Does This Tech Give The Quietest Student A Voice?

The Ed-tech start-ups should rather focus on improving the inherent skills of young children rather than push them into career-oriented courses.

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170 years after the ‘Gold Rush’ in California, we are witnessing the ‘EdTech Rush’ in India. As technology crept into our lives over the last few decades, it was only a matter of time before it would impact the way we teach and the way our children learn.   

Though we have almost 4500 EdTech companies in the country, some like BYJU’S, Toppscholars, Doubtnut, GradeUp, TestBook, Toppr, Unacademy and Vedantu are seeing a surge in business. Most of them cater to K12, JEE, NEET, CAT, IAS, GRE, and GMAT. Similarly, some global brands like LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Udemy are also streaming ahead with a double-digit growth. They fill the void left in the quality within our schools. Some like Toppscholars have even dared to be different by truly democratising education. Children of ‘rickshawallas’, ‘kirana’ shops and others are its subscribers. They have reached out to the middle and the bottom of the pyramid with a monthly subscription as low as Rs 750. Education was never meant to be a business opportunity but rather a tool for mass empowerment. However, the valuation and VC game seem to have spooked the markets.    

That these applications use technology to reach out to unreached is most welcome. ‘WhiteHat’, an online coding learning platform, offering highly personalised services, owned by BYJU is different. With a large women-only teacher base in India it reaches out to almost 7,00,000 students on its platform. Is the Ad blitzkrieg, targeting both parents and children, raising false expectations?  

Parents have been complaining that there is a deficit of experiential learning in schools. Often, they complain that the children are taught to remember, rather than think or do. In the process children do not understand innovation or think beyond what is taught. In a way a coordinated development of left side of the brain responsible for logic and right side responsible for creativity and arts does not happen.  

WhiteHat like learning platforms help in combining logic with creativity providing a coding platform to do it. One can make a movie, design art, make teaching learning more fun, design a new fashion trend, improve health, contribute to real science projects, make one’s own video game, teach a computer to do the homework, make an app, design a website, operate a robot, predict weather or even program a song. In short, a child can innovate with a host of ideas without inhibition. At the other end of this cranked up hyperbole, the ad campaigns like turning an 8 or 10-year-old into a millionaire overnight are gaming the plot.   

Are WhiteHat like applications changing the face of technology education in India?  Admittedly, qualified and trained teachers lead each child through the fundamentals of algorithmic thinking, logic, sequence, and UI/UX. Some of these children may even build their own apps, and even pitch their ideas to investors. However, is this what we want our 10-year olds to do? Has anyone given a thought to the shelf life of this experiment and the price of a broken or inverted childhood?  

Like all skills, Coding too is a skill. Even learning coding needs discipline. Not every child may like it. Aptitude to intuitively think and do is necessary to learn coding. That it was pushed during the pandemic is a marketing strategy. That it will continue beyond the pandemic will depend on the real value addition that happens to a child’s personality. Above all, enforced discipline at such a young age can do more harm than anything else. Institutionalisation of such learning platforms come at a price literally and metaphorically speaking. It will be interesting to see if the growing craze among parents to enrol their kids in paid coding classes will continue even after physical schooling resumes.  

Are these applications targeting children through their ads when they show a 9-year-old or 12-year old student earning salaries in crores? Is this advertising strategy unethical? Any advertisement that uses children to market or brand products or services must be fundamentally unethical. But then these days, the life cycle, like the development cycle is being compressed and monetised on even a perceived value. For a child, health concerns, safety issues, nutrition, self-esteem, education, and socialization are important. Ad’s showing 9-year-old or a 12-year-old earning crores can be a disservice to the child’s overall growth. Parents must realise that even money comes at a price. A warped psyche is certainly not what they are looking for in their son or daughter.        

There is, as it is, a physical load carried in backpacks by elementary and middle school students, a risk factor for the onset of back pain in children and adolescents that increases as the load goes beyond 10% of body weight. Are the coding platforms increasing the mental load as well and squeezing out free time available for playing and socialising with peers?    

Proximate consumption is giving way to singular consumption so the traditional school teacher-student-class room model is under threat. Hence the need for apps to power individual consumption. There is a need to connect with the students for all learning rather than only coding like what Toppscholar’s and others do. In the post Covid world, brands and products will be singular, social and streamed.  

The Ed-tech start-ups should rather focus on improving the inherent skills of young children rather than push them into career-oriented courses. Children are intrinsically good at certain activities vis a vis the environment, collectively termed aptitude. As an example, a child, 8 years old, may have an aptitude for singing and may grasp ‘Ragas’ faster than learning logic. What purpose would it serve, if the parents were to enrol him in WhiteHat to learn coding? Do we realise that it is not even sufficient learning a skill? It is actually a higher order skill to adapt the skills learnt, in real time, that is of a higher value. Do we at all teach cognitive and non-cognitive skills either formally or informally in schools? In fact, cognitive flexibility skills are more sought after in the 21st century, to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.   

If early enough, intrinsic skills are gauged through appropriately designed tests and then such skills imparted, the child’s faculties would grow much faster. The child would be much more intuitive and consequently innovative. Career-oriented courses would make a better impact much later in life. A child’s growing up is a beautiful process. With every hour, every passing day, the child learns something new. Several special moments describe it. Let’s keep it that way for, while kids may be interested in computer games and robotics, can they be construed as their future career? We cannot let our children’s future be defined by VUCA or volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. For the child’s learning and sustained interest, as much open-ended and interactive math, science, and computer technology activities are, the better. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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