“Do you want your child to be the next inspiration for the world?” asks an advertisement that persistently pops up on social media sites. A picture of a suited Bill Gates, flashing a contented smile, accompanies the question. “Gates started coding at age 7 and became Microsoft CEO at age 21,” informs another one. A third promotion has a childhood picture of gawky Sundar Pichai with his friends in Chennai juxtaposed with another recent one of him at the Google headquarters. Yet another depicts a small boy wearing a superman-like cape, his arms spread like he is ready to soar and take on the world.
Coding, which refers to the process of writing instructions which computers can follow, is being touted to be the must-have skill of the 21st century and most seem eager to tuck it into their curriculum vitae. Gone are the days when only bespectacled teenage boys were found bent over their desktops, keying in complex word and symbol combinations that no one understood. Today, you find people across age groups learning coding, be it six-year-olds whose parents want to give them a head-start and prep them for future workplaces, mid-level professionals who want to upgrade their skills or sexagenarians looking for a second career opportunity.
While coding courses have been around for decades, the demand (and supply) has witnessed a dramatic surge in recent times. Simply look up ‘coding courses’ on Google and you are inundated with options. While education technology companies such as White Hat Jr., CampK12 and Vedantu offer courses for school-goers, others like edX, Simplilearn and UpGrad teach coding to adults.
Course-hosting platform Udemy has close to 10,000 different coding-related modules — one which introduces lay persons to coding has found 105,770 takers.
WhiteHat Jr. does 20,000 live one-on-one classes a day with children. Founded by Karan Bajaj, former CEO of Discovery Networks South Asia, the startup has recorded a 45 per cent month on month growth since it launched in February 2019 and was recently acquired by BYJU’s for an astonishing 300 million dollars all-cash deal. Coding Ninjas and Tinker Coders have reported a 150 and 200 per cent growth in enrollments during the pandemic respectively.
Kids’ coding courses usually start with basic logic building exercises and then progress to block and syntax coding. Scratch, a simple programming language developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is used extensively to help the students make animated stories, science projects, games and virtual construction kits. For older students (grades 10-12) the courses include learning Python algorithms, artificial intelligence and building apps and websites.
Children, who are hooked to online games, are thrilled when they can make their own. “It’s so much fun when the sprite changes its costume,” says Kaisha Sheth (8) who recently completed a certificate course with WhiteHat. In coding lingo, ‘sprite’ refers to the main object in a 2D video game. For example, in a car- racing game, the car is the sprite and it changes ‘costumes’ (colours and features) when it crosses a major hurdle successfully.
So what has made coding so coveted? For starters, millions of new programming-related jobs will be created over the next decade globally. Secondly, research states that 65 percent of the jobs which exist today will become obsolete as companies switch to automation. Technological competence, including coding, may therefore become imperative to make a living in the future world.
Covid has also put the spotlight on technology more than ever before. The new WFH and e-schooling lifestyle — 1.2 billion children are out of their traditional classrooms — has increased the dependence on digital tools and made the masses realise the need to proficiently use technology to stay relevant. A growing section also believes that we need to go beyond being consumers of technology, and learn how to create it. Recognising this need, the government’s new National Education Policy (2020) has made it compulsory for Indian schools to teach coding standard 6 onwards.
“Learning coding is as important for the current generation as knowing English was to us,” says Mansi Shukla, whose children Aadrika (10) and Agrim (8) are enrolled with WhiteHat. Shukla and her husband, both management graduates, felt the need to make their kids tech-efficient because of their own experience in setting up a new business. The Mumbai couple launched a SaaS (Software as a Service) company providing digital on-boarding solutions three years back. “Neither of us has a tech background so when we started this venture we had to hire software developers. Plus, we had to acquaint ourselves with programming so we could communicate our ideas more effectively,” says the former banker.
Shukla is also happy her kids are making productive use of their screen time rather than just watching cartoons. While Agrim is learning to create sports games online, Aadrika recently created an app that can tell how many hours old one is. So if you enter your age, say 8 years, the program tells you that you are 72,645 hours old.
Only 11% of Indian developers start coding before the age of 15 compared to 31% in other countries; Source: HackerRank
Coding proponents believe that learning to control computers is a skill that is essential for all, not just for those who wish to make a career in Tech. But is the ability to code seriously so essential? What if you are a lawyer and your child aspires to be an artist or baker? What use will coding have in your lives then? Even pro-coding advocates admit that programming has no direct use for most people. They, however, argue that coding improves problem-solving skills, teaches us to think logically and use technology better — skills which are transferable to other areas in one’s life. But critics rubbish these claims. In Varsity, an independent newspaper for the University of Cambridge, Michael Nguyen-Kim points out that knowing a little bit of programming is pointless. “Getting to a point where your skills are useful will probably require an inordinate amount of time and energy. And it’s unlikely that this investment will yield any material benefit – it’s difficult to imagine how programming knowledge would help a historian, a journalist, or a lawyer. What coding needs these people do have are usually outsourced to dedicated professionals who can inevitably do a quicker and better job,” he writes.