Aakash Sethi

Ashoka Fellow
Akash Sethi
Fellow since 2019
This description of Aakash Sethi's work was prepared when Aakash Sethi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019.


Aakash is empowering unemployable youth to navigate the future of work in India by mastering 21st century skills through self-learning. He is integrating the culture, tools and practise of self-learning in the Indian education and vocational training system and transitioning teachers as champions of 21st century skills. By doing so, institutions and teachers are enabling young people to experience purpose and autonomy and take charge of their own learning and career pathways.

The New Idea

It is estimated that 65% of children starting school today will hold jobs that do not exist yet. These children are likely to have four or five careers over the course of their working life. More than learning multiple skills across different stages in their lifecycle, they will need to learn how to learn. For Aakash, self-learning then, is the new life skill for succeeding in the future of work.
Aakash and his team at Quest Alliance have developed a youth-centric approach to employability training that is rooted in self-learning and 21st Century skills. It puts a young person’s voice and choice at the centre of skill training programs. This marks a departure from most employability training regimes that hold industry voice and mandate at their core.
Aakash views 21st century skills as a set of new world competencies that individuals need to succeed in fast digitizing worlds where humans and machines need to collaborate effectively. He recognizes that jobs of the future will make more demands on young people to apply skills of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making and leadership. In response, he has developed a multi-disciplinary curriculum for 21st Century skills that combines learning skills, psycho-social skills, digital fluency skills and life-work skills. Together, these competencies enable youth to navigate a portfolio of jobs and careers that they will traverse across their lifetime. Thus, where job placement is viewed as the key metric of success by most employability programs, Aakash is focussing on long-term life outcomes of young people as a critical indicator of impact.
Quest Alliance’s curriculum of 21st century skills is deployed through the pedagogy of self-learning and a range of digital and real-world learning tools. It is integrated into traditional government schools, vocational training classrooms and the government’s industrial training centres through partnerships with state governments and non-profits. In this way, Aakash is gradually restructuring hierarchical and rigid institutions into thriving eco-systems of self-learning.
Aakash recognizes that self-learning institutions that focus on 21st century skills need future-facing teachers and principals. He has designed an immersive self-learning program for educators and skill trainers that transitions them into ‘Master Coaches’ of 21st century skills. Thousands of educators from Industrial Training Institutes (ITI s), vocational training centres, secondary schools and engineering colleges start practising behaviours of a self-learner. They go on to internalize and apply 21st century skills in their own lives. As coaches, they become agents of inclusion in their classrooms and steer collaborative self-learning, self-enquiry and self-reflection among students. Together with principals and heads of vocational training centres, they start to register higher employability outcomes for their students and emerge as the new champions and spokespersons of self-learning and 21st century skills.

The Problem

India’s employment rate has fallen to a staggering 46-year low, driving up youth anxiety and despondency. The story starts in primary schools. In 2018, 62 million children were out of school in India. Despite high enrollment numbers, it is estimated that less than 58% attended class. With a shortage of 1 million teachers in the country, India’s children are becoming unemployable at the primary education stage itself, much before they start thinking about jobs.
India’s schools and colleges continue to be designed for mass education following the needs of the industrial era. They focus on teaching repetitive and transactional tasks that are dated. The emphasis is on hierarchical and standardized learning. Textbooks continue to be the primary source of information, even though the digital world is opening up multiple platform-based ways of learning. Shifts in technology have already outpaced the learning in classrooms and skilling programs. While informal jobs are getting rapidly automated, young people in informal economies are grappling with digital tasks and platforms that are re-shaping their current and future work environments.
India’s vast network of vocational training and industrial training institutes are driven by an aggressive industry mandate. They offer structured trainings on technical and trade-specific skills. Business for them entails a Recruit-Train-Deploy mode where they train and place large numbers of youth in jobs at top pace. A majority of the courses offered are short and basic. While life skills are layered on top, they don’t equip youth with soft skills for the long-term. Career counselling is absent. Young people are provided top-down advice by skill trainers on jobs. Combinations of these factors push youth into low-skills and low-paying jobs that they don’t want. Most stay in one job for an average of 4 months. Then, there is the larger mind-set challenge of educators and skill trainers. A majority believe that India’s youth, especially those emerging from a broken education system with stories of failure, do not have the ability to learn on their terms, and create their own career pathways.
For all these reasons, India’s massive skill training programs are registering low placement rates. Under the flagship scheme Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), placement figures show that only 55% of the 18.42 lakh certified employable candidates (who were eligible as on 31.08.2018) were placed in 2018. In addition to losing jobs, India’s youth are also losing their voice and identity. The massive schemes to make them employable are equipping them for one job at a time, rather than building a longer-term vision of careers, life-long learning and digital fluency. Unemployment in India also has a severe gender dimension too. Less than 27% women participate in the labour force in India (the lowest in the world) and less than 38% own mobile phones. Restrictive gender norms are making the situation grimmer for young girls of the country.
While many government policies are in place, not enough time and effort is being spent to align the various stakeholders in the education-to-employability ecosystem to create a shared vision of learning and the future of youth in India.

