Primary school students in Ho Chi Minh City may have to pay between VND 3 million and 5 million (US$141 – 236) each for tablet devices if a proposal on “e-textbooks and tablets for primary students” is approved for the coming school year.
The proposal, introduced by the city education department at a conference held Monday, will cost around VND 4 trillion ($189 million) in total to “bring around 300,000 first, second and third grade students into special e-classes,” according to a draft of the new law.
The heads of district education departments and school leaders received few answers about the feasibility of the new tools after an $8.5 million purchase of 1,000 interactive whiteboards was skewered by the local press.
A Thanh Nien investigation in May found that the whiteboards were mainly used as digital projectors or even decorations for school libraries.
According to the second draft of the plan, each pupil will use his/her tablet to study with and do test exercises while teachers “control” the class via computer.
Study content, including sound files and images, will be pre-installed into the tablets.
However, many school leaders wondered if long periods spent working on tablet screens could harm the eyes of young pupils and isolate them from healthier outdoor activities.
“These kids are so young," said Mai Thi Ngoc Lan, the principal of District 1’s Dinh Tien Hoang Primary School. "How will using these devices for long periods of time affect their health? Will the public complain [about the project]? We can’t imagine how this will work out.”
Dinh Kim Phuong, the principal of Chinh Nghia Primary School in District 5, sought similar answers.
“Many parents have asked us if the tablets will limit the kids’ outside activities and if continuous contact with electronic devices could harm their health and eyesight," Phuong said. "Such [issues] must be researched so we can answer these questions.”
Meanwhile, a director of the Education Ministry’s representative office in the city, Ha Huu Phuc, said that the draft has failed to explain its most essential aspects.
“It’s a [very expensive] proposal, but it fails to show its primary purpose. Why [is it being tested] on primary school students? Why not high school students?”
“Nothing in the draft discusses the potential impact, such as its effect on student health,” Phuc said, adding that he was only expressing his own views (not the office’s).
Phuc also wondered if it was too late for the conference to gather feedback, since the proposal is scheduled to take effect in the coming school year, which starts next month.
“When will our teachers get training to deploy the draft in time?”
Phuc's unanswered questions hung heavy in the noon air of the conference room on Monday.
Hoang Truong Giang, a deputy head of the municipal Education Department’s Primary School Division, raised doubts about other difficulties the proposal may meet while being carried out.
“Many figures in the proposal don’t add up, which will inevitably lead to a big difference in the real expense. It hinges on having an 'internet administration room' at each school, but do we have the human resources to administrate such rooms?”
“How long is the warranty on these machines? This will be a disaster if the tools break or don't work properly,” said Giang.
The "One Tablet Per Child" project that began in Thailand in 2012, will be shut down next year.
During a press conference held in June to announce the end of the program, Thai Admiral Narong Pipattanasai said the intelligent tools “were not appropriate learning tools in all places at all times” and that teachers were the ones students should study with, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
On Monday, Advanced International Company (AIC), the consultant working on the proposal, said that the company has “visited other countries to seek advice in order to deploy the program.”
“It is a big project. We will find the best supplier offering the best price. The city can even work with the suppliers directly without our mediation,” said Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, AIC’s director.
The Hanoi-based company was awarded a contract to supply around 1,000 sets of interactive whiteboards at highly inflated prices last school year, Thanh Nien reported.
A survey conducted by Thanh Nien in May found that the interactive whiteboards supplied to hundreds of schools in Ho Chi Minh City since the beginning of this school year were purchased for 2.2 to 3.6 times their market price.
To make matter worse, teachers and school administrators said they either didn't know how to use them or didn't want to.
The city’s Department of Education and Training equipped local primary and preschools with a total of 1,000 interactive whiteboards at a price of VND180 millions ($8,510) per board.
Half of the cost of the boards (roughly VND90 billion or $4.25 million) was paid for by the government; the rest came from parents.