How IIE launched New Course in Myanmar with a Little Help From Count Basie and “Silicon Valley”

It’s 8:55 am and we’re on the finishing touches. The U.S Embassy is letting us use Count Basie Hall—or the CBH—at the American Center in Yangon to launch IIE’s new pilot course, Connecting with the World: International Relations at Higher Education Institutions, and the cavernous cube of a space is finally starting to look like a classroom. Joanna Regulska (Rutgers University), Mandy Hansen (Northern Arizona University), Katherine Punteney (Monterey Institute of International Studies) and Ron Feng (Knowledge Platform), IIE’s curriculum development partners throughout the past four months, are showing their true team spirit by ferrying desks, chairs, tables, and boxes of books around the CBH while the industrial air conditioner attempts to bring the muggy 35⁰C room down to a manageable 23. Five minutes until the time we had suggested participants arrive at the workshop. Who knows who will show up?

During our scouting trip to Myanmar the previous month, my colleague, Daniel Obst, and I visited a number of ministries and universities to inform them about the course, asking if they would nominate universities and individuals to take part. We emphasized November 26th as the key date for participants to come to the inaugural workshop in Yangon, but in a country like Myanmar where so much happens at the last minute—and where higher education is overseen by 13 different ministries—I’m nervous that, for one reason or another, no one will come.

9:00 on the dot and—lo and behold—one young woman arrives asking about Connecting with the World! Jennifer Eisele, the IIE Representative for the Myanmar Higher Education Initiative, is ready at the registration and warmly welcomes her to the workshop. The woman walks into the room tentatively, chooses a seat towards the back, and starts flipping through the 200-page textbook we have laid on each desk. Each desk also has a pre-loaded USB stick with all of the lecture recordings that the participants will follow on their own after this workshop. Within minutes there is a queue out the door of the CBH; women and men in their best longyi eagerly awaiting their turn to confirm their name, choose a seat, and embark on a course that will provide them with the basic tools for setting up an international office.

Ultimately 55 individuals from 31 universities and one ministry came to participate in the day-long opening workshop. The Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, Virginia Murray, and U Ba Shwe, Deputy Minister for Science and Technology, officially opened the course. Both congratulated the participants for representing their universities and ministries, citing the importance of education—and international education—in shaping their own paths, and in shaping Myanmar’s future. These 55 participants will be paired with one of 35 mentors from around the world who have volunteered to be in weekly correspondence with two or three participants, providing feedback on assignments and sharing general knowledge about the international education field.

The two main goals of the workshop were to equip participants with the knowledge and resources needed to complete the course and to get people excited about international education. One of the biggest challenges for this course is technology and IT knowledge in general. Participants will not only have to follow the weekly lessons on their own, but often don’t have personal computers or regular access to the internet. Despite the surge of cell phone usage and even iPads, many are only just beginning to use email (almost exclusively Gmail), and lack confidence in their own IT skills and the local IT infrastructure. Knowing this, we dedicated a significant portion of the workshop to understanding how the course works, and practiced using the USB drives loaded with the pre-recorded course content.

Using the American Center’s Silicon Valley, a small room with about 15 computers, groups took turns writing an email to their mentor and researching international education resources online (both formal assignments). Other workshop activities were geared towards allowing the participants to meet one another and exchange previous international experiences, and discussing some of the participants’ hopes and fears for the course. A common hope was to develop a well-functioning international office in order to increase student and faculty exchange. A common fear was that other duties or lack of internet would prevent them from submitting their assignments on time. To me, it seemed that one of the most exciting takeaways for all was the promise of being introduced to their mentor. This pairing, and many other follow up activities, have been taking place over the past few days, and will continue to happen throughout the next 20 weeks.

In his opening remarks, U Ba Shwe stated that the course represents a major milestone in the history of Myanmar, and the relationship between the U.S. and Myanmar. Thanks to the many partners in the U.S. and Myanmar, and, in particular, the Henry Luce Foundation, I think U Ba Shwe may be right; however, last week’s launch workshop is only the beginning, and the hard work to carry this course through to term starts now.