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For over a year now, 166,000 students and 4,000 academic staff at seven universities in Myanmar have had round-the-clock access to more than 10,000 scholarly journals and 130,000 academic books.

An e-library project led by the international NGO Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) is providing instant access to resources across all disciplines for unlimited number of students to use the same book or journal at the same time.

The online resources have been in high demand, with tens of thousands of downloads since the digital libraries started in 2014. The project comes at a time of major reconstruction of higher education in Myanmar as the country opens up to the outside world after half a century of isolation.

The e-library project has been transformative.

The University of Yangon library stackroom. Photo by Rubén Salgado Escudero
For universities, the impact of being cut off from the international community was devastating: scholarship and teaching stagnated; university infrastructure decayed; library collections were limited, out of date, and books were falling apart.

Seven universities have invested heavily in technological infrastructure. Photo by Rubén Salgado Escudero
The universities of Yangon and Mandalay, Dagon University, Yadanabon University, Yangon University of Economics, West Yangon University, and East Yangon University have laid new high-speed fibre optic cables and now have Wi-Fi in their libraries. Some have extended their opening hours to meet demand. The rest of Myanmar’s 164 universities are eager to join the e-library project and are upgrading their infrastructure. Says Ma Khaing Khaing Mon, a graduating Master of Arts student: “The library is the best place in the whole city for four things: fast internet connection, peer-reviewed journals for my research, it’s free for students, and it’s comfortable.”

E-library training at Yangon University. Photo by Rubén Salgado Escudero
E-library switch-on required training for librarians, academics and students at all seven universities, such as on basic computer literacy and advanced online research. “Our skills have improved and we’ve achieved self-confidence through the training,” says Daw Nu Nu Aung, assistant librarian at Dagon University.

E-libraries go mobile. Photo by Rubén Salgado Escudero
Introductory training includes how to access the e-libraries using mobile devices, how to save materials in personal online libraries and how to link to teaching materials and reading lists. More advanced training includes building awareness about the best e-resources for individual subject areas and how to use them.

From rote learning to critical thinking. Photo by Rubén Salgado Escudero
In the past, teaching centred on a single textbook and rote learning. Now, professors are integrating e-resources into their curricula and encouraging critical thinking. Says Mi Mi Gyi, head of the international relations and politics department at the University of Mandalay: “Now we are changing our education system from a teacher-centred approach to a student-centred approach. As teachers, we need to inspire the curiosity of our students. We ask them questions and they find out what they want to know from the online resources.”

Future of scholarship in Myanmar. Photo by Rubén Salgado Escudero
Scholars in Myanmar are keen to offer the world their own content. The key is open access — unrestricted online access to peer-review scholarly research, a concept widely known internationally but little known in Myanmar. Since learning about open access, the universities of Mandalay and Yangon have formed working groups to plan the development of institutional repositories and draft open access policies.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.