Cyberspace: the final frontier for English education

November 8, 2021 | 06:11 pm PT
Bach Ngoc Chien Businessman
Modern technology makes learning foreign languages possible for millions across the globe, but someone needs to pave the road.

Learning English in Vietnam is not an easy task.

A friend of mine pays VND200,000 ($8.85) for an hour of English tutoring for their daughter. The classes cost the family over VND3 million a month on average.

Another friend enrolled their child in an English center, hoping to secure a coveted scholarship. The price is VND400 million for over a year of studying and preparing student profiles.

Training as an English teacher is costly as well. Some demand VND150 million for a four-day program with 10 teachers, or almost VND4 million a day for each of them.

Seeing such price tags could deter many parents from giving their kids the best English education possible. But must it be so?

I used to teach English 30 years ago. I still do, but in a different way now.

Back then, people listened to cassettes, read books and wrote with chalk on blackboards. Now I can access thousands of English lessons with the touch of a finger, all digitized and stored on the Internet.

The English I taught in the past was mostly confined to speaking, but now first graders learn English for much more specialized purposes like math and science.

Many have done their own science projects during the lockdown and uploaded them on the Internet, all in English. Such a thing would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, but here we are.

Technology can make learning English much cheaper and more scalable. Take an online English course for example. One account may cost VND1.5 million for a lifetime of access. Companies get to make a profit as they only need to produce the lessons once, and students get to learn them as many times as they want to. In the right hands, technology can be a game-changer for both education providers and consumers.

The roles teachers play have also changed with the emergence of new technologies. From someone who provides knowledge in its raw form, teachers are now mentors who teach students how to think for themselves. No longer confined within four walls, classrooms are now capable of reaching millions of learners thanks to the Internet.

Amid the pandemic, the transition to online education is a no-brainer. A normal English center can accommodate a few hundred students, but the Internet can reach thousands, even millions, and without a proportional increase in resources and costs.

Of course, there are caveats to learning and teaching through a screen. People in rural and remote areas, where electronic devices for online learning remain out of reach, have limited options. Not every teacher is willing to give up traditions. Not all companies can develop programs that are suitable or affordable for Vietnamese students.

But English will stay relevant for years to come. More people are learning the language than ever, and technology can bring it to so many more, especially those who will not be able to gain access to it otherwise.

I hope English education can be encouraged and properly managed so that all students enjoy the best education possible. The education ministry should evaluate and approve English education programs to create a consistent program at public schools. The government should encourage telecom and tech firms to provide device and data support for the poor and those living in remote areas.

Cooperation between education and tech firms can also drive innovation.

*Bach Ngoc Chien is the vice chairman of the EQuest Education Group. The opinions expressed are his own.

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