This week, Chi Hieu Nguyen talks with Thomas Hatch about the after effects and developments in education in Vietnam following the COVID-19 school closures. Nguyen is the CEO, and co-founder of Innovative Education Group (IEG). Innovative Education Group is an umbrella group of more than 10 education ventures. The interview includes a brief discussion of IEG’s work before Nguyen discusses what happened in Vietnam’s schools following the COVID-19 outbreak, how the education system has responded and what has happened since.
Thomas Hatch: Before we talk about the school closures, can you give us a sense of the kind of work you and your colleagues at IEG do in Vietnam?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: We serve the entire spectrum of the education landscape in Vietnam. We work with policymakers, researchers, school leaders, teachers, parents, and students, and each venture tackles a different problem. We manage education consulting companies but we also run full scale K-12 school systems; we’re involved in publishing, assessment, online learning models, and after school learning models, and even a nonprofit foundation to rebuild public schools in remote areas or provide scholarships and mentorship to underprivileged college students. But the majority of my work focuses on K-12 schools in terms of building new schools, upgrading schools, and transforming old schools. I focus mainly on the academic operation side.
The School Closures in Vietnam
Thomas Hatch: Can you give us a sense of what happened in schools in Vietnam after the COVID-19 outbreak?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: I think Vietnam is a very interesting case. If you look at the data, for example, in South Asia in general, during COVID-19, Vietnam had a longer stretch of lockdown compared to other countries because we were quite late in getting vaccinations going. So the closures started in March 2020, and, in total, we were probably online for a year and a half, and, at least for certain areas, it could be longer.
Thomas Hatch: Was that a government-wide shutdown? Was there any discussion or planning up to it? Or was it one day the schools were open, and the next day they were closed and online?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: In Vietnam it’s usually a top-down decision of the Government to shut down. But this time, it wasn’t uniform across the country. They started shutting things down depending on where the outbreak took place. Shutdowns could also happen based on the district. For example, there are 16 districts, and when a district had an outbreak, that district got shut down, and the others districts could stay open. So the school system operated in a very flexible way, but only in the beginning. Then there was an intense period with the biggest outbreaks in summer and fall of 2020. That’s when pretty much the entire country got shut down, including the schools. Then, as we recovered, opening schools was really based on the city again – which had the highest amount of a percentage of vaccination and things like that. But the Government decided to have a target of 100% vaccination, and that is the reason why when it got back to normal it was pretty much every city and every province that came back to normal schooling. That happened around February–March of 2022. It was almost 2 years or a year and a half on and off, but mostly off.
Source: WHO & Google, Temasek and Bain, e-Conomy SEA 2020
Thomas Hatch: Who was making the decision about closing down schools? Was it the central government who would essentially say, okay, if you have an outbreak, you need to close? Or was it up to the local officials?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: It was the local authorities. Each province or municipality made those decisions depending on the outbreak. The central government gave a very general directive, but it was the authority of the province or the city that made the decision to shut down.
Thomas Hatch: Is that typical of decision making in the Vietnamese education system? Or is it usually more centrally controlled than that?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: Over time, they have tended to give more leeway for local authorities to make the decisions. In 2018, after many years, we had an entire revamp of the national curriculum. That revamp produced the first competency-based curriculum nationally. But before that there was only a “one textbook” approach. That meant that, before 2018, for the entire public school system, we used the same textbook. From 2018 onwards, there’s a set of textbooks to choose from, so there’s a lot more leeway and flexibility for schools in different districts and different provinces and cities. It’s still a centrally controlled system, but there is increasing flexibility for the local authority to make those decisions. Over the past 5 or 6 years, there’s certainly more loosening of regulations to support the growth of the private sector as well, but it’s more obvious in education.
“Like a Survival Instinct” – The Initial Response to the School Closures
Thomas Hatch: What was the first step, the first reaction in terms of the school closures? Was it that people said, “oh my, we’re going to have to teach online and nobody has broadband access? And nobody has computers?”
Chi Hieu Nguyen: That’s really what it was. It was like a survival instinct. Everyone got online as much as they could. It’s actually accelerated the speed of adoption of technology and the Internet in a lot of schools. Many people and schools got online quickly, within about one or 2 months. But in contrast to many other Asian countries, in Vietnam, most of the new adoption of the Internet and digital devices — almost 75% — were in the metro areas. That means that in terms of the continuity of education, the metro areas did pretty well, but that the gap between the metro areas and rural areas widened because of COVID-19. For the Metro areas, COVID was a big kick that got a lot of people online, and now there are a lot of new digital products and services that are available. But in my work, even now, we still have to provide computers and teachers to teach online for students in the most remote area of Vietnam.
