Is COVID-19 an opportunity to strengthen online teaching?

The evolution of online learning has been widely discussed in the context of COVID-19. Vietnam is no exception. In fact, online learning has been proposed for years, but received very little enthusiasm from universities, academics and students. It was not until the outbreak of COVID-19 that the Vietnamese government and universities had no choice but to work out online plans.

Vietnam has been slow to take up online teaching, but COVID-19 is an opportunity to review and strengthen online training capacity.

Economic and education developments

Vietnam has a population of nearly 100 million people. For the 30 years since the policy of Doi Moi [renovation], the country has introduced remarkable economic and political reforms. Between 2002 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by a factor of 2.7. Real GDP grew by about 7% in 2019, one of the fastest growth rates in the region. Vietnam recently joined the lower middle-income country group.

The higher education system has expanded rapidly, with the gross enrolment ratio increasing almost threefold between 1999 (10.6%) and 2016 (28.54%). With a big population, it is very likely that Vietnamese higher education will continue to boom in the next decades.

However, compared to Vietnam’s economic development, its higher education system has not developed correspondingly. The slow development of online teaching and learning is an example. Although in business and in people’s daily lives, technological services such as the internet, mobile phones, online trading and social media providers are widely used, these services and tools have not been much applied in education.

There have, however, been a number of proposals and policies about developing online and distance education for some years. Some recent government documents include QD 164/2005/QD-TTg: Development of Distance Learning Phase 2005-2010; QD 89/QD-TTg: Building Social Learning Phase 2012-2020; and QD 1559/QD-TTg: Development of Distance Learning Phase 2015-2020.

The Ministry of Education and Training or MOET has also issued regulations on distance learning: Distance training regulation Q 1860/GDT dated 25 May 1995 (temporary); and Q 40/2003/Q-BGDT dated 8 August 2003. However, institutions, academics and students have not shown much interest in this mode of teaching and learning up to now.

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has meant authorities have had to take serious action to make online learning feasible and possible.

Recent steps to implement online learning

Tri Le, director of the postgraduate training department at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City – International University, said that documents legalising online teaching did not exist before COVID-19.

However, in response to COVID-19, MOET issued two important documents in March: (1) 795/BGDDT-GDDT (13 March 2020) encouraging higher education institutions to apply online teaching to traditional ‘face-to-face’ courses, and (2) 988/BGDDT-GDDT (23/3/2020) guiding higher education institutions on ensuring the quality of distance training during COVID-19.

These two documents serve as official government recognition of the need to incorporate online teaching into traditional ‘face-to-face’ courses. The documents also urge many higher education institutions to seriously consider using online learning. Until February this year, only a handful of universities had started to teach online, but since March many more have had to follow suit to avoid teaching and learning disruption.

At universities in remote and regional areas where a fully developed learning management system has not existed, academics and students only utilised simple online technology, such as email and Google Hangouts.

Le Dinh Thang, rector of a teacher training college in a central province of Vietnam, said that if COVID-19 continues, his college will need to apply ICT more robustly. It will also need to develop a policy for online teaching and require online teaching as a core capability. In addition, it will need to invest more in building a full online teaching system.

Bringing technology and educators together

Since February 2020, all higher education institutions have had to close their campuses. MOET maintained that “campuses can close but learning must continue”.

To find solutions that enhance the application of information technology in higher education and to create a collaborative forum to connect higher education institutions and technology corporations, MOET held a national online conference on 17 April with 300 live meeting hubs across the country.

The conference was attended by leaders, managers and representatives of almost all higher education institutions and leading international and local technology providers and technical infrastructure services such as Viettel Group, VNPT, MobiFone, Vietnamobile, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and FPT.

The conference worked out plans to implement online learning not only in the context of COVID-19 but also for the long-term future. Delegates all agreed that the closure of on-campus learning offers a great opportunity for Vietnamese higher education institutions to enhance digital teaching and learning. It also creates a unique opportunity for institutions and national and multinational ICT enterprises to work together to develop an online teaching system to support traditional forms of face-to-face teaching.

MOET’s report at the conference showed that by 13 April, 110 out of 240 higher education institutions in Vietnam had deployed online training. Of these 110 institutions, 63 are public (accounting for 42.3% of all public institutions) and 42 are non-public (accounting for 70% of all non-public institutions). Also, 104 institutions had not yet started any online training activities.

Higher education institutions that have applied online teaching can be divided into two groups: those with a learning management system (LMS) and those without an LMS.

The group without an LMS have only used real-time online teaching support tools (live video communication) and communication tools (Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect, Zoom, Skype, email and social networks) for communication between teachers and students.

The group with an LMS can be further divided into three groups: (1) the ‘fully developed’ group with sufficient online teaching resources, fully equipped studios and modern infrastructure, and highly capable online training staff; (2) the ‘developing’ group have just started to deploy an LMS, and are still developing these systems and building online learning resources; and (3) the ‘beginner’ group have only used online systems for class management and for allowing teachers to upload teaching content.

COVID-19 has provided Vietnam with a great opportunity to review its online training capacity and potential, particularly regarding its national policies and legal framework, its ICT infrastructure and higher education institutions’ online teaching capacity.

In the context of COVID-19, it seems that online learning has been widely welcomed and accepted both within institutions and in the wider community. The actions of stakeholders at different levels are building a firm foundation for the sector to further blossom in the near future.

Dr Huong Nguyen is an academic manager and lecturer in doctoral education from Swinburne Research, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia. Her research focuses on higher education policy and management. In her first career in Vietnam, she managed a large faculty (130 staff) through a successful organisational merger and created a strong foundation for its current development. Dr Thanh Pham has done substantial research on internationalisation of curricula and pedagogies. She is currently researching graduate employability with a focus on unpacking how graduates develop strategies to navigate barriers in labour markets. Her research has been published in various journals and presented at many local and international conferences.