Vagisha Kaushik|May 29, 2022
- Coding for Kids: Is WhiteHat Jr. muzzling its critics?
Coding for Kids: Is WhiteHat Jr. muzzling its critics?
The edtech start-up has filed a defamation lawsuit against a critical tech blogger seeking Rs 20 crore in damages. But criticism has only intensified.
NEW DELHI: Geeti Gupta found it extremely difficult to explain to her seven-year-old son how advertisements work. He was eager to own a MacBook Pro while learning coding on WhiteHat Jr. What had caused trouble was an advertisement on WhiteHat Jr’s user interface which promises an Apple laptop to kids who could get five more children to enrol. WhiteHat Jr is an online platform which offers live coding lessons to students between the age of six to 15 years in India and abroad.
“My younger one was after my life to get a MacBook Pro. For one month he was constantly telling me to ask his friends to join White Hat Jr classes. The condition, of course, is to get five kids to join a course to win the laptop,” said Gupta.
WhiteHat Jr was launched in 2018 and acquired by Bengaluru-based edtech start-up, Byju’s, in a US $300 million deal in August 2020, Mint reported. Since the merger, the company has drawn criticism on its allegedly “unethical” and “aggressive” advertising from tech vloggers and YouTube content creators. It has also drawn criticism for the standard of its content with videos of an instructor flubbing her lessons being circulated and ridiculed on social media. WhiteHat Jr has not handled criticism well.
In response to one of many such critical videos, WhiteHat Jr filed a defamation lawsuit against Pradeep Poonia, a software engineer and YouTuber before the Delhi High Court in November. The lawsuit accuses Poonia of “publicly criticising the marketing tactics” of the start-up and “publicly spreading misinformation about the founder and the firm.” The damage it is demanding: Rs 20 crore.
In November, the court directed Poonia to take down four YouTube videos and 12 tweets. The matter will be next heard on January 6, 2021.
The court case
Before November 2020, Poonia had been a vocal critic of WhiteHat Jr. A BTech graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (IIT-BHU), Poonia had appeared in and uploaded over a dozen videos on WhiteHat Jr in which he criticised the start-up’s marketing practices, including using logos of tech giants like Google in its publicity material; alleged that the reviews left on the platform’s mobile application were fake; and, most damagingly, featured a teacher, allegedly from WhiteHat Jr, failing to answer basic questions.
On November 23, the High Court issued an interim injunction directing Poonia to take down four Youtube videos and 12 tweets written against the company. Additionally, a case was filed against an angel investor Aniruddha Malpani, in which the company has alleged several of his tweets and posts to be defamatory, in infringement of trademarks, among other issues.
In December, in another YouTube video, Poonia alleged that his Twitter handle @WhiteHatSr with 1,300 tweets was suspended by Twitter India following the court order and that as many as 17 videos were taken down. Poonia’s accounts on other social media platforms like Quora, Reddit and Facebook were also suspended. This was wrought by the company as payback for his unrelenting criticism, he alleged.
WhiteHat Jr’s founder and CEO, Karan Bajaj, has denied these allegations. “This is an 18-month old company,” he told Carees360, “We do not have the power to take down [social media] accounts. I don’t know what kind of myth this is. On the contrary, we are the victims of this situation being subjected to trolling and bullying.” Bajaj has alleged that Poonia illegally hacked into the company’s internal business communications network. Incidentally, the term "white hat" connotes an "ethical hacker" who hacks into computers and networks to test their security.
The attempt to muzzle Poonia and through the court case, other potential critics, has not gone down will in the tech-vlogging community. Since then, numerous videos, many produced abroad, have sprung up on YouTube levelling similar accusations against the company, its allegedly flawed teaching and misleading advertising. Others have shared these videos on social media platforms. Bajaj sees this as a “deliberate attempt to sabotage the company by a group of 400 people" who are constantly trolling and uploading videos to make the teachers “insecure and anxious”.
WhiteHat Jr claims to have 1.75 lakh students taking live coding classes currently. It told Careers360 that it has 11,000 women teachers delivering coding lessons at beginner, intermediate and professional levels and that it has given trial classes to over a million students in India and abroad. One of those students was businessman Puneet Soni’s sons.
