Myanmar: Internet and smartphones increase education access

Myanmar faces significant development challenges – among them, a low rate of children completing secondary school. Many children either never go to school, or leave their schooling early to help their families by working. Reducing obstacles for children to get an education is key to breaking this cycle.

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Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Myanmar street
Downtown Yangon during the wet season. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

In 2013, internet prices dropped in Myanmar as the smartphone market began booming with affordable options available for the first time. The number of people using smartphones jumped from 10 per cent of the population in 2013, to 90 per cent three years later. 

This new level of access to the internet and smartphones has led to a huge growth in e-learning across Myanmar.

Reaching those who were cut out

Thabyay Education Foundation (TEF) is a partner organisation of the Australian Volunteers Program, and aims to promote peace and reconciliation through higher education and professional development.

The increased access to the internet in Myanmar, combined with the boom of smartphones and e-learning, has meant TEF can now deliver education to those who had previously been cut out.

Australian volunteer Linda Stannard has been a volunteer e-learning mentor and instructional designer at TEF since May 2017; her main role being to implement a new learning management system (LMS) and digitise learning content.

E-learning: “a world of opportunities”

According to Linda: “e-Learning allows us to access those students who can’t travel to major centres like Yangon - either because they can’t afford it - or because they’re unable to leave their family villages or the refugee camps on the Thai / Myanmar border and other restricted parts of the country.”

E-learning opens up a world of opportunities to those who would otherwise remain as they are and not be given an avenue to achieve their dreams.

— Linda Stannard

Alongside her colleagues at TEF, Linda helped redevelop the formerly text-heavy student guide. She digitised the content with links, videos and audio, and added interactive elements.

Linda also helped procure a learning management system (LMS) that would allow TEF to update a nine-year-old platform that was due to expire.

“The LMS needed to be inexpensive, not use huge amounts of bandwidth, be simple to work on for staff, simple for students to access and use around Myanmar,” says Linda.

“My Myanmar colleague and I built the new template for the courses together and updated the old content to fit into the new system."

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Australian volunteer Linda Stannard With her colleagues at Thabyay Education Foundation (left to right): Min Khant, Moe Ma Ma Myo, Soundous Drissi, Linda Stannard and Naw Sah Blute. Supplied: Linda Stannard
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Australian volunteer Linda Stannard on assignment in Myanmar. Supplied: Linda Stannard

The software will allow staff at TEF to continue to create interactive e-learning content after Linda has returned to Australia.

“I’m included and treated like a team member”

Linda says she feels very much part of the team at TEF: “my colleagues all speak a certain amount of English so only speak Myanmar if I’m not part of a conversation. I’m always included and treated like a team member.”

“The office here doesn’t have as much of a hierarchy as there usually is in Australia; respect is just shown to everyone,” says Linda.

It’s possibly the best place I’ve ever worked and I think many western business offices could learn from some of the office relationships here!

— Linda Stannard

Linda says she has many highlights from her time with TEF: “I love watching my colleagues take on something I’m here to mentor them with and being comfortable with it, or when I learn new words and remember them!”

Being part of the community

Linda chose to live in a village area rather than be close to other volunteers, as she wanted to experience living with local people: “It took time to gain trust, but I built that by nodding and smiling at everyone which slowly showed them I wasn’t going away, but I wasn’t a threat either.”

“One lady tells me every day that I look beautiful (what better way to start a day, right?), another blows me kisses and offers me noodles, another checks that I have my umbrella in case the sun’s too hot or the rain comes.”

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One of Australian volunteer Linda Stannard's neighbours in Myanmar. Supplied: Linda Stannard
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Australian volunteer Linda Stannard has taken portraits of her neighbours in Myanmar. Supplied: Linda Stannard

Another way Linda gained trust was by taking her neighbour’s photographs and giving them a copy of the photo - often the only one they have.

“I often look at their photos and wonder where and how they grew up and what part they played in Burmese history,” says Linda.

“I highly recommend taking that ‘gap year’”

Linda has fallen in love with her adopted home. “Thank goodness I have kids and grandkids to drag me back to Australia or I might never leave!” she says.

“Since being here I have totally changed my outlook on my life and what I want in my future.

“I can absolutely highly recommend taking that ‘gap year’ and joining the Australian Volunteers Program on a journey like this. There is so much to learn from those who need people to teach them new skills. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my life.”

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A portrait of a woman in Myanmar by Australian volunteer Linda Stannard. Supplied: Linda Stannard
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A neighbour of Australian volunteer Linda Stannard in Myanmar. Supplied: Linda Stannard