Source: Google, Temasek and Bain, e-Conomy SEA 2020
Thomas Hatch: That’s a pretty incredible increase in digital use in the metro areas. How was that response possible? Was it led by the Government? Or by local authorities? Or business?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: For private schools, the schools did it themselves, but I think the local education departments were also very responsive. For example, my province, the leadership of the public schools didn’t even need to wait for the local government or the central government to decide. They got students connected very quickly. I think there’s also that agility in the teachers. It’s a very young generation of teachers in Vietnam, and many of them are technologically enabled in their daily life. I think there’s just this passion in Vietnamese teachers in general that might have helped even in more rural areas where there was less internet penetration and technology is very limited. But, overall, I think the infrastructure was in place except for the very poorest areas. Vietnam is a very fast adopter of technology in general, and we saw that kind of a quick transformation in education. Students at most of the schools I know, both private and public schools, get online very quickly within just about 2 months.
Vietnam is a very fast adopter of technology in general, and we saw that kind of a quick transformation in education. Students at most of the schools I know, both private and public schools, get online very quickly within just about 2 months.
Thomas Hatch: What about devices? Did the schools have to hand out devices or did kids have enough mobile phones?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: Phones are something very common in Vietnam. Vietnam is a very e-commerce economy so the infrastructure is there. Almost every house has a smartphone with a data plan connected with the Internet. I think it’s only with those with the lowest incomes or in the most remote areas where infrastructure is not strong enough. The majority of the country is pretty much connected.
Managing through Remote Instruction
Thomas Hatch: Then what? What were some of the first steps in terms of making sure that remote education would be effective? Was it training teachers in zoom and things like that? Was it creating a curriculum? And was that done centrally at the national level or at the local level?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: For one thing, the Ministry of Education worked together with the national television station to produce learning programs for every subject from grade 1 all the way to grade 12, so that even when students didn’t have internet they could actually watch the TV and learn the programs. But at schools, the effort was focused on just getting kids online and using the internet as a medium to get connected with students within the first, maybe 6 months to 9 months. There was not much of any conversation about teaching methods. But then, towards the end of 2020, and for most of 2021, there were more conversations and conferences about pedagogies, methods, and how to use technology. There was also new explosion of technological products and services in 2021. But for the first 6 months it was pretty much just getting online as much as possible.
Thomas Hatch: That’s very helpful. It’s really interesting the way you describe the COVID-19 response in phases, with an explosion of edtech technologies and things that teachers could use. It wasn’t necessarily focused on pedagogy. Can you give some examples of some of the more interesting edtech developments from your perspective?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: In just about 2 months it seemed like Zoom or Microsoft Teams were in every school. Then in 2021 Microsoft education came in, and suddenly there was an explosion in the number of teachers going for Microsoft education training to become a Microsoft Education Expert or to learn how to use the entire suite of packages and services. Google education followed as well. Vietnamese parents in general are also very keen on learning English with technology, and suddenly there is an explosion of pronunciation apps, reading apps, grammar apps, tons of this. There’s even an investment company translating the entire Khan Academy in Vietnamese.
For me, I also started using ClassIn. It’s a product from China, and it’s a platform that was built for the classroom. It’s different from things like Zoom that were designed as platforms for meetings and were hijacked into the classroom. On Zoom, for example, if you want to us another education tool, you have to ask students to switch platforms: “Okay, let’s go to Padlet” or you have to share a screen. And the moment you share a screen, with limited broadband, you often can’t stream a video or anything. Everything is just disrupted. But ClassIn brought everything together in one platform. You have a blackboard. You have a timer. You can store your video and your lesson plan, or whatever you want to share in ClassIn. Even if the students have very low broadband, they can still watch the video without distraction. It’s called like an online-offline model.
Thomas Hatch: But are schools still using these technologies and online tools?
Chi Hieu Nguyen: There are different aspects. Schools are more aware that something like COVID-19 could happen again and disrupt everything, so they’ve converted from paper-based into more digital resources. Now you see Vietnamese schools are starting to think about learning management systems like Canvas and everything digital lives there.
Schools are more aware that something like COVID-19 could happen again and disrupt everything, so they’ve converted from paper-based into more digital resources.
The second aspect is the way they approach the lessons. There now might be a combination between online activities and in person activities. The students before class, during class, and after class spend a lot of time on the digital platform, and of course, in class, they have discussions and they have in-person activities. The third aspect is that classroom organization may be more flexible. It’s no longer just one teacher and the entire class. You can have the class study from a different location, doing something for a field trip and then have a class study online, for example. You can start to invite teachers from all over the world to teach and start to explore other possibilities. Of course, you see this most at pioneering schools. One I’m involved in is The Olympia Schools, a private K-12 school system that is a part of our school network. They’ve started talking about deeper learning, about virtual reality, how to take advantage of AI and virtual reality. Now they’ve started to bring ChatGPT into daily teaching as well so there is almost no resistance to the wave of technology anymore because of that COVID-19. Now they have that mentality that we have to be very agile with every new technology coming out. I think every city, in every major city in Vietnam, there should be about 4 or 5 schools like that. They are really pushing the boundaries, and they become like model schools that others can learn from.