Crossing a line
“I got enticed by their advertising in May and got my 14-year-old and 10-year-old to attend their one-hour free session,” Soni told Careers360. “I was not interested in paying Rs 1.5 lakh fee in advance for a one-year course but they constantly called me to consider it. One day, the salesperson went so far as to say that by refusing the offer I am playing with my child's future and if I don’t take their generous offer, my children will not get anywhere in life!”
With a background in sales and experience in information technology, Soni was able to differentiate between a sales pitch and the reality of one-hour coding lessons. “Their sales strategy involves telling parents that they will teach students how to develop apps but I know how much effort it takes to do that,” he said.
When asked, Bajaj said this was an exceptional case among thousands of “regulated” sales calls. “The Salesforce system that we use at our company automatically disables calling past nine at night. We also have a ‘do not disturb’ flag. If a parent has, for any reason, said that they are not to be disturbed, these numbers are immediately deallocated from the system,” said Bajaj.
In addition, the number of calls is limited to four per person as per the company policy. “Almost 70 percent of the calls are audited daily,” he added.
But it wasn’t just the calls. Gupta was drawn by ads on social media. “I saw ads on Instagram and Facebook. We thought coding is a new thing and decided to try it,” said Gupta. Most of the ads feature very young children performing major feats of coding – one claims a nine-year-old built a COVID-19 app, another that a six-year-old built an ice-hockey game and that a third child, age 12, built an app on “way to live life”.
The parents also alleged that their kids were given “exaggerated praise” and were called the “next Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg”. “It’s crazy, the amount of praise they write about your child. I immediately knew that it was highly exaggerated. Anybody with half a brain knows that it is all marketing,” laughed Gupta. “They hang carrots like Silicon Valley trips and MacBook Pro. I can’t convince my six-year-old that these people are lying to you and it does not really happen. It is about trust and it is wrong to teach them such things early on,” Gupta added.
One of WhiteHat Jr’s ads claimed Wolf Gupta, a nine-year-old WhiteHat Jr student, is earning Rs 150 crores. Several social media users pointed out that the “student” was fictitious and that the same face has shown up in ads as a 12-year-old earning Rs 1.2 crores. The company was forced to withdraw as many as five ads in October when these were found in violation of the Advertising Standards Council of India’s code, the Economics Times reported.
The advertisements and unrealistic presumptions projected on children as young as six will have severe consequences on the child’s psychology, says Dheeraj Sanghi, director of Punjab Engineering College. “These types of advertisements by the company give a clear indication that they are not interested in the child’s education rather they wish to expand their business,” he added.
Bajaj, through a LinkedIn post in December, defended the company’s position after the Delhi Court issued the injunction. “We’ve made mistakes while growing up. Our marketing campaigns were poorly designed, which we changed. Legitimate, honest fact-based criticism is truly welcome. Blitzscaling is hard. Fires burn all over. Keep giving us feedback to improve. But lies and illegal breaches damage real lives [and] take no one forward,” wrote Bajaj. Very simply put, ‘Blitzscaling’ is the process of growing really big very fast.
Coding curriculum and teachers
The company may have received the maximum backlash for its advertisements but it’s the allegations about teaching that are most serious. “When I had joined in November 2019, it was relatively less known,” said Tavleen Duggal, 23, a software engineer and former teacher at
WhiteHat Jr. “The team was very dedicated. But a few months into the job, I noticed flaws in the curriculum. The teachers were underqualified and the marketing team went berserk to expand the student base.”
Duggal worked as an instructor for 10 months teaching advanced coding to students aged 10-15. “I was asked to take up a lot of transfer students who told me that their previous teacher did not know anything about coding. And the teacher they spoke of was responsible for training the rest of the tutors,” Duggal explained. “So many teachers came from non-coding backgrounds and were unable to address even the smallest queries raised by students. You can’t be a non-coder and teach this [10-15 years] age group.”
One of the videos uploaded by Poonia addressed exactly this. At the end of a trial session, a teacher, apparently confused by the guardian’s questions, gave wrong answers about basic coding concepts. The teacher insisted on not responding to the questions unless the child signed up for a full programme. Another video showed a teacher equating cloud storage with a literal cloud which stores data. The YouTube channel where Poonia had uploaded many such videos was suspended in December and then reinstated.
The company’s website exhibits a list of curriculum creators from Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and International Baccalaureate (IB). It also claims that the curriculum has been designed by “industry experts” and that the “top 1% selected teachers” do the actual teaching. Duggal, a BTech, had joined as a part-time employee but making up for the gaps in the curriculum took up the entire day.
