In a recent speech, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and Myanmar's opposition leader, brought international attention to the difficulties faced by students in her country. She described how a series of student uprisings against the government over the past two decades created a situation in which "the focus of the military government was on maintaining discipline, not on providing education." For example, to contain unrest in the late 1980s and '90s, she said, universities were closed nationwide for several years at a time; many were relocated far outside urban centers to reduce the influence of student activism. The resulting drop in education standards meant that, as she describes it, "graduates have nothing except a photograph of their graduation ceremony to show for the years they spent at university."
Yet with a healthy dose of determination, some Myanmar students still manage to acquire an advanced education. One example is 22-year-old Thaw Tar, who has supplemented his undergraduate studies through OCW and MITx, and hopes that his own curiosity and initiative will continue to open doors for him.
Growing up in the rural township of Aunglan, he describes his own early education as typical of many students in Myanmar. "Although most teachers are good-natured and hardworking, the style of teaching is very non-interactive, and few of them really teach children how to think. My education was largely about simply memorizing my lessons by heart."
Fortunately, he says, his parents pushed him to become a critical thinker. "My mother taught high school and she made me read lots of books. I knew I needed to learn how to think scientifically since I was a boy, thanks to these books. Without them, I might not be where I am now."
After passing his high school matriculation exam with top marks, he chose to attend Myanmar Maritime University, an engineering school outside the capital city of Yangon. There he witnessed some of the challenges to which Suu Kyi alluded. "Going to classes meant a two-hour bus ride," Thaw Tar explains, "I was fortunate that my university does not lack equipment, but many university's lab facilities are not well supplied. This is common in Myanmar. I have friends who graduated with a degree in computer science without ever having been able to write programs, because they did not have access to a proper computer lab."
Thaw Tar earned a degree, but wished he could have learned more. He felt unsatisfied, for example, by his final graduation project. His team designed and built two remotely controlled underwater vehicles, but without the correct mechanical components, and without access to specialized knowledge in marine hydrodynamics, the project did not meet Thaw Tar's high expectations.
After working in Yangon for several months, still thirsty for knowledge, Thaw Tar decided to apply for admission to a master's degree program in naval architecture and ocean engineering at Osaka University, Japan. As he reviewed the curriculum at Osaka University, he searched for ways to supplement his undergraduate education.
That's when he came across MIT OpenCourseWare. He felt both "astonished and very happy" to discover open access to a half dozen MIT courses in precisely the domains that interested him most. He looked at a graduate level 13.021 Marine Hydrodynamics course, and an undergraduate course called 2.092 Finite Element Analysis of Solids and Fluids I. After downloading the courses to a USB memory stick from an Internet café, he dashed home and began to study.
A few weeks of careful review left him feeling much more confident. He decided to continue downloading and studying courses. "My undergraduate course experience was not bad. However, I find the MIT OCW courses are much better. They give me more insight into marine engineering, ocean engineering and naval architecture than ever before."
Over the past few months, he's reviewed the material from three additional OCW courses, 2.017J Design of Electromechanical Robotic Systems, 2.23 Hydrofoils and Propellers, and 6.092 Introduction to Programming in Java, and an MITx course, 6.00x Introduction to Computer Science and Programming. Armed with his new knowledge, he's also taught himself how to use open-source computational fluid dynamics software, and begun designing a completely new underwater vehicle.
Thaw Tar views OCW and MITx as quite complementary. "I am very fond of OCW and MITx because they address many of the challenges that a student from Myanmar must face. But each of them is useful for different purposes. OCW provides excellent materials, and an approach for learning a topic that helps me manage and prioritize what to study first. It also has a very diverse set of classes — I can study any type of engineering I want. MITx is excellent, because even though there are fewer classes, it allows me to collaborate and engage with other students to discuss assignments and exam solutions. The videos, exams, deadlines and certificates of MITx are also appealing because they create some of the experiences and positive pressures of being a real student."
Having gained so much from both OCW and MITx, Thaw Tar felt compelled to offer something in return, so he contacted OCW to tell his story, hoping that it will inspire others to use and support both OCW and MITx.
In his own words: "Thank you MIT OCW. I hope that MIT OpenCourseWare will exist forever, to help the many anonymous, education-thirsty students with high potentials. It would make me very happy to know that OCW staff understood that their efforts have improved the life, lifestyle and knowledge of a poor student from a poor developing nation — me."