Virtual Book Clubs and MOOC Camps: Exploring Innovation and Resilience in Southeast Asia

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The Hidden Figures STEAM Book Club for Girls celebrated the end of their pilot program at the American Center in Manila. (Photo courtesy of American Spaces Philippines)
The Hidden Figures STEAM Book Club for Girls celebrated the end of their pilot program at the American Center in Manila. (Photo courtesy of American Spaces Philippines)

Virtual Book Clubs and MOOC Camps: Exploring Innovation and Resilience in Southeast Asia

Around the time that the Government of Singapore became the 2018 Chair for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and announced its themes for the year as “Resilience” and “Innovation,” I headed to the region myself, hoping to see innovation and resilience in practice. My trip to the region came on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship which featured a number of U.S. Department of State public diplomacy programs to highlight the celebratory year.

The STEAM Book Club for Girls in Manila participates in a video exchange with students from the Middle College at Bennett, an all-female high school in North Carolina.

As a team member at the Collaboratory, I work to support virtual exchanges and the application of new approaches and tech innovations to programs within the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The ECA Collaboratory was founded as ECA’s virtual exchanges unit in 2013. In addition to branching into other collaborative programs and services, the “Collab” - as the office quickly came to be called – continues to robustly support virtual programs that bring together communities in the United States and abroad for dialogue and networking. These programs also inform Americans about opportunities offered by the State Department to engage in foreign affairs and public diplomacy outreach.

In December 2017, I traveled to the Philippines to visit partners of the Collab’s first-ever Virtual Book Club. This Collaboratory pilot program connected reading and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) clubs from around the world with students in the United States who were jointly reading the best-selling book Hidden Figures. The fascinating true story of African American women who were pioneering mathematicians and scientists at NASA at the dawn of the space age inspired many lively discussions.  

Human rights advocates and activists in Singapore meet virtually with their counterparts in Seoul, New York, and Washington, D.C.

At the Virtual Book Club session I attended, young women from across metropolitan Manila, from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and both public and private schools, came together to discuss the role of women in STEM fields. Given the time zone differences with their American counterparts, the students often had to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to participate. “We were impressed by their dedication to come and attend despite all other school requirements,” Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Jeanie Duwan commented. “We wanted to encourage these young women whom no one ever encouraged, or who thought it was not possible to go into a STEM field to pursue their dreams.” One participant shared this observation about her experience, “I was able to share my ideas [and] met new marvelous people from the other side of the world. I was inspired and motivated to pursue my career. It is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will always remember.” 

While in Manila, I also had the opportunity to visit startup incubators in the city and see all of the different ways that the U.S. Embassy and American Spaces in the Philippines have adopted innovative tools.  For instance, this spring, the Embassy is hosting a “MOOC Camp” that will connect Philippine and U.S. college students who are interested in issues of leadership and digital storytelling. The Embassy’s MOOC (Massive Open On-Line Course) Camp will use the SmithsonianX course, The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture, to prompt and inform this compelling discussion.

I chat with co-presenters of the Third Country Training Program on Interreligious Peacebuilding during a site visit to the Harmony in Diversity Gallery in Singapore.

After Manila, I headed to Singapore where human rights advocates came together over an internet-based telecommunication platform to speak with a group of human rights activists, storytelling experts and North Korean defectors in South Korea and in the United States. The Collaboratory organized this virtual conversation to connect individuals in Singapore, Seoul, New York, and Washington, D.C. and raise awareness of human rights in North Korea and the experience of defectors. While in Singapore, I also offered a training on storytelling skills for representatives of ASEAN member countries who are focused on intra- and interreligious peacebuilding among diverse religious and non-religious groups in their countries. Through its promotion of modern methods of storytelling, the Collab seeks to help U.S. Missions bridge communities and enhance global awareness.

The trip to Singapore and the Philippines introduced me to the many ways that Southeast Asian countries and U.S. Missions in those countries are employing innovative approaches to promote dialogue on Singapore’s 2018 ASEAN chair year themes of innovation and resilience. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its Collaboratory are offering many innovative ways for global communities to come together, around these and other topics, through international exchanges.

About the Author: Usra Ghazi serves as a Designer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' Collaboratory.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.