The Hindu

Up­skilling, a life hack

Chennai-based HashHack Code has spent the lock­down teach­ing cod­ing to peo­ple on the Autism spec­trum

- :: Meghna Ma­jum­dar

“Be­ing in their own en­vi­ron­ment helps neu­ro­di­verse peo­ple, in­clud­ing those with Autism and Down Syn­drome, per­form bet­ter. Re­mote work­ing conditions are ideal for them, so, it makes sense that they do their learn­ing re­motely as well,” says Manu Sekar, the founder of HashHack Code. Over the past few months, this in­for­mal, Chennai-based out­fit has been fa­mil­iaris­ing its special needs stu­dents with the basics of cod­ing through on­line classes, un­in­ter­rupted by lock­down.

Manu’s sur­mise is nei­ther idle nor over­am­bi­tious: he men­tions proudly a for­mer stu­dent who re­cently launched his own web ser­vices busi­ness. “We cur­rently have 45 stu­dents from eight to 34 years old,” he says, adding that each stu­dent is taught in­di­vid­u­ally through one-on-one on­line ses­sions, the for­mat for which is de­lib­er­ately kept open-ended. The key, he stresses, lies in un­der­stand­ing each in­di­vid­ual’s pace of learn­ing, “and let­ting them set the pace for us”.

With the flow

This is some­thing HashHack Code has been do­ing even be­fore they set out to teach peo­ple with special needs. “In 2016-17, we had be­gun by work­ing with marginalis­ed women — up­skilling them, teach­ing them cod­ing and find­ing them jobs,” says Manu, adding, “One of our clients back then had a daugh­ter with autism, who was in­ter­ested in learn­ing code. A cou­ple of other par­ents, too, wanted to see if we could help [teach their chil­dren].”

From that first stu­dent, to three more, to 45 now, the team took their time tak­ing new pupils. “We did not have any re­search on autism, or how to teach peo­ple with autism. We just tried to un­der­stand each per­son’s needs and went with that,” Manu states. So it is not a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme, but it does teach the stu­dents enough to pro­vide for some em­ploy­ment op­tions.

Since the setup is an in­for­mal one, HashHack Code op­er­ates not with “teach­ers”, but with “men­tors”, a lot of whom are col­lege stu­dents. An ad­van­tage of hav­ing stu­dent men­tors, Manu says, is in the rap­port that is struck be­tween the one who learns and the one who teaches.

“It is not a stu­dent-teacher re­la­tion­ship that we try to project. We pre­fer a peer­learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Es­pe­cially among our older stu­dents, be­ing helped in their projects by some­one closer to their age makes them feel com­fort­able and learn faster.” Projects are many, since HashHack code be­lieves in ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing in­stead of lec­tures, and teaches its stu­dents by mak­ing them prac­ti­cally try things out. “This for­mat trans­lated more eas­ily to on­line learn­ing, when we made the switch dur­ing lock­down,” adds Manu.

Manu is hope­ful that this sys­tem helps the men­tor. “Most of them are with us for about six to eight months, and will be join­ing of­fi­cial work­places soon. I hope that hav­ing worked with neu­ro­di­verse peo­ple makes them more sen­si­tive col­leagues. The idea is for them to de­velop em­pa­thy and ac­cep­tance be­fore join­ing the workforce.” Un­der­stand­ing dif­fer­ent needs and help­ing peo­ple fit into the workforce, he points out, is an im­por­tant trait, even if it isn’t a tech­ni­cal skill.

 ?? ■ SPECIAL AR­RANGE­MENT ?? Get set, code Founder Manu Sekar with a stu­dent
■ SPECIAL AR­RANGE­MENT Get set, code Founder Manu Sekar with a stu­dent

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