Disrupting Vietnam’s Education System



By 02/26/2014

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As we were writing Disrupting Class, which focused largely on how to help the U.S. transform its education system into a student-centered one by harnessing the power of disruptive innovation, it was clear that, in certain respects, the theories of disruptive innovation would be most powerful in helping the developing world.

The reason is that disruptive innovations almost always start in areas of nonconsumption, where the alternative is nothing. As a result, the most natural places for educational disruptive innovations to take root are perhaps not in the U.S. where there is full consumption of public schooling—although plenty of nonconsumption at the course level—but instead in emerging markets and developing countries where 70 million students do not attend primary school and 200 million students do not attend secondary school.

In much the same way that Africa leapfrogged landline phones and adopted mobile phones directly, so, too, could developing countries leapfrog developed ones in the establishment of their education systems. Although there is no question that the disruptive innovation of online learning is attracting lots of interest in these countries to expand dramatically the reach of their education systems, it is unclear that they are using it to create student-centered education systems.

For the next two weeks, I’ll be traveling around Vietnam as part of an Eisenhower Fellowship to learn more about the country’s education system—both public and private. From this, I hope to start to develop a perspective about how to galvanize disruptive innovation to transform the country’s education system into a student-centered one and learn about disruptive innovations that are already emerging in Vietnam. I also hope to begin to develop a better perspective on the opportunities and challenges for disruption in developing countries more generally. Finally, I hope to learn some lessons that will benefit the United States as well.

The Vietnamese education system seems ripe for disruptive innovation to help, as it has big pockets of nonconsumption.

Although primary (grades 1 to 5 in Vietnam) and secondary (grades 6 to 9 in Vietnam) schooling is officially compulsory in Vietnam, according to some sources there is some nonconsumption of primary schooling in the country and some students do not complete primary school. The story is clearer at the secondary level. Here the compulsory education system is less strictly enforced, as it costs the government a fair amount in both money and effort to make sure students stay in schools—so it often just neglects doing so. This says nothing of the nonconsumption of tertiary (grades 10 to 12) and higher education, which is even larger and presents big opportunities for innovation.

As the country’s economy grows and disrupts the economies of more developed countries—from 2000 to 2007 Vietnam’s economy was the darling of many foreign investors before turning back in certain respects, but it is still projected to grow over 5 percent this year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit—there will be a corresponding need to upgrade its workforce and educate more students to prepare them for a knowledge economy.

Already the country is seeking to shift its education system to focus on teaching English, which will likely create even more pockets of nonconsumption because it is unlikely there will be a large enough pool of qualified local English teachers. The country has also set ambitious targets to bolster the number of students participating in higher education, which will in turn place significant demands on the primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems to boost its numbers and outcomes. In 2005, the country adopted the Higher Education Reform Agenda (HERA), a comprehensive reform plan for the higher education system. Among the reforms, HERA proposed that the gross enrollment rate in higher education should be bolstered to 45 percent by 2020, a whopping three times its level from just a few years ago.

Against this backdrop, there are changes afoot within Vietnam’s education system that are worth studying. The number of private schools and educational options have increased in the urban areas in recent years, for example. Given that public schools in the country are not completely free—it costs families significantly less than do private options but there is still some out-of-pocket cost—there could be interesting opportunities for disruption that are not available in a country where public education appears to be free to the general populace. The government also appears more open to adopting more student-centered approaches to learning that leverage better techniques and technology rather than staying steadfast with a uniform curriculum and lectures that promote rote learning in a time-based system.

With online learning now established and mobile learning emerging, can Vietnam leapfrog and disrupt the education systems of developed countries and leverage not only the extrinsic motivation of its students to improve their lives, but also create an intrinsically motivating system that is student-centered? Or will it replicate a factory-model system? And what might tip the balance? I look forward to learning.

-Michael Horn

This first appeared on Forbes.com Additional dispatches from Vietnam can be found here.




Comment on this article
  • Jim says:

    l very much suspect that you underestimate the age and strength of the entrenched interests in education in Viet Nam, and that you do not realize how conservative parents are in terms of what they consider success in schooling. The structural barriers to reform and even change are very substantial, and I doubt that some innovations in the private sector will cause much disruption that spreads. There have been some very innovative private schools in Viet Nam. But good luck to you.

  • rracchhelll1249 says:

    the structural barriers to reform and even change are very substantial, and I doubt that some innovations in the private sector will cause much disruption that spreads.

  • Catherine O'Brien says:

    When I told my pre-service education students that there is a global shortage of more than 5 million teachers, one of them commented that it looks like its time to reconsider how education is delivered. Interesting to consider what that would look like!

    I had the privilege of completing my doctoral research at the Barefoot College in India where they have been disrupting education for more than 40 years! Their education process, from infants to elders, fosters sustainable communities. Education that contributes to sustainable societies would be a much needed shift worldwide!

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