UNESCO Bangkok’s main strategy in higher education in Asia-Pacific is aligning the region’s qualifications assessment procedures around ideals of sharing, fairness, and transparency. UNESCO supports regional assessment alignment in the hopes that alignment will help mobile students successfully have their home-country higher education degrees/qualifications recognized when they move to another Asia-Pacific country. The main crux of this strategy is the 1983 Convention, and the revised 2011 Tokyo Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education in Asia-Pacific. The shared standards offered by the 2011 Convention and mandated by those nations that ratify the convention intends to foster greater student mobility. Since mobile students are understood by UNESCO has vessels of intercultural understanding and hence world peace, UNESCO, the only UN agency that is mandated to contribute to world peace, is committed to spreading the benefits of student mobility throughout Asia-Pacific.
Since the first Convention was inaugurated in 1983 and revised in 2011 there has been no systematic mechanism for UNESCO Bangkok to monitor each of its 46 Member States’ attempts to align/implement the Convention. Tracking the on-going and evolving data of 46 Member States was not technologically possible nor strategically viable in 1983, but times certainly have changed. My major deliverable of the internship was to make a 46 sheet database that documents the intricacies of each Member States’ status towards implementing the 2011 Tokyo Convention. With little understanding of how databases are designed, constructed, or used I initially felt overwhelmed by the assignment.
For the first month of the internship, I was intimidated by how on Earth I would track roughly 33 years of data for 46 Members States within a database I hadn’t yet designed. Adding to the uncertainty about the deliverable my manager told me that it was possible to “fail the internship” if the database wasn’t operational before my six-month stay was up.
One month into the internship, I stopped procrastinating and began working on the project. My first step was to recognize that I alone couldn’t do it. I wrote a number of draft concept notes for the database in order to have my ideas laid out before starting. I shared my concept note with my “team” – Danya and Trinh. Working through the initial concept of the database with Trinh in a café in Ho Chi Minh City was a blessing. I had folders of documents dating back to 1983 from as wide an array of topics and implementation records in Kahzkstan and opinion pieces written in 1997. I clearly had a far too broad and unrealistic scope for the database.
Over the subsequent two months, I organized recent survey results, spent long hours of the work day watching YouTube videos about database design and construction. I was helped by staff in UNESCO’s Statistics Department to use more advanced macros and Excel commands. I fumbled through many iterations of trying to use macros and tools like that to simplify the tedious work of creating 46 interlinked Excel sheets. After I finally learned to use simple macros, group cells, name sheets, link sheets, and set conditional formatting, I completed the data entry portion of the database.
The most important part of the database is the overview page that displays summary data regarding all Member States current implementation status (attached). The icing on the cake is that, if properly maintained, the database can be used by UNESCO’s staff to alert them when they need to reach out to Member States to offer technical assistance. To enhance this feature, my manager and I sent out a survey to Member States to gather their projected timelines for Convention ratification. The database has tracking tools “built-in” to it, it has a color-coded alert system, and it is flexible enough to sustainably hold each Member State’s future data. I have certainly put roughly 100 working hours into the database and I can now confidently say I know how to use Excel to store and sort qualitative data and build a useful and project specific implementation tracking database.
The three lessons of this deliverable were
1) Don’t over think the challenge ahead of you– I had initially way over estimated my manager’s expectations of the database, which caused me unnecessary apprehension about my ability to deliver.
2) Design before doing- Of the 100 odd hours spent constructing the database, at least 50 of them were just spent reworking things I already designed, editing the layout to suit the most recent wave of feedback, or learning how to perform some function on Excel. Had I planned each step more carefully those hours could have been saved.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”― Albert Einstein
3) I don’t know what I don’t know– I learned so many things about database design and construction on Excel that had I known from the get-go would have saved me countless hours. However, I can’t blame myself for the things I didn’t know then, that I know now.
Hopefully, by the end of the internship the database will be approved by the chief of section and we can institutionalize the database. If the database is institutionalized than I will have made a small microscopic dent in UNESCO’s universe.
I will leave you with this…
My manager looked at the database assignment as a way to, paraphrasing Steve Jobs- “make a dent in the universe”. He mentioned how so many work hours are spent on work that isn’t sustainable. Entire projects come and go without any way for someone to continue them. You may collect a paycheck for your hours, but you didn’t make a dent in the universe. I’m certain that the database will not outlive my manager’s time at UNESCO. I don’t have any high hopes of this being my dent in the UNESCO universe. Now I am aware of project sustainability as a part of our career’s legacy.
A legacy: to create something that outlives us, how few of us will ever do that?
Here is a screenshot from part of the overview page. You can see the color-coded action alert system.