April 17, 2019

Building a new University: Replicate or Innovate?

April 17, 2019

Fulbright University’s President Dam Bich Thuy just delivered an inspiration talk at TedX Hanoi, describing how Fulbright has been reimagining the University to create an education that could stay relevant for now and then. 

Following is the excerpt from that talk. 

Imagine that someone gives you a wonderful opportunity to build a university from scratch. What will you do?

This is exactly what happened to us at Fulbright University Vietnam, a project that took more than 10 years. We want to build an independent, private, not-for-profit university in Vietnam, inspired by the American style liberal education, but in Vietnam, for the Vietnamese. We have two options.

The first one is just to look at all the models in the world, which have been successful for the last several hundred years. Let’s look at them, bring them to Vietnam and execute the same model in Vietnam. Yet, the world has changed completely in recent decades and even faster than what we have seen for the last 200 years. Should we waste such opportunity by replicating old model? 

Choosing a unique, uneasy path

At Fulbright, we don’t think so. We decided to embark on a not-well-trodden path. We want to re-imagine what university will look like in the next 5 years, 10 years, or longer so that it can be relevant to those changes we are seeing now. 

In order to re-imagine the university, we have another set of possibility and choices.

First, a lot of people will say why don’t you bring to Vietnam a bunch of educational experts, put them in a room, don’t let them leave and then after several months or even a year, they can come up with a perfect journey of education for Vietnamese students?

Again, we stepped back and asked ourselves: Is this the right way to do it? These days, knowledge is widely available, and the way the students learn is no longer in the same way as they did in my generation or even like 10 years ago. Thus, we decided to do another very different approach.

We decided to bring professors and students together and to create a one year that we called the Co-Design Year, where professors and students work together to hone all the four-year experience at college that include academic experience, experiential learning, residential life, student government experience and so on.

And we hope that by co-designing the experience, the students are going to be the actual owner of their education journey and that will also help them to move from a rote learning tradition into a more interactive, problem-based education. 

Nowadays, design theory is not new in the tech industry. You see design theory being applied in a lot of tech companies, and probably no one hone better design concept than Apple and the iPhones in your hand.

I’m not a fan of going forth with the best model so I don’t know how many versions they have but then I know exactly that the moment they have one version, they put it in the market, they talk to the users and then they improve it. Why can’t we do it with education? Why does education have to be the same for many years? 

Therefore, we embarked on the co-design journey. I want to share with you some of the stories of what happened in the co-design year and why we believe that it is the best way to create an education, which can stay relevant for now and then.

54 students and 16 faculty worked together in a team. We have been testing out a lot of widely-accepted assumptions about education as well as Vietnamese students.

Challenging widely-accepted assumptions 

First, a lot of people believe that students learn best in a structural environment: reading books, going to class, writing down professors’ lecture, going home and doing exercises. They will find solution that has been designed.

One day, we decided to assign a problem to a group of students. The problem required using computer programming skill to solve. We know that the majority of our students has 

never done a computer science class. We told them: “Here are the links that you need to check online. When you come to school tomorrow, we are going to give you some problems that you have to use Python (a programming software) to solve.” 

You can imagine how our students reacted: “Are you completely crazy? You are unreasonable. How could you ask us to do something that we haven’t even been taught?” But guess what? In the next day, all 5 groups work out a solution with Python as the language, as the program to solve a prime number question. Eventually, they came to the solutions different ways but they all got the right answer.

Thus, that is the assumption we would like to challenge. Will it be better to create a kind of mess for the students to learn? Maybe, they learn better in a mess rather than in an orderly room.

Let’s imagine: If you are a good cook, probably you do a lot in the kitchen. Sometimes you burn your food, sometimes the food is too salty. But you struggle through that and then one day you become a master chef. No master chef just follows an exact formula from a cook book. 

The second assumption that we tested out is that engineering is dry and just suitable for structured learning. Most people think it is nearly impossible to combine any other discipline into engineering, needless to say arts or humanities.

We assigned two groups of students to work with volunteering elderly people who are above 80 in some projects as a part of Engineering for Humanity Class. Students were asked to talk with them, to find a way so that they can share their life and understand all the difficulties that elderly Vietnamese people are facing with in their life. Then students need to come up with an idea of a product that can help them to improve their daily life. 

Again, you know the Millennials. You believe that they stick to their smartphones most of the time. They don’t even talk to their parents during dinner. But now they have to go out and try to find an answer from someone who is like their grandparents. And how can they do that? Yes, that’s the task. 

President of Fulbright University Vietnam

After two weeks, the two groups proudly presented the products that they decided to create for these people. I must say that I have never seen such an emotional and powerful session between the students and the people outside in the society. 

Consequently, another assumption has been challenged. Technical skills are not sufficient enough to become a good engineer. You need a lot more than that. You need to be empathetic so that you can connect with people who are going to use your products. You need to be able to ask questions so that people are willing to reveal all their weakness to you. And without that, probably the product would have never been used and never been sold. 

Lastly, we successfully challenged the assumption that most Vietnamese students are passive learners. We decided to create a course called Rhetoric. Rhetoric is brand-new course that has hardly taught in most of the schools in Vietnam.

Our instructors asked students to choose from two options: First, we borrow the syllabi from other American universities, prototype them and you give feedbacks. Second, we work together to develop a Rhetoric course from a blank slate.

Unsurprisingly, students choose the easy way. They said: OK, let’s borrow the syllabi, run with it and then we have a course. Just two days after running through the whole process, students came to the professors and asked: “I have a question. Rhetoric in the West is not the same as rhetoric in Vietnam.

The way we consider persuasive or argumentative in Vietnamese or in Vietnam is not the same as you, Americans consider persuasive or argumentative in the West. We don’t believe that the syllabi were appropriate for us. Let’s us do a completely new syllabus again.” 

See, Vietnamese students took the challenge that at some point, we thought it’s insurmountable. You could imagine all emotion our students went through. One day, they felt extremely excited. The next day they may feel disappointed that they couldn’t get to where they wanted to do. One month later, under the guidance of our faculty, students presented a complete syllabus for Rhetoric course. 

When I showed it to some of our colleagues from top U.S. universities, they just look at the syllabus in awe. They just couldn’t believe that within one month, the students could come out with a complete course reflecting the cultural differences between Vietnam and the rest of the world. 

Bài nói chuyện tại TEDxHanoi của Chủ tịch Đại học Fulbright Việt Nam Đàm Bích Thuỷ

All above-mentioned examples helped us to look back and think what we should do. We believe that by giving the students a chance that they can own their experience, give them a chance that they can sit in the seat of the professors, and the professors sit in the seat of the students and see the whole experience through each other’s lens will basically help us to come up with the idea of a new university and a new education experience. 

A lot of people will say: Trying to be innovative in education is not impossible because university is seen as the place where you seek truths and knowledge. However, among all institutions in the society, university is the most conservative one. That’s why you don’t see many changes in the way how university is structured and conducted their teaching and learning. But here, at Fulbright, we could do it. 

Surely, we are fully aware that we are given a wonderful opportunity to do it from the ground up. We also acknowledge that Vietnam is a special place. Vietnamese people are very open to any changes in education because they are so disappointed with what they have seen in our education system so far.

That’s why they often welcome anything that looks different from the status-quo. Furthermore, if we can encourage innovation in such conservative institutions like universities, just imagine what we can do in many other areas. I strongly believe if we dare to try to think a little bit differently, try to push the boundaries slowly, we can reimagine the world that we live in. 

  • Dam Bich Thuy

Video: TEDxHanoi

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