Teaching in Technicolor: Alumna Transforms Myanmar Education with Virtual Reality

“I was a misfit, not book-smart,” reflects Hla Hla Win, MC/MPA ‘16. After the 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 360oed. Win’s dedication to transforming the antiquated education system that impeded her early learning fueled an over decade-long journey from dropout to social entrepreneur.
 
As a young student, Win struggled to learn in the rigid structure of a Myanmar classroom. There, teachers often lecture 80 pupils at a time and no room is given for students to ask questions. Information lives on the pages of old black-and-white textbooks and learning happens during repetitive exercises. Win finished her education on her own and passed her matriculation exams with distinctions. 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 US. She was eager to apply modern pedagogical theories to classrooms at home, but teachers met her enthusiasm with blank stares. Reflecting on this experience, Win observes, “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 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 education 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 US and eventually to Harvard Kennedy School.
 
Win, who was a Ford Foundation Mason Fellow with the Ash Center, spent her time at HKS advancing her studies on education, policy, and business. She conducted comparative research into education reforms, looking at how countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were able to modernize 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 only holding a diploma, but a desire to serve and a new plan for a business that could fulfill her dream of transforming 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 create moonshot innovations to the benefit of humanity, welcomed Win to its ranks. There 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. 360oed was born.
 
 

“Ninety-nine percent of Myanmar students have never been outside of the country. Now, with VR, they can go to the moon.”

 
 
Win returned back to Myanmar in 2016, this time prepared to prove that student-centered learning was possible. In January 2017, 360oed launched. The company’s team and services grew rapidly, and now they offer multiple key services.
 
Teachers can be transported to classrooms around the world with 360oed’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 US. VR headsets are affordable; they come in a cardboard version, which makes the solution scalable for a cash-strapped country.
 
Students aren’t left out of the experience. VR and AR solutions from 360oed bring the dated textbook pages to life. Geography lessons in Myanmar used to consist of drawing maps, and as 360oed website notes, “Studying in a rote way can be as effective as sleeping pills for digital natives.” Now, using just a smartphone, students and parents can scan textbooks to bring up engaging 2-D or 3-D models. Students can 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,” remarks Win, “now, with VR they can go to the moon.”
 
And, the learning doesn’t stop there. 360oed has also created an innovation lab that encourages students to explore, design, build, and invent. The enterprise hosts workshops that give learners hands-on experience with modern technologies like 3-D printers and laser-cutters. Students leave as creators and makers, not just consumers.
Hla Hla Win
Win is always thinking about ways to use technology to expand education in Myanmar
360oed will continue to grow and there’s potential for the solution to be applied to other communities and countries. Meanwhile, Win notes, “we are removing the barriers to education—that’s very satisfying.”
 
“If I had tools like this when I was in school,” Win reflects, “I would have been a number one student.”