The Strategy

Driving the vision of young self-learners of 21st century skills, Aakash and his team are transforming ‘the institution’, ‘the teacher’, and ‘the learner’ together in that direction.
In classrooms of self-learning, students are offered a climate where they can choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn and the pace at which they want to learn. The 130 hour modular curriculum has been designed with insights on the intrinsic motivation and learning styles of youth from excluded communities. Learners can select from a range of modules on self-awareness and self-reflection, inter-personal skills, career literacy and readiness and digital fluency skills. They work in pairs and transact each module through the self-learning loop of Learn-Do-Reflect-Share.
Aakash recognizes that technology is non-judgemental. It gives students with histories of failure multiple opportunities to attempt a task or a learning game. But technology cannot replace the energy of a vibrant classroom. He therefore puts blended learning pathways in the hands of learners and educators. Students navigate the Quest curriculum on their terms over a digital platform (which can be downloaded on computers and mobile phones). The platform steers them through a range of digital learning opportunities as well as real-time classroom discussions, community-based action projects, field research and market scans, learning from role models etc.
The curriculum is powered by a series of digital tool kits, games, quizzes, workbooks, speaking cards, several of which have won design awards. For example, Career Games is a simulation-based board game that allows students to experience the real life world of employment. It showcases roles and responsibilities of white collar and blue collar workers, and ways to navigate and move up ‘skill ladders’. This game also contains a set of 36 interactive mobisodes (mobile episodes). Then, there are Career Cards based on ‘Multiple Intelligences theory’ that map out diverse career opportunities and the means to access them.
Rapid impact assessments have shown that after completing the curriculum, 70% of students continue to access its self-learning platform and create plans for self-development. So do the educators who join the Trainer tribe (an online platform) to build their digital learning competencies and their digital identities. For Aakash, this is a strong indicator of learners and teachers together walking on the path of lifelong learning.
Breaking the gender-based digital exclusion of women and girls has been an imperative for Aakash. His team runs large-scale boot camps for Girls in STEM where girls from government secondary schools learn to code and learn computer programming, This initiative demonstrates how computational and critical thinking skills can be taught in new ways and and how girls can be prioritized in skilling programs and access platformized learning. Not surprisingly, than 60% of all self-learners in the Quest eco-system are girls.
Since 2011-12, Aakash has grown his model across 5 states through a network of 50 non-profit replication partners. They receive rigorous training to launch youth resource centres from where they deliver the Quest Alliance curriculum to young people from marginalized communities. Partners get access to the learning content, teaching-learning materials and tool kit. They go on to customize it for their learners, and create training and implementation plans for their centres with coaching and support from education and technology experts at Quest Alliance. Over time, partners start to contribute to the richness of the curriculum with their on-the ground experience. This has led to the emergence of a new collaborative community of practise on self-learning and 21st century skills.
Aakash’s model of self-learning and 21st century skills have been integrated into 100 community vocational training centres, 1000 government secondary schools and 700 ITIs as a substantive value-addition to their bouquet of trade-specific skill training modules. Together, these partners have impacted 300,000 adolescent and youth across 7 states, including the North East. They have reached young girls and boys from tribal belts, minority identities, communities living in ‘disturbed’ conditions, and areas affected by global climate change. 60% of these youth live, work and study in peri-urban and rural areas.
With placement rates as high as 70% and significantly higher salaries than the average entry-level wages, youth who emerge from the Quest Alliance program overwhelmingly report higher life-outcomes (confidence and positive attitude) as their most significant gain over the security of having found a job.
Having created a model of self-learning for 21st century skills, Aakash is now working to expand his network of non-profits and build a policy framework to embed the model into state and central employability programs. Principals of industrial training institutes and heads of non-profit vocational training centres are now mapping ways to transform entire institutions into self-learning organizations.

The Person

Aakash has scripted his life on self-learning. Growing up, school was a tough place for him. He faced multiple kinds of discrimination – from being a left-hander and slow in writing to surviving bullying to his inability to succeed in one-dimensional classrooms. Never interested in academics, he failed in grade nine. When he was given the option by his parents to move to another school and get admitted in Class 10, Aakash opted to stay and repeat another year in the same school. The stigma and label of failure gave him hard lessons in resilience and grit. When he was spurned by his friends, he turned to exploring and learning subjects beyond what he knew could be possible.
He found a new identity as a sports person. Passionate about basketball, he poured in hours of effort and taught himself how to lead teams. He went on to captain his school, district and state basketball teams over the next 6 years. He learnt cooking from his grandmother which opened up a new channel of creativity in his life. In college, Aakash ran a small food business outside his campus for two years. His partner was a young boy from a different economic bracket and religious identity. Being an entrepreneur was perhaps Aakash’s first brush with a comprehensive slate of 21st Century skills.
Growing up the in the 90s, a time when internet was exploding across India, Aakash was an enthusiastic early adopter of digital learning. He learnt graphic design in the 9th grade, went on to create databases in college and learnt to connect with young people across the world through listserv’s. His digital engagement and presence opened up multiple new windows to new worlds. Aakash has known first-hand how digital platforms allow young people with the baggage of failures to learn without judging them.
What pivoted him on his current path was his extensive engagement with AIESEC- the world’s largest youth organization. His life transformed when as an 18 years old, he attended a conference of 200 young people from across the country in one place. As a part of AIESEC he went on numerous cultural exchange programs to South Africa, Germany, Turkey, and Japan among others. These experiences were transformational in shaping his worldview of bridging the gap between youth aspirations, development realities and corporate responsibility.
In one such conference organized by International Youth Fellowship (IYF), Aakash stood up and asked why youth issues were being discussed by senior men. It was 2003 and Aakash was 23 years old. IYF invited him to start a 3-year edtech program in India. Originally, Aakash focused on 21st century skill training for vocational training instructors and in 2008, he spun off Quest Alliance as an independent organization. In 2012, Aakash realized that what Quest was achieving with the instructors needed to be done with students as well to create self-empowered life-long learners. Aakash pivoted to put learners at the center of the work and has since grown Quest into a thriving self-learning organization.