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Explained: In criticism & lawsuit, debate over coding for kids

As ambitious parents nudged by tech education companies push their children to start young with learning programming, critics raise red flags, the key contention being that it is being taught too early for some.

Written by Aashish Aryan , Pranav Mukul | New Delhi | Updated: December 8, 2020 8:14:22 am
The primary contention against learning to code at a very young age is that some age groups, are being pushed into it even before they have mastered the mathematical and technological fundamentals. (Representational Image)

Mumbai-based WhiteHat Jr has been in the news for the past several months over allegedly stifling free speech and misleading customers. In addition, the startup — which was acquired by education tech company Byju’s earlier this year for $300 million — has found itself in the centre of a debate on the right age for children to start learning to code.

Why is learning to code a big deal?

At the turn of this century, when extremely affordable computers made their way into technical and engineering colleges across the country, India was able to produce a huge army of coders and programmers —essentially people who could create computer software.

As computing devices have taken over every aspect of life, the need for good programmers and coders has been increasing relentlessly — and calls to teach coding and programming to young students have got louder. In recent years, platforms and companies have started to claim that kids as young as those in elementary school must begin to learn coding.

And how did the call to start teaching code to children in elementary school come about?

Since the advent of computers and the arrival of computer coding as the next big thing, leaders of technology companies around the world have pushed for coding to be included as a subject in middle or higher secondary school for students who may be interested to learn.

In 2018, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote in a blog post that everyone could benefit from learning the basics of computer science. According to Gates, coding, which he taught himself and fell in love with at the age of 13, led him to ask questions about how to achieve tasks, and find answers to questions.

“The questions it teaches you to ask — How do you accomplish a task? Can you find a pattern? What data do you need? — are useful no matter where you go in life,” Gates wrote.

Leaders of several other tech companies agreed. The idea, most said, was to make coding as simple and accessible as the “mother tongue” for young children. Gates subsequently named online classes such as Khan Academy and Code.org, which he said helped to break down the complexities of coding into simpler ideas.

Is coding a must-have life skill of the future?

What do the critics of code-learning at an early age say?

The primary contention against learning to code at a very young age is that some age groups, which are being targeted by platforms, are being pushed into it even before they have mastered the mathematical and technological fundamentals.

A metaphor that is often used is that children are being made to ride a bicycle before they have even learnt to walk. Software engineer Pradeep Poonia, 30, a vocal critic who has become a prominent voice in the debate, says: “There’s a reason why in mathematics addition is taught first, then subtraction, then multiplication, and then division. It is necessary to learn several elements of mathematics and logical thinking before one can code. [What many of the online platforms are doing these days] is like someone teaching you to draw a car under the pretext of making you learn how to build a car.”

Who teaches code-learning in India?

Enthusiastic entrepreneurs introduced online education technology platforms along the lines of Khan Academy and Code.org in India. Though their introduction went relatively unnoticed initially, several questions have since been raised around the methods and marketing strategies adopted by many of these platforms.

One such platform, WhiteHat Jr especially, has been rocked by criticism — allegations against the company have included aggressive marketing bordering on unethical practices, harassment of teachers and young children, as well as of parents of kids enrolled in the online coding classes.

While WhiteHat Jr is the best known among platforms that teach coding to children, there are several others, including Coding Ninjas, Coding Blocks, Camp K12, Codementor, etc.

Why is WhiteHat Jr in the news?

WhiteHat Jr says it provides coding tutorials to children between the ages of 6 and 18, through using what it says are innovative methods to keep them engaged and interested.

The platform claims to have developed programming courses that allow “kids, teens, and young adults to learn how to code at all ages with proper coding classes”.

Critics have, however, disputed the claims made in the advertisements run by WhiteHat Jr, and raised questions about claims that its students landed plush jobs at major software companies such as Google and Apple. The company’s social media policy, as part of which it allegedly took down any posts that were critical of WhiteHat Jr’s curriculum, teaching methodology, or its teachers, has also faced severe criticism.

After critics such as Poonia and angel investor Aniruddha Malpani posted negative reviews of the programming courses and teachers, WhiteHat Jr first approached social media platforms claiming alleged copyrights violations, and subsequently filed a defamation suit in Delhi High Court.

Poonia has claimed that 17 videos posted by him on YouTube, two YouTube channels run by him, two Reddit accounts, one Twitter handle, one Quora account, three LinkedIn articles, and one LinkedIn account have been temporarily or permanently taken down as a result of WhiteHat Jr’s complaints to these platforms.

The company, for its part, has maintained that it is “under a deep targeted attack from an organised group, which included false allegations and unauthorised images and videos being posted”. However, some WhiteHat Jr executives, including CEO Karan Bajaj himself, have conceded having made “mistakes”.

“We’ve made mistakes while growing up. Our marketing campaigns were poorly designed, which we changed. Legitimate, honest fact-based criticism is truly welcome…,” Bajaj wrote in a post on the jobs portal LinkedIn.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

So what has happened in the High Court?

On November 24, the court directed Poonia to refrain from posting about WhiteHat Jr until the next date of hearing. The court also asked him not to download the instruction set or curriculum of WhiteHat Jr, and distribute it, as “the same causes financial loss” to the company.

Poonia has also been directed not to hack into or access any internal chats of the company, or to post company conversations on his YouTube channel. He must not, until the next date of hearing, make any comments on the number of teachers or the quality of teachers at WhiteHat Jr, or use the name WhiteHat Sr, a play on the company’s name, for his YouTube channel.

Following the Delhi High Court order, Poonia has taken down all the tweets and videos that were critical of WhiteHat Jr. As of date, his account on Twitter stands suspended, which has once inflamed all over again the debate on the social media company’s handling of complaints by companies against individuals.

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