Research chemist launches Vietnam’s first MOOCs site

A new Vietnamese-language massive open online courses – MOOCs – system was launched last month, offering free online education that juxtaposes short teaching videos with longer courses from international MOOCs giants edX and Coursera.

Research scientist and entrepreneur Dr Giap van Duong, founder of the new MOOC GiapSchool, left his research position at the National University of Singapore in December to return to Vietnam and devote himself full-time to building the new open education channel.

His initial plan was to translate scientific and technical books from English to Vietnamese, but then he decided to create GiapSchool “in response to the dramatic boom in MOOCs, which at that time already involved reputable universities like MIT, Harvard and Stanford”, Giap told University World News.

Using a software program called Explain Everything, which is capable of recording a lecturer’s voice as well as adding diagrams while recording, in February Giap produced his first online course, on writing skills.

After six months of piloting courses, Giap officially launched GiapSchool on 31 August at a conference on online education opportunities, which was organised by the Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics and the John von Neumann Institute, an applied mathematics centre of excellence affiliated to Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Giap, a chemist, has recorded lectures on topics ranging from maths and macro-economics to communication skills, aimed at different education levels from school to higher education.

The first course,“Understanding Communication”, started on 12 September with 1,300 university and high school students signed up. Another course, “English for Academic Purposes”, is expected to have almost 1,000 participants.

After the launch, a number of Vietnamese academics and specialists living in the country and overseas responded to Giap’s invitation to provide material, volunteering online lectures in subjects Giap is not familiar with, such as fine arts. He now has around 100 lecturers involved.

A Vietnamese ‘Khan Academy’

The system used by GiapSchool is similar to the Khan Academy, launched by Salman Khan in 2006 and based on short videos accessed via YouTube’s free online platform. The Khan Academy currently has more than 1.2 million subscribers, and also started with Khan recording lectures himself. But its courses are mostly short.

MBA student Nguyen Trong Thanh, a frequent user of Khan Academy, said: “It helps me to complement the gaps in my knowledge of economics and business, as my former major was information technology.

“GiapSchool, Khan Academy and other MOOCs as well would be welcomed in Vietnam, as their content satisfies the growing demand for cross- and multi-disciplinary knowledge,” Thanh added. GiapSchool would especially be an alternative for students whose English proficiency was not good enough for Khan Academy.

There are around 31 million internet users in Vietnam, the majority of them young people. Connectivity has been increasing at the rate of 10% to 14% a year during the past decade.

Online ventures

Online learning, or e-learning, is not new to Vietnam. One high-profile success story is Hoc Mai – Study Forever – a private supplementary e-learning site.

Established in 2007, Hoc Mai developed online tutoring courses and quiz-type tests targeted at students in cities and also those in suburban areas as the internet became easier to access. It now has some 1.7 million customers.

An online-sharing project Open Courseware, initiated by a non-profit foundation some years ago, encouraged students to upload and freely share lecture transcripts and papers onto a common platform that connects learners and lecturers. But only a small number of users signed up.

According to Giap, lack of interaction between learners and lecturers, and challenges presented by the online environment, were the main obstacles to the success of such projects. YouTube, and software now available, can support group discussion and interaction.

Professor Duong Nguyen Vu, director of the John von Neumann Institute, who spoke about the prospects for open education in Vietnam at the MOOCs conference last month, said lecture content needed to be refined to appeal to and motivate learners.

“Simple and plain language and uncomplicated lectures will make learners interested in GiapSchool,” he suggested.

Free or not?

A big issue is whether GiapSchool should remain free as it is now or begin to charge.

Nguyen Thanh Nam, a member of the board of governors at FPT Corporation, a leading IT enterprise in Vietnam, said that if GiapSchool had to close after only one year of operation due to a shortage of financial resources, it would be “simply a failure".

“Free forever is impossible,” Nguyen was quoted by local media as saying.

But Giap insists that the service will continue to be free. Currently he pays maintenance fees including hosting, bandwidth and CPU hours himself. But he acknowledged that in the longer run, finance could be a problem and he might consider fundraising as GiapSchool expands.

He noted that the Khan Academy’s founder received a first grant after running the site for three years on his own. Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are now the biggest donors to Khan, with US$2 million and US$1.5 million invested respectively.

“Before thinking about donations, GiapSchool should prove its valuable contribution to society,” Giap said. He believes it can contribute to the country’s ‘knowledge infrastructure’, which is widely accepted as a prerequisite for sustainable development.

“I want to bring state-of-the-art knowledge from around the world and offer it freely to Vietnamese people,” Giap told University World News.