Hi-tech high in the Himalayas

How do governments in developing nations transform their education systems through new technology, whilst at the same time preserving their unique cultural heritage?

Sixteen year-old Hingten Dorji smiles as she explains what she wants to do when she leaves school. Growing up in the beautiful, land-locked Himalayan country of Bhutan, she has no doubt she wants to be a game-changer. Indeed, this is what she penned on her name badge on the first day of the pi-top course.

Hingten the “game-changer”

“Everyone make a badge”, I explained to the 28 members of the group of young people as we started the 5 day course. “Make it and mark it for the future. We learn by making; we learn when we imagine; we learn when we change our mindset and when we make mistakes.” This was the introduction to our Learning by Making course. And we hadn’t even started opening up the pi-top computers!

Game-changers are what Bhutan needs; not necessarily of the political kind, for the people of this ancient land seem very much at peace with themselves and their King, whose portrait hangs on walls and billboards everywhere you look. No, the youth like Hingten, will be the game-changers if they step-up and assuredly take on the responsibilities of their generation and curate change in the country which they are proud to call their home.

Hingten is one of the first of 300 young people whom pi-top will be training in youth centres across Bhutan over the next six months. Working with UNICEF Bhutan, and FabLab Bhutan we are piloting a new approach on how to reach and inspire local young people who have had, to date, very little experience in coding, programming and project- based learning.

The future is green in Bhutan

“What I love about growing up in Bhutan is that we recognise that happiness is very important and I am glad our government focuses more on the people than the money and economics. I honestly believe it is a very friendly country and I have enjoyed my schooling.” Hingten tells me as I chat to her in the busy training room. “However, although my favourite subject in school was science, we never had the option of doing computer science,” she continues, half apologising.

“In 10th grade I did take IT but this was just basic — an introduction to Microsoft products and understanding how the computer works. When I heard about the pi-top programme, at first I was a little worried because I didn’t have any knowledge about programming and coding, but very soon I became more confident. The instructions were really easy to follow because it was in simple English and the best thing was that we were put together in small teams. Ngawang and Tenzyin were a little older than me and had some experience which they shared. pi-top is great because you get to try new things and learn by making and mistaking!” She explains. “We have learnt how to code, to instruct LEDs, sensors, and even music. These are the new things we youth need to know about as our world changes”

Ngawang, Hingten and Tenzyin

Indeed, Bhutan is changing. It has done much in recent years to carve its reputation and indeed its international ‘brand’ around the concept of Gross National Happiness. Leaving aside how this commitment to contentment and well-being is being experienced on the ground by the citizens, past and present, it is nevertheless inspiring that this country of less than a million inhabitants has halved its poverty rate over the last 7 years. Now through a mixture of geographical fortune and shrewd management of its natural resources, many are predicting it could soon become the crown of the Himalayan region.

But how does a country like Bhutan, clear about its values and past heritage, embrace the future whilst preserving its past? How does it equip its youth for the 4th Industrial Revolution, when so many of its inhabitants are just adapting to the changes brought about by the 2nd and 3rd?

Bhutan’s assets are its people, and especially the 40% of the population which is under 25 years old. However, many of these young people no longer aspire to work on the land as their parents and grandparents did. Smartphone penetration is over 90%, and through social media the digitally connected are accessing a world far beyond their borders. Many are beginning to question if the aspiration of national happiness and pride in their past is enough, or whether their future is outside of the country.

In talking to young people like Hingten, it’s clear that standardized route-based teaching which characterizes most schooling in Bhutan has become unappealing, and the disconnect between what they see through social media and what they experience in the classroom is causing some to drop out of school altogether. But for those that do the reality is harsh. Youth unemployment is just over 13%, and many young people are turning to drugs and alcohol to nurse their uncertainty. If we are not careful the shine of happiness will not be enough and Bhutan’s youth may themselves unable to access education which prepares and equips them to survive and thrive in a changing world.

This is a challenge for governments all around the world. How do policy makers capitalise on the digital and demographic dividend, yet ensure that those who are ambitious stay within the country and don’t become part of a giant brain exodus? Governments are having to grapple with these challenges and in doing so have to wrestle with huge ethical questions; how can computing and Artificial Intelligence be used for social benefit? Do these technologies create or re-enforce existing unfair bias? Does opening up access to technology simply facilitate young people to passively consume global content and abandon their cultural heritage, which in a country like Bhutan has been to some extent based on the mastery of crafts?

What we need is to help children learn a new language; a new literacy for the 21st century to learn to code and programme machines and programmes and which empowers young people to take more control. Youth need the chance to create, not just consume, to work with their peers in ensuring that the benefits of new technology has a positive and deep impact locally. In short, they need to do this through making, and yet this is not currently what most schools in Bhutan — and much of the rest of the world — promote.

