The first cycle bridges the educational divide with the start-up Ed-Tech
Growing up in India, Kartikay Uniyal (SFS-Q ’23) spent his weekends in high school volunteering to teach at various public schools near his home. It was then that he began to notice the educational disparities faced by students across India.
Then, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing more than 250 million students to adapt to new learning styles, especially with distance education, Uniyal had an idea. What if he could try to bridge the gap between students by creating an online learning platform that would allow students to add free self-study videos and chat features to their school curricula?
The answer to that was Access Labs, an educational technology platform Uniyal founded in 2020 alongside the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University. The Hoya spoke with Uniyal to learn more about Access Lab and its current reach to students in Delhi, India, today.
UK: Of course, so I am Kartikeya.
FR : The other day I was lucky enough to call Kartikeya Uniyal (SFS-Q ’23), a junior at the School of Foreign Service at the Georgetown campus in Doha, Qatar. As I had just finished lunch, Uniyal was in her dormitory finishing her day, our call being between seven hours of jet lag and over 6,000 miles apart.
UK: I am in the dormitories we have in Qatar. So they look pretty good I guess.
FR : The white cinder blocks behind Uniyal are indeed a college dormitory staple – just ask any freshman living in the New South. And aside from decorating the dorms, I called Uniyal to discuss a project he’s been working on for over a year now called Access Labs. But let him explain himself.
KU: So, Access Labs in 30 Seconds is simply a technology intervention or solution to make ed technology more accessible and through this we make education accessible, achievable and enforceable.
FR : Ed technology, by the way, is exactly what it sounds like. Educational technology is a growing field that examines the type of digital technology that students of all ages can use to facilitate their learning both in and out of the traditional classroom space.
KU: At present, all forms of ED Tech, even if they are free, are not accessible to the majority of populations. And that goes for any website from Coursera to YouTube, however we choose the organization’s point of view would be that none of them are actually accessible and that the skills you are aiming for draw is not feasible.
FR : In case you were wondering, explaining what Access Labs is takes longer than the 30 seconds Uniyal expected. So let’s take a step back here. Uniyal, originally from India, started noticing the prevalence of educational disparities when he was in high school. He volunteered to help teach public school students on weekends and couldn’t help but compare his own experiences as a student in a private school and the wide range of experiences among other students.
UK: I come from a private school in India. Private schools are not the same as in USA As there are a lot of private schools in India and the fees are not that high but the disparity in education is. So I was able to compare the two experiences and see the radical change. And that’s what kept me involved at least in the public education sector and yes. But when we saw COVID affecting it and students were out of school, out of school, out of everything, that’s what pushed us in that direction to make these ed-tech interventions, which the government already has more accessible.
FR : As with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated educational divisions among students in India. India’s education system is incredibly large with over 1.5 million schools serving over 250 million children, according to a 2018 UNICEF report. So when the pandemic forced these schools to close their doors suddenly, like everywhere in the world, education has become incredibly dependent on virtual education. For Uniyal, not only did students benefit from different school experiences depending on factors such as socio-economic background and internet access, but many families simply did not have the capacity for electronic devices to support their students. .
UK: When I was talking to students in India that I knew from my weekend experiences, they would say that, say it was a family of three, the oldest would have the phone to take classes and the others would not. So they changed their minds, but basically the 10 year old was lacking in education because his brother was, say, in grade ten. And that for me was quite upsetting.
FR : So Uniyal was addicted. What could he do to improve not only the existing educational disparities in India, but those which were now dire during the pandemic? And that’s how Access Labs was born. Uniyal founded Access Labs in 2020 alongside another student from the University of Delhi. Their program aims to provide an online educational service to Grades 8-12 students across India through self-designed step-by-step schooling tools such as video lessons and chat boxes enabling students to To ask questions. The lineup officially kicked off in November 2020, and as we speak, students, mostly focused in Delhi, are taking free classes in subjects ranging from entrepreneurship, justice, and data science.
UK: We designed them thinking from the perspective of a student in Grades 8-12. It’s something short because they don’t have the time or their attention span is too short, and it’s really activity-oriented because just watching a video no longer achieves these goals for us. But in general, the line of thinking we use for the implementation is that it is open access. So if anyone in sixth grade wants to follow him, he is welcome. If someone who is 60 years old, they are welcome. Everything is therefore open access. This makes the product very varied in its scope.
FR : On a larger scale, Access Labs has a lot more to do with this idea of educational equity than just putting good, accessible online content into the hands of as many students as possible. For Uniyal it boils down to yes, what kind of education different people have access to, but why do we need to ask this question in the first place. Why do we see education, and really knowledge, as an asset for some but not for all?
UK: Basically our goal here is to somehow change our approach to learning. Even the courses we take in Georgetown, for example, there is an element of hierarchy in there, isn’t there? There is information coming from above. And what this means is that we believe that some communities do not have the means to have knowledge or information. And we don’t want it to stay that way. So, for example, if there is a student studying in rural India, we don’t want to assume that my Delhi designed curriculum is what he has to learn to escape that rural area, for example, or escape to his situation. So there is knowledge everywhere and there is learning everywhere. We just want them to know that there are enough ways today for them to translate their knowledge into something that can help them reach their means.
FR : To actually set up Access Labs, Uniyal worked with the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, which is a lab that works with businesses, students, governments, NGOs, or anyone else who has an interest in improving cooperation and innovation with those across a border, be it gender, class, religion or age. During the summer of 2020, Uniyal worked with the Lab to leverage his ideas on how to bridge the education gap in India and they helped provide funding and support as he worked on the development of the online platform which is now Access Labs. Despite the support Uniyal has received, the challenges of keeping Access Labs afloat still exist.
UK: Mainly in terms of supporting other nonprofits, we haven’t received much just because our solution is sometimes deemed too cumbersome or too difficult to implement. Also, there is currently a bit of resistance in the nonprofit space in India to seed nonprofits, that’s what I call it now, because we haven’t received funding from philanthropic or charity or from a billionaire who is supposed to do something little work. We really want to step in and make a difference. And we think a lot of education NGOs are not doing that in India right now.
FR : Ultimately, Uniyal hopes that Access Labs will be one of many steps in determining how we, especially students at an institution like Georgetown, understand and come to see the value of our higher education.
UK: We do not understand the full meaning of this learning experience or this resource and at the same time, millions of people are deprived of this resource. And if we keep restricting knowledge, that means we keep restricting resources and if we keep restricting resources, we keep creating that divide. So basically we are complicit and if we don’t accept that we don’t do anything.
FR : And while Uniyal still has a year to go until graduation, Access Labs is its future. For him, there is a countdown involved.
UK: I mean I seriously consider this to be a race between us and these private schools in India that have access to all of these resources. And we just need to make everything available to as many people as possible before they offer it to their students.
FR : And that’s all we have for you today. This podcast was recorded, edited and produced by Grace Buono. Special thanks to Kartikeya Uniyal for taking the time, despite the time change, to speak with The Hoya. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, The Hoya’s media team is growing. Be sure to check out all of our content this week, including new video work. Otherwise, see you next week.