Tiny Bhutan Offers Unforgettable Teaching Experience

This instructional odyssey is a bit of a leap into the unknown — I don’t entirely know what to expect, or even what I’m hoping ideally to experience or achieve. My four days at the Royal University of Bhutan’s College of Science and Technology went a long way toward answering the second part: a stimulating experience making a tangible difference to both students and faculty at a college that gets few international visitors, in a fascinating and welcoming country. Add a workshop for aspiring teachers at the Paro College of Education, another one for the teachers and staff at the just-launched Royal Academy, a couple of days of sightseeing, and the package was unforgettable.

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan Kingdom. It’s never been colonized, opening its doors to outsiders only in the 1980’s (and then only in a limited fashion). Roads weren’t built until the 1960’s; TV and internet arrived in 1999. Bhutan is best known for a recent King’s statement that the country is more interested in “Gross National Happiness” than Gross National Product. I heard about GNH so many times before going to Bhutan that it felt cliche to me, but it turns out to be a quantifiable concept driving serious decisions. A second major societal factor is Buddhism, which is universal and deep. The two together have produced a uniquely appealing culture; having the chance to immerse myself in the workings of that culture, far more than normal tourism permits, was a privilege.

At the College of Science and Technology I spent my first three days giving a short-course on Big Data to 200 students and about a dozen faculty.

Participants in the three-day Big Data course. Can you spot the German visitor?

Although there were a number of relatively minor logistical setbacks — I’ve gotten accustomed to random electricity outages by now, for example — the biggest issue by far was the internet. I designed many of the interactive Big Data course modules under the assumption students would have reliable if not speedy internet access. My intention was to keep the materials and computing centralized and standardized, and to avoid students needing to download (or even worse, purchase) much software. But connectivity and bandwidth is a huge issue in Bhutan, and I quickly realized I would need a Plan B. (Time will tell if I need to reconsider my internet-dependent strategy in other places.) At the end of the first day I bonded with a group of faculty as we spent the evening together drinking tea and figuring out how to revise the computing and software set-up for subsequent days.

The second-biggest obstacle came on Big Data day 3, which was devoted to data analysis using the Python programming language. All of the students had taken at least one programming class, so I was surprised at how difficult they found the material. Later I was told the students “don’t like computer programming.” It turns out the college teaches introductory programming in a dated fashion, far from the current pedagogical techniques that are yielding Computer Science majors in droves in other parts of the world. The faculty hadn’t given it much thought, and they were very open to changing their approach.

Checking over this group’s Python solutions.

Just as I’m hoping for in all of my stops, a large number of students learned at least a few new things, and a handful of highly engaged ones benefitted greatly — perhaps changing the course of their education. But the connection with faculty was unexpected and gratifying, perhaps ultimately being the most long-lasting aspect of my visit. In addition to discussing their approach to CS education, I connected them with folks who will help them set up Bhutan’s first ACM student chapter, and we coordinated an academic grant of Tableau software. They plan to re-teach the short-courses and workshops themselves, and several said the experience has convinced them to modify their overall teaching style. Wow!

After the Big Data course, I conducted three all-day Design Thinking & Collaborative Problem Solving workshops at three different locations. In one workshop, I set as the “design challenge” to consider how transportation and communication could be improved for the many Bhutanese families who live apart, given the terrible road conditions and spotty internet. It was a relevant and poignant topic.

Design Thinking workshop for faculty and staff at CST. They hope to make it an annual event.

Overall, there was something refreshing and genuine in all of my interactions with the Bhutanese. Eventually I put my finger on it: The people never seem to be out for themselves. I’m guessing in large part it’s the Buddhist influence, and it certainly bolsters the GNH.

Given the large number of places I’m visiting during my year-long odyssey, it won’t be possible for me to make follow-up visits or even maintain extensive communication with very many of them. I feel quite confident Bhutan will fall into that group; I can’t wait to go back.

Between teaching I squeezed in a hike to one of Bhutan’s most iconic sights, the Taktsang Monastery. The fog added mystery to what’s already a mystical place.