Ronak Tejas Shah has always been a voracious learner, but the one thing he won’t choose to learn is how to give up. Despite being legally blind, Ronak has not—and will not—let anything stand in the way of his penchant for education.
“Knowledge is something that never dies,” he says. “It’s always evolving. There may be right and wrong, but there’s also a lot in between. I’m passionate about understanding every side to a story.”
That may be because Ronak cannot physically see everything in front of himself, which requires him to explore the unknown often while heavily relying on assistive technologies.
“My center vision is absolute zero, so I can only see up or down,” he explains. “There’s no known cause, but luckily, the limited sight I do have isn’t expected to deteriorate any further. I use screen readers on my computers just as a blind person would, but since I have partial sight, I can also use screen magnifiers to zoom in on content and see it close-up.”
Since his formative years growing up in India, these two deep-rooted aspects of Ronak’s life have motivated him to pursue a career in technology. “Partly because I’ve personally experienced how technology can be so impactful and transformational for my own needs,” he says. “I just started being a disrupter of barriers and working toward that goal.”
With such a clear image of his future, Ronak began exploring edX in ninth grade, auditing as many IT-related courses as he could consume, starting with Harvard University’s CS50x: Introduction to Computer Science.
“It was the course that got me hooked on online learning because it was flexible and accessible to my needs at the time,” he says. “With edX, content from the best universities worldwide is at the tip of my fingers—and not just for me, but for anyone and everyone. Today, I’ve taken countless courses on edX, and those experiences combined with my own disability have led me down a career path designed around studying the impact of the digitization of learning and working in society.”
A Win-Win Teaching and Learning Opportunity
Following high school, Ronak continued his education at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, where he was the first visually impaired learner to earn his BS in Information Technology. It was this “first” that caught the attention of Dr. Sonal Patel, a volunteer mentor at the time whose work involves mentoring visually impaired students in computer programming through Vision-Aid, a nonprofit organization near edX’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Impressed with Ronak’s enthusiasm for learning and technology, Dr. Patel invited Ronak to be a remote teaching assistant for Vision-Aid’s junior blind students from India, knowing that his unique background and abilities would be a tremendous benefit to their education.
“Ronak’s creativity in teaching the visually impaired, passion for supporting accessibility initiatives, and excitement for learning beyond limits are unparalleled,” says Dr. Patel. “He is truly a model learner, teacher, and supporter of online learning opportunities for the visually impaired.”
As part of his work with Vision-Aid, Ronak is tasked with taking edX programming courses in advance of the students, so that he can familiarize himself with the content before conducting peer-to-peer learning with them to make sure they’re grasping the material using their screen readers. Ronak also suggests enhancements for how edX can make elements of each course even more accessible for visually impaired learners, which he and Dr. Patel then submit for consideration through the edX learning portal. In exchange for his efforts, Vision-Aid covers the nominal cost for Ronak to earn a verified certificate for the courses he reviews.
“Once in a while, I’ll spot a mathematics formula or a code string in an exercise—like in a PDF or a presentation slide—that, when spoken by a screen reader, may not translate 100% accurately for a fully blind learner,” he explains. “It almost always means just a quick update to the code. Other times, I make suggestions for where in a course it would help visually impaired learners to have extra time for completing an exercise or exam because using our accessibility tools sometimes means it takes longer for us to work through the questions. edX always responds very positively to our suggestions and helps their partner universities take care of the updates.”
Given his insatiable appetite for learning, the Vision-Aid opportunity was—and remains—a dream come true for Ronak.
“I joined Vision-Aid as a TA, but today, I’m more of a student myself,” he says. “Dr. Patel and the other mentors there have already afforded me a lifetime of experience. When I help legally blind learners work through an edX course more effectively, there are hundreds of Vision-Aid students waiting to gain those benefits. Thousands of other people around the world benefit from my suggestions, too.”
It’s a win-win scenario for Ronak, who not only feels personally fulfilled with his work supporting others like him, but also has the opportunity to absorb the content he audits for his own professional benefit. “Being able to get certified in all of these skills is now giving me more credibility—not just with these students but also for future employers and my long-term goals,” he says.
From MicroMasters to Ph.D. to the World
Recently, Vision-Aid’s interest in leveraging edX to teach and inspire students has expanded beyond individual courses to meet the demands of students who are graduating high school and continuing into undergraduate degree programs and beyond. So last year, Dr. Patel asked Ronak to choose a MicroMasters program he would be interested in reviewing for the organization, and he selected the MIT MicroMasters program in Statistics and Data Science. Having completed a master’s degree in media and communication from a university in Berlin, Ronak sees this five-course sequence aligning perfectly with his career goals.
“I want to equip myself with an arsenal of skills in data science on my way to pursuing a Ph.D. in digital business and innovation,” Ronak explains. “Data is the most central factor in research, so I want to be able to work with it across as many different dimensions as possible in order to understand the mathematical reasoning behind it all. With this interdisciplinary focus I’ve created for myself covering the best of three worlds—business, innovation, and technology—MIT’s MicroMasters will better prepare me to enter the Ph.D. program of my choice.”
Ultimately, Ronak hopes to enter the world of teaching and research at the university level. He’s eager to apply his passion to giving back to society and sharing his expertise to help solve complex business problems as a consultant. No matter where his education takes him, he sees lifelong learning as the driving force to conquer any challenge that lies ahead.
“The dynamics of work are changing so fast that skills learning is really the only way to keep up,” Ronak says. “Lifelong learning, especially online, opens up an entire ecosystem of wonder. That’s why I’d like to personally present my gratitude to all of the people working at edX to make the democratization of education possible for the world, especially for learners like me. It helps you adapt to the uncertainty of life. I would also like to thank my family, without whom none of the progress I’ve made in helping others—and myself—would have been possible.”
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