Culture shock jolts education system

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A directive by the country's education ministry requiring colleges and universities to change how they operate has left both students and administrators overwhelmed.

Vietnam has been criticized for its rigid approach to education similar to that of countries under the former Soviet Union. It is said to be too theoretical, reliant on strict memorization of facts, and overly focused on science and math.

The education ministry has thus instructed all post-secondary schools to switch over to a more modern credit-based system by next year. While some have already implemented the new method, experts say there are many problems and schools need more time to adjust.

Under the current system, a student entering college or university is given a timetable of required courses for their chosen major with no freedom to choose elective classes.

The new credit-based model, however, operates by allowing students to choose their own classes and build their own timetables within certain parameters. It is the model applied by most Western universities.

The credit system tracks a student's progress toward graduation by measuring completed time units - or credit hours - and combines a general education curriculum with classes designed to fulfill specific majors.

But a change from the rigid set-curriculum model still used by most Vietnamese colleges and universities into the more flexible credit-based system, presents many challenges, said Dr. Ton That Dung from the Hue University of Education at a recent conference in the central city of Da Nang. The meeting, held late last month, was attended by nearly 400 representatives from local schools.

Dung said one of the main obstacles involves the issue of transferable credit, as there is currently much variation between the standards in course content and quality from one school to the next.

For instance, under the proposed new system, if a student completes a course at one university, and then later transfers to another school, that course may not be recognized by the new university.

There is still no consensus amongst the schools about how to standardize courses in terms of their content, names, and number of hours, said the Central Department of Propaganda and Training's Education Bureau Head Nguyen Huu Chi at the conference.

Dr. Nguyen Duc Nghia, vice director of Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, said, "The failure to standardize academic programs deters schools from applying the credit-based system."

The head of the HCMC University of Education's Institute for Educational Research Pham Xuan Hau, told the conference the change to the new system is progressing very slowly. Only 36 universities and 51 colleges out of thousands of schools have applied the system since 2008, he added.

It will be a long time before a standard academic program is set up to efficiently use the credit-based system, said Dr. Nguyen Hoang Viet from the University of Da Nang. He further suggested that schools cooperate and work out the details independently of the education ministry.

Administrators are also finding it difficult to organize and accommodate the students' course choices under the new system. According to local schools, there is a shortage of instructors and space.

Nguyen Anh Duc from the HCMC University of Technical Education (HUTE) said, "[This] school aims to have a rate of 15 students per lecturer, but in fact, it's very hard [to achieve this].

Experts say because of such logistical difficulties, schools which claim to be applying the new credit-based system are, in fact, not fully doing so.

At most of those schools, the number of elective courses only account for 30 percent of the students' academic programs, associate professor Doan Thi Minh Trinh, vice director of the Department of Academic Affairs at VNU-HCMC told Thanh Nien Daily in an interview.

Other educators, meanwhile, find it troublesome to apply new methods of student evaluation under the new system. While the old system is based on a scale of 10, the new one employs a scale of 4, according to Duc from the HCMC University of Technical Education.

The difference has caused "sharp changes" in student performance like at HUTE, where a dubious 80 percent of graduates in April were ranked "rather good," while the rate was less than 37 percent in previous years, Duc said.

Over 1,000 formerly average-performing students from Da Nang City's University of Technology, meanwhile, were puzzled after recently being informed they were in danger of being expelled for poor grades.

Students struggling too

Adapting to a credit-based system has been hard on students too, said Pham Tan Ha, deputy head of the academic department under the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities (HUSSH).

Ha said that years of learning under a school system based on rote memorization has left today's students unable to cope with a more modern system of independent study.

Even group study sessions pose a problem as students have trouble choosing a leader and making their own decisions.

"Some groups spend the whole day talking, but ultimately no decision is made as no one agrees to listen to the others," said Nguyen Thi Mai Binh, head of HCMC's Hung Vuong University's academic department.

HUTE's Duc said the pressure of learning to think in such a different way can be overwhelming and many students end up withdrawing from courses altogether. Some 6,000 students withdrew from their registered classes in the second semester of the 2007-08 school year, and nearly 7,000 dropped out in this school year's first semester, according to Duc.

"There was one student who registered for 15 subjects, but when the semester's final examination came, the student withdrew from 14 and took the exam for only one subject," said Duc. This is a waste of time and money for the school, he added.

In the US, the credit system was born in the 19th century out of criticism that the country's higher education system lacked the flexibility to create well-rounded individuals. Harvard University became the first institution to apply the new model and it soon spread to other American universities.

In early 1993, a group of Vietnamese university presidents gathered at a conference in the central beach town of Nha Trang and it was decided the country should switch over to the credit system.

But the debate over when, how, and to what extent Vietnamese universities can adapt to the Western model and revamp the country's higher education has been ongoing for years.

In response to the education ministry's directive, local experts and educators say they need more time to become familiar with the new credit system.

"It's difficult to fully apply the credit-based system within [such a short period]," Binh said. "It takes time and planning [for educators] to absorb the advantages offered by the system as well as for students to change their studying habits."

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