and women who claim to be coding teachers with these platforms are either masters students, developers or interns with no prior teaching experience. Some tutors did not have either degrees in computer science or related education in technology, but still identified themselves as coding teachers at popular ed-tech platforms.
That is not surprising, if HR professional Sudeep Singh's experience is anything to go by. A headhunter who hired teachers for Whitehat Jr, Singh said that the company preferred to "hire anyone who can communicate well, understands coding and is a fresher from any relevant education background."
Last year, a software engineer pointed out on Twitter how the company was hiring teachers with 'no coding experience' to teach the subject.
The reason why WhiteHatJr feels like a scam, even if you look past the shady ads/marketing blitz/pushy-to-being-rude sales— Shantanu Goel (@shantanugoel) October 1, 2020
1. No prior coding experience needed for teachers who are actually going to teach coding.
2. A 7 day training makes them "certified" to teach it to kids. pic.twitter.com/6uZb6QoZV6
"When you teach children, you can't introduce complex concepts and expect them to follow along on the same screens they use to play games," said Gupta. Gupta who teaches an introductory coding class in his college said that he employs a large number of teaching assistants to ensure that each student is understanding the concepts being taught. He felt that it was very difficult to assess people otherwise and cater to individual learning needs. With an online teaching platform, it's even more difficult and one needs very experienced or intuitive teachers to truly understand a curriculum and teach it.
Lee Chatopadhyaya*, a ninth standard student, enrolled in trial classes for Whitehatjr, Campk12 and Tekie to see what he could learn. Though he intends to pursue a degree in medicine, Chatopadhyaya wanted to learn coding because he thought it was a valuable skill. He found the free resources available on the internet were better than the pid content. "They have better explanations than paid courses...each and every detailed explanation of everything is available. Whereas these paid courses are limited to what they teach," he told BOOMLive.
Gupta said that the specific reason we need highly qualified teachers is to deal with a diverse class with diverse interests. Teaching concepts and skills together will involve the sort of one-on-one attention that involves utilising the student's interests and strengths to relay the concept — which is impossible if teachers aren't trained adequately enough. He adds, "If you're trying to scale at a low cost, you get what you paid for."
Krishna added that while parents who understood coding themselves could at least understand the teaching gaps, others were left in the dark, often dealing with difficult customer services of these companies. "There is an expert position that the service provider occupies — therefore there is very little visibility when it comes to standards and if what is taught is of good quality," Krishna said.
Several experts believe that it is tricky to regulate the teaching quality of ed-tech companies. "It's difficult to understand if private players employing non-qualified teachers as this sector functions under market mechanism," Eldho Mathews, a senior education policy researcher who has worked with several Central and state government projects in India, said. He explained, owing to quick results based model of these ventures, finding quality teachers would obviously be second to profitability for the companies. What they lack in teaching, is often made up for by dazzling marketing campaigns that stoke parental aspirations for their child to be a multitasking genius.
Shanu John, a digital marketer from Mumbai, enrolled his seven-year-old son into a coding class with an ed-tech company and quit within a week. He spoke of the teacher's 'good nature', rather than expertise at teaching the subject and found free online courses that seemed to answer his child's needs better. "We soon discovered that we could find similar tools online for our child to experiment with, for free — like Scratch.io. Therefore we decided to move on after a week of classes," John told BOOMLive.
India's teacher to student ratio has steadily improved over the past five decades, starting at around 41 students per teacher in the 1970s to about 30 students per teacher in 2021, in line with the New Education Policy, which also intends to achieve a 25 students per teacher ratio for areas that have a high number of socially disadvantaged children. On the flip side, India also has a significant informal learning culture, as taking tuition classes is a significant means of part-time income. Some of these teachers may be trained with a Bachelors in Education (B.ed) program, or just have an affinity with subject matter, quite similar to the range of teachers employed by ed-tech companies to teach children code.
The idea that a tutor does not need to be a trained coder or an educational professional to teach children coding is not restricted to just Indian ed-tech companies.
BOOMLive spoke to Jussi Koivisto, the head of pedagogy at Code School in Finland, who's not a coder himself. Koivisto is of the opinion that for a teacher it is best to begin with understanding how coding is taught, then teach it with the help of learning materials that are created by those who know the coding and pedagogy.
"Teachers need training for teaching the new topics, but they do not have to become experts of coding. For example, our solution is creating student books for coding and training teachers to use them in a classroom context," he said.
The Code School, he said, hires experienced or highly trained teachers when a need arises. "However, we don't expect a coder to be the best teacher of coding," he said. "Our trainers understand how coding and future skills are taught, and some coding to some extent."
