During the recently concluded elections in Myanmar, it was noted that some political candidates started using “Demolishing Distance Education” as their election campaign promise, to bring quality education to Myanmar higher education. There have been several heated discussions among youth, educators, and politicians whether Distance universities should be abolished in Myanmar despite almost 60% of high school graduates’ annual enrollment according to the Ministry of Education (August 2020).
Why Distance Education has become a hot potato?
There exist myriad reasons why some people have pointed out that distance education should be brought to an end, but one most substantial reason is due to its low-quality. As an undergraduate student who went to the Mandalay University of Distance Education for my undergraduate degree and a postgraduate student studying Master of Education in Advanced Teaching at the University of the People, USA, I have witnessed how distance education in Myanmar and other countries work differently.
The nature of Myanmar distance education is different from any other countries around the world. At Universities of Distance Education in Myanmar, even though there exist compulsory assignments to be submitted offline in both semesters, almost all students copy ready-made answers to their papers, and some usually hire assignment writing services. Therefore, it can be said that assignments are not checked against plagiarism, and they just stand as a protocol.
Besides, both prerecorded audio CDs and radio/TV broadcasting which are designed to support the students’ distance learning also seem infeasible as the percentage of students who do self-study with those resources is almost zero. Instead, sitting for a week-long exam with leaked questions through tuition services at the campus for four years, and getting degree conferred has become a thing for almost all distance students.
Are Myanmar Distance Learning students unqualified?
The answer is yes-and-no!
It is ‘no’ because there are so many graduates of Myanmar Distance Education who are successful and have contributed to the development of our country. For example, when Daw Ei Shwe was a student of the Mandalay University of Distance Education, she had plenty of free time - giving her an opportunity to volunteer for Phaung Daw Oo Monastic Education High School and joined personal development pieces of training. She later founded Phaung Daw Oo Pre-College (PDO-PCP) which is a one-year-long English immersive Community Leadership and Social Sciences program that nurtures critical thinking and global citizenship sprits of Myanmar youth. The program is entirely free of charge, and thanks to her leadership and initiatives, there have been more than one hundred young leaders who have graduated from PDO-PCP. It also has been reported that about 30 % of their graduates were accepted into foreign universities on full scholarships while the rest are working, mostly in education sector.
Daw Ei Shwe Sin was just a fresh graduate from her distance university by the time she had brought tremendous impacts on her community. She later received a fully-funded scholarship to peruse a Masters of Pubic Administration at the Central European University in Hungary. There are also some other inspiring stories of Distance Education graduates like Daw Ei Shwe Sin.
However, it also should not be forgotten the fact that all students are not self-directed leaners and they may not have learning opportunities as Daw Ei Shwe Sin had.
“I am a graduate with no skills as I just passed the exam with leaked questions, and there was nothing I learnt from the university for my career. I still do not know what jobs I apply for”, said Ko Arkar Kyaw, a fresh graduate of Distance Learning, whose name has been changed. The lack of quality and learning has threatened many Distance Learning graduates’ career as well. Therefore, providing Distance Learning students with a quality education is an urgent need in Myanmar.
Despite poor-quality, the flexibility to work fulltime, especially for students with some financial burdens, and opportunity to attend training or study abroad seem to be most common reasons why the distance learning is chosen over regular education in Myanmar.
Myanmar education staff of Distance Education Training by TIDE
Transformation by Innovation in Distance Education (TIDE)
With the funding from the UK government, the Irrawaddy Policy Exchange (IPE) launched a project named TIDE which has been bringing universities in the UK and Myanmar to enhance the quality of distance learning in higher education in 2018.
The project has strengthened and supported innovations in Myanmar’s extensive distance universities, not only at the institutional levels but also in the design and delivery of learning, by taking advantage of the country’s rapidly emerging ICT infrastructure. Besides, the development of teaching approaches, media production skills and ICT and library support capacity for distance learning courses have been prioritized, and the institutional framework for open and distance education are in the agenda as well.
During the interview with Ko Thant Zin, the National Education Lead at IPE, he said, “soft-skills are what most employers seek in employment recruitment, and therefore, one of our project missions is to cultivate self-directed and life-long learning among distance students.”
“The centralized curriculum is another challenge for the reform. Teaching all students with the same curriculum cannot produce productive and skilled labors because different job markets in different states of the country may demand different skills-set”, he continued.
With Myanmar's Minister of Education and TIDE project members
Insufficient skilled-labors of the country can also be viewed as being caused by the low quality of Distance Learning since 60 % of Myanmar graduates are Distance Learners. Projects like TIDE should be encouraged, and the appropriate reform for Distance Learning should be taken into serious consideration.
As a matter of fact, Distance Learning trends to be more popular across the world as an impact of COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, abolishing distance education may not be the right solution, and appropriate reform with the use of digital should be considered.