“Every teacher has a customised learning management system with over 20,000 hours of content on the basics of Python, lessons on coding must know, how to prepare for a class and so on. The teachers are also certified based on their knowledge,” Bajaj explained.
The company does not stress on the coding background while hiring teachers for students between the age of six and eight. Such teachers are required to have a “strong mathematical background” to build a “strong logic leading to coding” Bajaj informed Careers360. Teachers for students above eight years of age must have coding backgrounds although this policy is not extremely rigid.
“I am teaching students at beginner level despite my strong coding background. The company takes extensive technical rounds and screening tests to determine every teacher’s competency. My command over the subject and my ability to handle children that young made me suitable for this job,” said Sonal Barsaniya, a teacher on the platform, made available to speak to Careers360 by WhiteHat Jr.
“The parents get full confidence before they sign up for the course,” Bajaj said in response to the videos. “I think somebody who is taking trial classes just to troll us and show the teachers in a bad light is extremely misogynistic. Apart from that, if there is any negative feedback, we try to improve,” Bajaj added. Poonia’s videos did not reveal the identity of any teacher.
“What bothered me was that these kids will not be able to write a basic program without my assistance. I couldn’t do anything because home projects are based on the curriculum given to us to teach. I tried to make minor adjustments like speeding up the curriculum and add a bit more of my own content to give it more substance,” Duggal elaborated.
Gupta’s 12-year-old daughter who was also enrolled struggled with class projects. “There were homework projects meant for revision of every class but my daughter had ten pending assignments. The teachers are very helpful but I don’t know anything about coding so I cannot help my kids to finish this work,” said Gupta. Her daughter received extra classes with no additional charge to complete the coding projects.
Bajaj, however, maintains that the company has a “robust mechanism” in place to ensure that the quality of the content is not compromised.
“The curriculum is sent for instruction design review and then to mentor teachers for feedback. Then it is taught to test-students who are ahead in the learning curve. After all these checks, the curriculum goes live which is again audited. Any class which has received less than 4.6 ratings is revisited to be improved,” Bajaj explained.
“My son has shown phenomenal progress learning from WhiteHat Jr,” said Kuldeep Pattnaik, a parent introduced to Careers360 by WhiteHat Jr. “He has been able to easily follow a course on full-stack web development on other edtech platforms after completing the intermediate level course.” His son was also able to complete all assignments by himself, he said.
Increase in enrolment and the number of classes adversely affected the quality of the classes and often, teachers bore the brunt of it, said Duggal.
“The marketing team went overboard and started coaxing students to ask their friends to enrol and offered improved points for it. Students also started getting annoyed. Unable to manage the server load, the platform would often go down. We suffered a new level of frustration every day and parents started coming down on teachers,” she added.
To address the feedback from teachers, Bajaj said that the company has set up a ‘workplace community system’ which allows posting comments which are addressed in real-time. The live dashboard, Bajaj said, is always full of positive feedback but negative feedback is also taken up with “utmost seriousness”.
Duggal’s experience was different. She said she did not receive a satisfactory response to her complaints about the curriculum. While working for the company, Duggal also featured on a video on the working conditions of teachers and the business model and was “attacked” for her remarks, she said.
Teachers frequently ended up answering queries outside their fixed working hours leading to a lot of unaccounted hours, she said. Duggal left in September 2020.
Apart from the live coding classes, WhiteHat Jr also certifies students as a professional game developer. “These are all marketing gimmicks but the child gets a false sense of achievement. The company issues professional business cards with the child's name on it and creates a personal portfolio on the website,” said Duggal.
“These certificates and cards are just methods to boost the morale of a creative child,” said Barsaniya. Sanghi, however, was critical of the policy of doling out certificates. “It is not the kid who is in the business of showing and collecting certificates, it is the parents. The focus should be on encouraging a child’s interest in coding and not project coding as the ultimate source of success, this will kill a child’s creativity,” Sanghi said. His son, 14, learnt coding on his own through an online open-source.
“You absolutely don’t need any paid coaching,” added Sanghi. “There are enough sites available that can be used to learn the international level of quality coding.”
Correction: The original version of the copy had a quote saying a teacher who did not know coding was designing curriculum when they were not designing but training others. The quote has now been corrected.
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