It is not easy to 'train' teachers with no relevant background to become coding experts and tutors in a short period of time, like a Delhi government initiative revealed. When the Delhi government launched Code-a-thon in 2020 to teach coding to children in 12000 government schools for a limited period of time, they tied up with SheCodes, an organisation that teaches coding to girls and women and had their experts teach the children. Teaching assistants with SheCodes, an international organisation that aspires to teach women coding, require formal education and experience in working with coding languages.
"The NGO trained both boys and girls in this situation. The government realized that if we taught teachers how to start coding in order to teach the students, the training would be an extremely long process. Plus, the pandemic also threw a wrench into our plans to teach teachers how to code," said Sayantan Ghosh, a development sector professional who was engaged as a policy research fellow at the Delhi Legislative Assembly when Code-a-thon was launched in 2020.
Sahil Sheth, the CEO and founder of Lido Learning explained to BOOMLive that their coding tutors need to have, at least, an undergraduate degree in computer science, information technology, electronics, or a related field, along with prior experience of working with a coding language. He added that they have a rigorous selection process for tutors, following which they undergo onboarding training on a range of topics relevant to working with Lido, such as the technicalities of the Lido platform, and best teaching practices.
BOOMLive has reached out to WhiteHatJr, Edurific and Coding Blocks with questions as well and their responses are awaited.
How do ed-tech companies market? Sell a dream
Shortly after his son quit the classes, John received several calls from the marketing team of the ed-tech company, claiming that the teacher was 'waiting' for his son to return to class. "They told us our child was in the top 95% of the class and offered us a scholarship to return," adds John. The sales caller then went on to pitch John the class that cost a whopping one lakh immediately after the praise. Previous reports have also suggested that the same company is rather effusive with their praise — including comparing six year olds to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
"In ed-tech classes, each class has a fixed curriculum that needs to be finished in a given time slot. How can the learning speed of all kids be the exact same? Coding is more about how to solve a problem rather than cramming pre-written codes to make apps," said Pradeep Poonia, a software engineer and activist tracking malpractice in the ed-tech industry.
This is perhaps the secret to coding-related ed-tech's aggressive marketing — to fill a gap in pedagogy that doesn't exist. Poonia, who faced a Rs. 20 crore defamation lawsuit from Whitehat Jr. due to his critique of their practices, said, "They wanted to suppress the obvious fact that children who receive Rs. 150 crore as salary simply don't exist. Coding is a good job option in the current market, and it does pay well but nowhere nearly as well as these ads claim."
Whitehat Jr. -- was at the center of a huge controversy when they put out advertisements about an 11 year old named 'Wolf Gupta' who apparently took AI coding classes and secured a Rs. 20 crore salary at Google. Another iteration of the same advertisement claimed he was actually six years old, and made Rs. 150 crores.
There's a key difference in how products with no real-world value are marketed in a changing economy due to a rise in personal technology and consumerism. "When there's no real usefulness for a product — in technical terms, we call it a hedonic product. So hedonic products are purchased more for pleasure or status — more as a luxury," Dr. Falguni Vasavada-Oza, Professor & Chair, Strategic Marketing at MICA, explained. This is evident in the aggressive marketing tactics used by companies — especially Whitehat.Jr — which trigger aspects of comparison and competitiveness in parents, their target audience.
Asavari Singh, an editor and mother of two, said that despite her husband being a software engineer himself, they haven't considered enrolling their kids into coding classes in the near future. "Our impression is that these commercial coding classes are not aimed at actually teaching kids but at selling a dream to parents. Learning to code well is a years' long endeavor. Professionally made apps that are any good require skill and practice. Merely using templates and then flogging them on the app store are just a fake "reward" for no real coding," Singh said.
It is clear that a child who can code is a status marker for their parents, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a well-paying job 15 years later. Though the market is in dire need of good coders, the oversaturation of engineers with degrees 'is of no help due to the severe lack of training in problem solving and process building.
Antara*, who works in the learning and development vertical of an ed-tech company herself, bears witness to the fact that coding is not something all children take to easily. Her eleven-year-old niece was enrolled in Whitehat.Jr for coding classes even though she had never shown any real interest in the subject. "Her brother knows how to code and her parents had FOMO from advertisements and several children in the building learning how to code, so they enrolled her. But my niece couldn't understand a thing because the instructor was too fast," Antara told BOOMLive. They discontinued the course after two classes.
"She's learning how to paint now."
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
The author Aditi Murti is an independent journalist covering health, science and culture.