With schools being closed for nearly eight months due to the pandemic, parents are worried about their children’s education. Some parents have seen this period as an opportunity to enrol their children in classes or courses where they can gather new skills or deepen their learning in mathematics, science and computer science. My eight-year-old daughter has asked me a lot of questions on life, death, God, bacteria, viruses, vaccines and immune systems over these months. I have spent some time looking up information in the fields of philosophy and biology to answer her questions.
New EdTech (portmanteau of education and technology) companies, which feast on the fear of parents that their children will be left out of the ‘race’, have also seen this period as an opportunity to do aggressive marketing. They claim that children will earn millions of U.S. dollars in the future if they learn with the help of these companies. But do people know what children should study at a young age? What kind of computer science education is appropriate for them?
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Too much, too soon
It is true that computers are part of our daily lives. Children are curious to know how a few semiconductor chips are able to deliver such powerful experiences, just as they are curious about other facts of life such as how the human body works, how airplanes fly, or how governments are formed. While children broadly know how some things work, they don’t know how exactly these things work. They take age-appropriate courses to learn the finer details. That is part of learning. However, what we see with computer science is that children are being fast forwarded into learning about aspects of programming languages, data structures and algorithms. Some are even being taught to develop mobile applications, games, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
An algorithm is a sequence of instructions to be followed in order to solve a complex task. Algorithms are being taught to children in a more interactive, sometimes humorous, way by websites like Scratch.Mit.Edu and Code.org. There is some research to suggest that children who solve problems by breaking it down into steps become better problem solvers. However, teaching them programming syntax or programming constructs or data structures for efficiently managing data is definitely not appropriate for their age. And asking them to develop mobile apps is again going overboard because most apps require knowledge of real-world needs that children don’t have.
Computer science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Some areas like theoretical computer science, operating systems and networking are focused on improving computer systems, but a lot of the work also involves identifying new areas of application for which children need more knowledge of the world around them and how different disciplines work and interact.
AI involves search and logical deductions to optimise an objective function so that computers can pretend to be intelligent. Machine learning is used when the normal rule-based systems are difficult to manage manually and we need an automated way to create these rules. Both AI and machine learning require an application domain and are not just hammers that can produce intelligence automatically. Machine learning even requires manual tagging of classes by humans and intelligence in figuring out a set of features in the domain. While it is easy to get caught up with the latest jargon, their utility and mastery also involves knowledge of new domains, knowledge of what needs automation and how that can be automated. Just because computer systems are becoming powerful doesn’t mean that children can easily jump on the bandwagon without much knowledge of the rest of the world.
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Back to the basics
Instead, more children could learn the basics of computing and what it means to develop an algorithm to solve a task. For instance, they can learn algorithms to prepare an omelette. For the sake of satisfying their curiosity, they could learn how different parts of a computer system operate. More important, children need to know how to surf the Internet in a safe and secure environment. Children have plenty to learn in science and social studies, for which the ability to read and write is far more essential, rather than being trained as app developers and innovators. This will enable them to be more knowledgeable. Perhaps there is no better way to do this than by reading literature.
Sushant Sinha holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Michigan and is the founder of legal search engine Indian Kanoon