Battushig Myanganbayar: From Mongolia to M.I.T.

This is a very cool story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-year-old teenager from Ulan Bator, Mongolia who caught the attention of M.IT. officials by participating and doing exceptionally well in an online course (a MOOC) in Circuits & Electronics. He has now enrolled in M.I.T. as a freshman as a result of his accomplishment.

Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager. He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT). His projects are what make him happy. “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said. “It is like playing with toys.” He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube. The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities. Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university.

How does a student from a country in which a third of the population is nomadic, living in round white felt tents called gers on the vast steppe, ace an M.I.T. course even though nothing like this is typically taught in Mongolian schools? The answer has to do with Battushig’s extraordinary abilities, of course, but also with the ambitions of his high-school principal. Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, the principal of the Sant School, was the first Mongolian to graduate from M.I.T., in 2009, and he has tried since then to bring science and technology labs to his students. “My vision,” he told me, “is to have more skilled engineers to develop Mongolia. To do that, everything has to start from the beginning.” In the past decade, Mongolia, which had limited landlines, invested heavily in its information technology infrastructure and now has an extensive 3G network. Most homes in Ulan Bator have Internet connections, and almost everyone, including nomads, has at least one cellphone. Even on the steppe, with only sheep in sight, you can get a signal.

On comparing these Mongolian students to the M.I.T. students taking this same course:

Battushig was one of 20 students, ranging in age from 13 to 17, to enroll in the class. About half dropped out. The course is difficult in any setting — M.I.T. sophomores often pull all-nighters — and the Mongolian students were taking it in a second language. Battushig, however, thrived. “I can’t compare it to a regular class,” he said. “I had never done that kind of thing before. It was really a watershed moment for me.” To help his classmates, he made videos in Mongolian that offered pointers and explanations of difficult concepts and posted them on YouTube. Kim, who had taught similar classes at M.I.T., told me, “If Battushig, at the age of 15, were a student at M.I.T., he would be one of the top students — if not the top.

I don’t think this kind of exposure for anyone would have been possible before the advent of the MOOCs. Or at the very least, incredibly difficult. Quite an impressive accomplishment for Battushig. The story highlights that the MOOCs democratize education, but they also can serve as a way for universities to attract top talent from all over the globe.

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