Ethnic minority students grapple with e-learning, scarce Internet

By Duong Tam   April 13, 2020 | 11:35 pm PT
Ethnic minority students grapple with e-learning, scarce Internet
Quang The Ha, a 10th grade student, in a hut he built on a hill near his home in the central province of Nghe An so he could get 3G signal to study online. Photo courtesy of Viet Bac Highland High School.
Minutes before 7 a.m., 10th-grader Quang The Ha scales a hill to catch 3G signal before his online lesson starts.

Ha, a Thai ethnic minority student in the north-central Nghe An Province, does not have electricity at home, which runs on solar energy.

There’s also no Internet, which makes it difficult for Ha to access online lessons provided by Viet Bac Highland High School in Thai Nguyen Province, 404 kilometers north of his hometown.

E-learning has become the new normal for students in Vietnam since schools have remained closed since February due to Covid-19.

Since his school launched its online program via Zoom and Microsoft Teams on April 1, studying has become more of a challenge. Now, Ha has to first find a stable Internet supply to receive and submit assignments.

Adapting to circumstance, he decided to climb a hill 10 minutes away on foot to access a usable 3G connection, erecting a small study hut in the process. Since, he has not missed a single lesson. He spends each morning in the hut studying and returns home in the afternoon to complete his homework and help with housework.

Nearby, 12th-grader Xong Ba Chia, a H'Mong student from the same school, has been studying in a similar hut, though closer to his home and built by local farmers to store harvested corn.

A corn hut where Xong Ba Chia has been studying online every day in Nghe An Province. Photo courtesy of Viet Bac Highland High School 

A corn hut where Xong Ba Chia has been studying online each day in Nghe An Province. Photo courtesy of Viet Bac Highland High School.

Though the Internet signal remains unstable, Chia manages to follow the gist of most lessons. After class, he helps his parents in the field to share the burden of earning an income for their seven-member household.

Tran Thi Thanh Hue, head of the student affairs and security department and secretary of the school union, said there are over 2,500 students from 20 mountainous provinces attending the school. Most live in far-flung areas where Internet and electricity are unstable.

"Not only it is difficult for them to study online, it is also hard for teachers to contact them, especially those from small minorities with populations under 1,000 like Cong, La Hu, and Pu Peo," Hue explained, adding teachers had to rely on friends, parents, and sometimes local authorities to reach students.

It is tough for teachers sometime to encourage parents to let their kids study online. Many are more inclined to let their children drop out due to the long school closure. Viet Bac has failed to contact a few students of late.

School officials have provided those facing financial difficulties with phone credit worth VND200,000 ($8.58) each to purchase 3G or 4G data packages to facilitate e-learning. The school has also launched slogans on social media to boost student morale and encourage them to stick to their lessons. Since, many alumnus and sponsors have donated money and even bought phones for students.

The rate of participation in e-learning has gone from 50 in the beginning to about 90 percent currently.

"The school will continue to support those with difficult backgrounds. Students who can’t study online will be given extra lessons once back at school," Hue noted.

Viet Bac Highland High School is a public school established in 1957. It consists of high school students and those enrolled in a university preparation program.

22 million students in Vietnam had completed the 20th week of school in the new academic year before they began a fortnight-long Lunar New Year holiday that started January 17. They have not gone back to school since, with the break extended multiple times on safety considerations.

The Ministry of Education and Training stated schools could be reopened by June 15 at the latest and that graduation exams would commence from August 8-11. The important exam has been pushed back two months from previous years given the historic school closure.

The ministry has devised various measures to help students study online or via televised lessons. It has also held conferences with teachers in localities to guide them in online teaching.

As of Monday afternoon, Vietnam’s Covid-19 count stood at 265, with 146 discharged after recovery.

Globally, Covid-19 death toll has jumped to almost 120,000 as it attacked 210 countries and territories.

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