A worldwide trend to offer free classes online to anyone, anywhere, is making its way to Vietnam. By Lien Hoang.

Every year, thousands of young Vietnamese eagerly go abroad for university. But what if that education came to them instead?

Vietnam is slowly joining an educational trend that is sweeping the globe: massive open online courses, or MOOCs. One of the best-known models is Coursera.org, which collaborates with prominent universities in the United States to record a semester’s worth of lectures. Those videos are uploaded to the website, where anyone can sign up to take the class by following the lectures week by week, taking quizzes, and doing readings.

This means that a student in Ho Chi Minh City can take a course at Yale, without ever leaving the city (or the house, for that matter).

But most offerings are in English, which shuts out the majority of Vietnamese who are interested in higher learning.

Enter Giap School. Dr Giap Van Duong launched Giapschool.org in August, providing what appears to be the first website with a range of MOOCs in Vietnamese.

“My purpose is to bring knowledge from the world to Vietnam,” Giap said in a phone interview from Hanoi. His hope is that “students here can learn at the same level as students in the US”, which is the epicentre of the MOOC wave.

Giap creates the lectures himself for the subjects within his sphere of study, such as chemistry and physics.

For those subjects outside his expertise, such as philosophy, he translates lectures from Edx.org, which is a collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Life-long learning
These MOOC programs are thought to be revolutionising the state of higher education, not just because anyone can access top-notch classes from anywhere around the world, but also because they’re usually free. In one economics class at Coursera, for example, 1,754 students are in the United States or Canada, while 1,743 are located in Asia-Pacific.

And it’s not just college students who are signing up. In that same economics class, 1,307 are undergraduates, while 2,068 said they work in a related field. Many of the students are more than 30 years old, with several dozen over 70 years old.

“Many businesses, particularly in the United States, are recognising the value of people who take courses like these,” a US consular officer said during a recent information session on MOOCs at the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City.

While MOOCs don’t result in the same college credit available in a traditional undergraduate school, some do grant certificates of accomplishment to those who finish with a passing grade. Students can then take those certificates to enhance their resumes, or convince their employers it’s time for a raise or promotion.

But this could also be cause for concern. Nguyen Thi Thanh The, a lecturer at Hoa Sen University, said Vietnamese students care too much about certificates rather than actual learning. That could drive them to flout standards of academic honesty, for the sake of a certificate.

“I think online courses are more and more popular in countries around the world,” Thanh The said during the question-and-answer portion of the MOOC information session. “But how can we avoid cheating?”

Some websites have a disclaimer similar to this, which students must check off when taking quizzes: “In accordance with the Coursera Honour Code, I (insert student name) certify that the answers here are my own work.”

‘Not to make money’ 
Other MOOC websites are Udacity.com, which now has Spanish and Portuguese options, and Khanacademy.org. With funders that include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Khan Academy relies more on videos with digital chalkboards for colourful drawings and explanations, rather than lectures. Khan gives students points and badges to help them track their progress.

Coursera, on the other hand, is lecture-heavy. The videos are interactive: they stop occasionally with a multiple-choice question to see if students are grasping the material. There is more structure to the classes, because students are supposed to go at the same pace, whereas Khan allows you to watch video lessons at your leisure. Subjects on most of these major websites cover everything from art history to organic chemistry.

Giap School, of course, is not as extensive. Giap, who runs this one-man show, said he has 2,000 students registered for the Understanding Communications class. He is shooting for 1,000 to 1,500 lectures a year and hopes that after he makes the first 1,000, he can bring his work to donors to solicit funding.

Giap and his wife, two children, and grandparents are living off their savings for now. Advertisers have approached him with partnership offers, but that’s not the model he wants to pursue.

“This is to educate people, not to make money,” he said. “Courses are free, no advertisement.” That sets it apart from HocMoi, a new startup that charges for foreign, online courses translated into Vietnamese.

Giap holds degrees from universities in South Korea, Austria, and his native Hanoi, where he returned last year to bring foreign learning standards home to Vietnam. He also has done research in the United Kingdom and Singapore.

He estimated Giap School needs $5,000 to $10,000 a month to cover costs like equipment and bandwidth. While he didn’t mention the possibility of government support, Giap did say he wishes more public funds went toward education, such as translating quality textbooks into Vietnamese.

“I think that first,” he said, “we have to build a knowledge infrastructure.”