Short film shot on an Iphone with the YP in the pi-top training

But things could be about to change. Bhutan is proud of its boast of being carbon-neutral. It has put environmental protection and sustainability at the heart of its strategy in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The government is now welcoming organisations and companies to come alongside and co-design new technology and education programmes which will really benefit young people.

“It’s as if we have the chance to ‘leap-frog’ a generation of education technology and learn from the mistakes made in the West,” says Tsewang lhundup, from FabLab Bhutan which is partnering with pi-top and doing so much to promote ‘learning by making’ across the country. “Many companies have over-promised and under-delivered when it comes to introducing technology solutions in the developing world. Working with pi-top we want to design a new approach not just to technology but to teaching, helping young people acquire the new skills needed in computing, coding, programming and in doing so, model to children the ‘language’ of teamwork, critical thinking, curiosity and problem solving. These are the skills which will help ensure Bhutan is prosperous” he tells me.

These themes are repeated time and time again by other young people I met. Nineteen year old Gyem has been volunteering in the Youth Centre since he was 13. He tells me, “Most young people growing up in Bhutan now play online games such as Fortnight, GTA, Call of Duty and PubG. These games are fun but they have very little idea on how these fantastic games work or are made. In other words they are good consumers but wouldn’t know how to actually construct or create IT programmes. pi-tops can help us learn these fundamental skills”

“Bhutan is a small country so it will be a real challenge to compete with large countries, however, even if we can’t compete in a large scale we can become experts in a few small things. Instead of “made in India”, or “assembled in China”, we might have a new tag-line on products and tools we use in the future — “inspired by Bhutan.

But back to Hingten again. “My dream for the future is to do what other entrepreneurs have done in other countries. I want to work hard and produce a product, or service or activity which will really change not only Bhutan but the entire world. I know this is very ambitious but we must have something to aim for. Whatever I do I know technology and computers in particular will play a part in this. That’s why it is so important that I can learn at such a young age. As a young woman I also want to inspire other young women all over the world to have big dreams and know that they can achieve great things if they put their mind to it and work hard.”

Here at pi-top we are humbled to be part of this journey, and co-designing an authentic locally owned, yet radical approach. We have begun to provide support to the Education Ministry in reviewing the current ICT curriculum in schools as well as work with the Royal University of Bhutan in helping to train the next generation of teachers and technicians in coding and using pi-top tools. We believe that it is possible to help the country re-interpret its rich legacy of craft-making and artistry of Zorig Chusum for the 21st Century; to become creative in a new technology and the new crafts of coding. Coding may not seem to many to be a creative endeavour, but it is the “weaving skills” for the next generation.

The pi-tops open-up a world of coding and constructionism

However this movement of makers will only come about if we can help transform the model of learning. The traditional role of the teacher (or monk) as the ‘sage on the stage” has to be transformed into a “guide on the side” model, and even further in what I call the “professional in the pit of learning” — we need to work with teachers to help them move from an ‘instructionalist’ model of teaching to ‘constructionist’ learning where students learn largely through constructing. This mindset change is not easy; it takes both parents and teachers to move from being experts, to becoming the enablers. It also requires them to move out of the comfort zone of imparting fixed knowledge from the past, to being vulnerable and being willing to learn together with students about the skills, wisdom and tools for the future. It is not abandoning the past but rather building on it.

That’s why we call pi-top a creative learning company. We make the future, not on our own, but through partners, through constantly being open to learning, through being able to recognise when we get things wrong — or in the case of Bhutan, where we have the chance to get things right.

Our vision is to share our learning, to develop a ‘template’ which can be modified for each context but the principles of which can indeed transform our understanding of learning and living in a future.

Let’s give the last word to Hingten; what would she do if she was in charge? “I wish that teachers in Bhutan would change their mindset because I think our world from 300 years ago is completely different to today, yet in many schools the teaching styles remain the same. Teachers don’t focus on the students’ strengths in different areas, but seem to only focus on academic areas. Our world needs people who can make things and be adaptable and practical. This is why pi-top is good because we learn together, help each other and collaborate. Critical thinking and problem-solving and coming up with our own ideas — these are the things young people need to learn for a changing Bhutan.”

We have much to learn from Bhutan, and with young leaders such as 16 year old Hingten, there is much to hope for.


Stephen is pi-top’s Special Project’s Lead. Having been born and brought up in India and Nepal and having worked in hundreds of schools around the world, he understands both the principles but also the practices of change. Both in alternative education and international development. Most recently he has been overseeing the rebuilding of earthquake resilient schools in Nepal, and previously to this has pioneered both employability and youth empowerment programmes in the UK and around the world.

He says “pi-top is about making the future, but not just by developing exciting ‘tools’, but through coming alongside governments to support, and re-design approaches which are fit for purpose and will have practical, positive impact for local people. In this sense, pi-top is different, think boutique, think youth-centric, think disruptive. If we get these things right we will indeed help create the future.”