In Person

The Entrepreneur Bringing Virtual Reality to Burma’s Classrooms

By Tin Htet Paing 15 May 2017

RANGOON — How can teachers embrace children’s enthusiasm for technology, often used for entertainment and communication, to engage their students in learning and become better educators themselves in this technology-rich era?

Ma Hla Hla Win, a former educator and cofounder of non-profit education technology social enterprise 360°ed, believes that the latest virtual reality (VR) technology can help teachers in Burma learn from world-class teachers from around the globe how to connect with students and improve the country’s antiquated teaching methods.

The Irrawaddy sat down with Ma Hla Hla Win to talk about how 360ed, cofounded with another educator and a Finnish tech expert late last year, aims to improve education through VR technology, and her dedication to the country’s educational reform.

Students testing VR headsets at Mandalay Children Literature Festival in January 2017. (Photo: 360°ed)

Could you tell us the background of 360ed and how it was initiated?

When I was at Harvard University taking a master degree program, I met a lot of graduate students from the education school and I visited a lot of schools in the Cambridge area. I wished I could bring 400,000 teachers from Myanmar [Burma] along with me to those classrooms. Most of the classrooms were 21st century learning classrooms preparing young learners to face 21st century challenges. I really wanted to share this experience with my Myanmar teachers. I really wanted to contribute to Myanmar’s education reform.

On a visit to innovative schools in Silicon Valley, I was inspired, but also scared, by the pace of change and the way they were preparing young people. I am a mother, and I don’t want my daughter to be replaced by a robot and artificial intelligence (AI). If we are training our children to just memorize what teachers teach them—without creativity or analytical skills or evaluation—our children will be replaced totally by robots and AI. We really need to change the system. But how do we do that? I knew somehow that I needed to leverage technology. But I didn’t know which tools to use.

I applied for a program called Global Solution Program at Singularity University—a Google think-tank on the NASA Research Campus. At the end of this program, we have to incubate an idea to impact 1 billion people in 10 years. I chose virtual reality technology and education: the intersection of education as a challenge and virtual reality as a tool.

Ma Hla Hla Win, cofounder of 360°ed photographed at her office space in Rangoon’s Tamwe Plaza. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

How would classrooms change through your initiative?

Classrooms have two stakeholders; teachers and students. For the students, we have augmented reality (AR) interactive learning through textbooks. Every student has a textbook and parents have a phone. If parents can tutor their children with our app, they’ll benefit students outside of the classroom. For teachers, we are helping them with professional development on a day-to-day basis. Any teacher in Myanmar will be able to teleport into any classroom around the world through VR technology to see how other teachers are teaching. It’s never been possible before.

Some of the VR footage we are creating is also for students. For geography learning, we can now bring students to the locations that they are learning about. For example, to Kachin State or Hpa-an or Monywa. These places don’t have to just be a spot on a map or a drawing in a book. Our apps are in two languages—both English and Myanmar.

What challenges are you facing?

Every day, we are hitting walls. First, this technology is very new so we don’t have a person we can run to with all of our questions. The second barrier is the cost. This technology is expensive. The third problem is talent. There are only a few people in Myanmar who have technical knowledge about AR and VR. We really need corporate funding so that we can hire talented people to come and work with us. The more people we have, the faster we can grow. Right now we have 11 people locally, both part-time and fulltime.

A textbook with augmented reality (AR) features. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

Can Myanmar afford to equip its classrooms with this technology?

Yes, some VR headsets are expensive but one made out of cardboard is only 5,000 kyats. A lot of people already have smart phones, which are good enough to use VR and AR educational learning programs. Right now on YouTube, there is a lot of 360 degree footage and if you have a cardboard headset, it’s liberation. You can visit anywhere in the world.

What content have you created so far?

Right now, we have partner schools. One of my cofounders is from Finland. He is filming the classrooms in Finland and other friends film their classrooms as well. We are filming classrooms here locally and talking with champion teachers to volunteer to film their classrooms. In 3-5 minute clips we edit the learnable moments and with narration, teachers can really understand what is going on. We ask them: What would you do in this situation? How would you respond differently? We are creating an interactive learning platform.

How many schools or teachers have worked with this technology?

The first beta test was in Mandalay with 128 private schools. The second one was the Children’s Literature Festival, where we had about 10,000 attendees over a three-day period. The third one was at the Moulmein Children’s Literature Festival with 3,000-4,000 attendees. The fourth test was at the InspireMe Festival at Myanmar Plaza in Rangoon.

Can you talk about your goal to impact 1 billion people?

That is the goal of the Singularity University scheme; it inspires us to impact 1 billion people in 10 years. But for me, I am starting with Myanmar. Next, I will expand next door to China and India. We already have some partners in China and are talking with some potential partners in India as well.

A virtual reality cardboard headset. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

What challenges will there be for classrooms to adopt this technology?

It needs a lot of first-time or early adopters who are willing to try it out. Not everybody will love it, I know. We need new and young teachers who are willing to learn and willing to change. I need this message to get to them that I need their help. I want them to try and learn with us and then they will help make a difference in every single child’s life.

What are your targets beyond classrooms?

There is a UN channel that is using VR as an empathy machine to bridge between policymakers and people on the ground. People on the ground will be able to explain what they want to tell policymakers and we will give them the tools and training. They have stories in their head and they can capture that. Then we will create footage for policymakers to watch. We will let them feel what people on the ground are feeling. Later, we want to create a channel for policymakers with VR. But we need people who believe in the potential of this technology. We can train locals, give them skills, equip them with technology so they can be empowered and connected to the world.

We will be organizing many hack-a-thons in Myanmar free of charge. Over the period of two days, participants will pick up a new skill and create new products. I want Myanmar people to become creators again. We will be running a series of hack-a-thons, not just for VR but also for AR and all the new technologies that young people can benefit from. I want young people to join us.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.