Teaching in Technicolor

Alumna Transforms Myanmar Education with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Published in December 2017, Updated November 2019

“I was a misfit, not book smart,” says Hla Hla Win MC/MPA 2016. After completing ninth grade, Win walked out of her school in Myanmar and didn’t return. Fifteen years later, she walked across the stage at Harvard Kennedy School’s 2016 commencement and into her role as founder and CEO of a social enterprise named 360ed.

Win’s dedication to transforming the antiquated education system that impeded her early learning fueled her journey from high school dropout to social innovator. As an inquisitive young student, Win struggled to learn in the rigid structure of a Myanmar classroom. There, teachers often lecture 80 pupils at a time, giving no room for students to ask questions. “I was sent to the principal’s office many times because questioning the teacher was considered rude,” she says. She also was forced to complete repetitive exercises from pages of old black-and-white textbooks, something that is still the case in Myanmar today.

Her mother was a teacher who understood Win’s ADHD and dyslexia. “I’m a very visual learner, so my mom used flashcards and visual cues—the pictures and colors really helped me become a reader,” she says. Win finished her education on her own and passed her matriculation exams with distinction. She then taught locally for three years before leaving to get a bachelor’s degree in K–12 education from William Penn University in Iowa.

Win returned to Myanmar in 2008 passionate about the new teaching methods she observed in the United States. Eager to apply modern pedagogical theories to classrooms at home, Win saw her enthusiasm and efforts met with blank stares from other teachers. “They just couldn’t relate to what I was saying, the classrooms were too different. They couldn’t visualize what it was like to be in a student-centered learning environment.”

It became clear that teachers in Myanmar needed to experience firsthand the modern classrooms Win was trying to describe, but with less than 2 percent of Myanmar’s GDP going toward education, flying them across the globe wasn’t an option. Not to be deterred, Win pursued other avenues to make a difference. She created scholarship programs for students in her country and worked in various educational institutions ranging from capacity-building programs for new governments in transition to international colleges to building liberal arts colleges in Myanmar. Her experiences brought her back to the United States and eventually to Harvard Kennedy School.

Win, who was a Ford Foundation Fellow and Mason Fellow at HKS, spent her time at the School advancing her studies on education, policy, and business. She conducted comparative research into education reforms, looking at how countries like Indonesia and Malaysia modernized their school systems. She honed her public speaking skills and offered her perspective at a special event discussing Myanmar’s momentous 2015 elections with the Ash Center’s Tommy Vallely, senior advisor for mainland Southeast Asia, and David Dapice, senior economist for the Vietnam and Myanmar Programs. She also expanded her network, getting involved with Harvard’s i-Lab, an innovation incubation space, and Harvard Business School.

Win’s time at the School was formative. As she puts it, “It helped me define who I wanted to become.” When Win walked across the stage in May 2016, she wasn’t holding just a diploma—she held a desire to serve along with a new plan for a business that could transform Myanmar’s education system.

After graduation, Win continued her work with the Ash Center as a research fellow during the 2016–2017 academic year. In tandem, the Global Solution Program at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley initiative designed to help entrepreneurs createmoonshotinnovations to the benefit of humanity, welcomed Win to its ranks. There, with funding from Google, she learned more about new technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and met Laurent Boinot, another entrepreneur passionate about education, and Perttu Pölönen, creator of music-teaching innovation MusiClock. Together, Boinot, Pölönen, and Win decided to make the dream of bringing teachers to classrooms around the world a reality using VR technology. 360ed was born.

Win returned to Myanmar in 2016 prepared to prove that student-centered learning was possible. In January 2017, 360ed launched. The company’s team and services grew rapidly. Teachers can be transported to classrooms around the world with 360ed’s immersive footage; all the teachers have to do is don a VR headset. “The teachers can look around and listen,” says Win. “They can almost walk around.” This experience fulfills Win’s original dream at a fraction of the cost of bringing teachers to the United States. VR headsets are affordable; they come in a cardboard version, which makes the solution scalable for a cash-strapped country.

Win has also harnessed the power of augmented reality through 360ed’s flashcard suite, in which AR-enabled flashcards interact with a mobile phone application to provide stimulating, 3D models of everything from basic English vocabulary to complex chemical processes. The app and flashcards can be used offline, which is appropriate for more remote communities. In addition, because of shortages many teachers in Myanmar are asked to teach subjects they are not qualified to teach. Win’s flashcards provide them with a pocket-sized crash course that they find invaluable.

In addition to training teachers, 360ed is working with the Ministry of Education to modernize and digitize old textbooks, the same ones in use when Win was a student more than three decades ago. Thanks to a rapid change in Myanmar’s digital landscape—in the past several years, the number of people with Internet access has grown exponentially—students can access 360ed’s interactive apps right on their phones. “Students are the excited users,” says Win. “They share the app with passersby, with teachers, who are an older generation and who may be afraid of learning new things. But the world is moving faster than ever, and teachers know they have to catch up, because students are going ahead of them. As a teacher, I want to help the other teachers. I don’t want them left behind.”

Now, using just a smartphone, students and parents can scan textbooks to bring up engaging 2D or 3D models. Students “leave” the classroom without ever leaving their chair to visit the locations they’re learning about in school by using VR. “Ninety-nine percent of Myanmar students have never been outside of the country,” says Win. “Now, with VR, they can go to the moon.”

Win and 360ed have been recognized by several global organizations for their groundbreaking work. In the fall of 2019, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the World Economic Forum named Win as one of 40 social innovators who are driving change and transforming society, and in 2018, UNESCO and its partner Netexplo selected 360ed as one of 10 winners, from among 2,000-plus projects, of an award that recognizes those who are using the latest technology for public good.

With 75 employees, 360ed continues to grow, expanding products beyond Myanmar to several Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Says Win, “There’s potential for the solution to be applied to other communities and countries. Meanwhile we are removing the barriers to education—that’s very satisfying. If I had tools like this when I was in school, I would have been a number one student.”