Case studies, the unique teaching approach at FSPPM


One of the things that sets apart the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) is the case-study method utilized for teaching public policy. 

FSPPM inherited this method from Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) to teach applied economics in Vietnam since the late 1990s. But our faculty has since created their own trove of case studies, rooting global theories and knowledge deep into the Vietnamese context. Those allow for learning that is more practical, memorable, and easier to absorb.

The case-study method complements formal lectures and helps FSPPM’s participants enhance their knowledge through discussion-based learning. It also serves as a bridge between the School’s research and teaching activities.

More than 25 years ago, professors from leading American universities brought this method to Vietnam as they joined the Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP) that would later develop into FSPPM. There, copyrighted case studies from Harvard Business School – and later HKS – supported their lectures on the market economy. 

Theory made easier 

According to Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thanh, the Harvard case studies selected by FSPPM to teach public are not only centered on America. Instead, they cover various economic cases across the globe, especially Southeast and Northeast Asia. More importantly, this selection is not random; cases must be relevant to Vietnam’s socioeconomic reality so that students can better understand the theories introduced in class, as well as their implications for policy analysis.

One such example is a case study on the privatization of water and wastewater systems in Cancun, Mexico. It exemplifies typical points of failure of the market which consequently lead to governmental intervention. The subsequent failure brought forth the return of a market-based approach.

Lecturer Nguyen Xuan Thanh in his demo class

“The partnership between Fulbright and Harvard gives Fulbright access to Harvard’s tremendous case study archive,” emphasized Prof. Thanh. 

Interaction and debates between instructors and students, but also among students themselves is an essential element of the case study method. Open classroom debates offer a unique opportunity to build solid theoretical foundations by discussing and reflecting on real life situations. 

This Harvard-style interactive environment fostered since the early days of FETP is different from the traditional Vietnamese university model where information flows one way from the teacher to the students. Case studies at Fulbright always generate enthusiasm because students do not only learn from their professors. Instead, their understanding is also forged in the heat of debates and discussions with their classmates. 

Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Dean of FSPPM shared how the most important part of the case study method is that students are inspired to learn beyond abstract and complex theories. These cases are compiled from real facts, real people, real figures. They help students solidify their theoretical foundations and apply theories to the real world. But this doesn’t mean theoretical models and academic concepts introduced in class are secondary. Instead, case studies complement lectures, enhancing the pedagogical value of both.

“Without the theoretical framework, case studies seem to be discrete parts that fall to pieces. But within a proper theorical framework, these pieces are perfectly connected, functioning as a cohesive whole. If students are taught with case studies only, it may be hard for them to frame their thinking toward a problem. Case studies complement the lectures and help students deploy their theoretical understanding to solve a specific problem,” Dr. Tu Anh explained. 

FSPPM’s case studies are used in the Master of Public Policy program, executive education programs, and short courses. Instructors have a list of questions based on the cases and later students will discuss in the class to understand the theories better. But for some courses such as Project Appraisal, Regional and Local Development, and Finance, case studies are the main teaching method, not just supplements for the lectures.

Chau Ngo Anh Nhan, a former student of MPP2 class, recalled a memorable case study lesson entitled “The Big Dig.” The lesson took place in the context that the National Assembly, for the first time in history, rejected an express railway project submitted by the government on June 19, 2010. This decision ended heated debates among National Assembly members and among the public. The debates focused on the costs of the project, totaling up to USD56 billion, or around half of Vietnam’s GDP while the government’s budget was limited. While a number of supporters argued that the project was essential for the country’s development, many claimed its economic effectiveness was too low, while huge costs may burden the next generation with debts. 

This story was showcased in the MPP2 class. At the same time, Prof. Jay Rosengard from Harvard used “The Big Dig” as a case study for students to compare it with what was happening in Vietnam. 

“The Big Dig lecture was really meaningful when considered in the context of Vietnam. Vietnamese society was considering the investment of a North-South Express Railway project. This thought-provoking case study stayed in my mind for many years after graduating from FSPPM. It shined a light on how to select investment projects, how to consider budget and resources during construction and implementation, how to be mindful of intertwined impacts on economic, political and social targets, and the impacts in both personal and public spheres,” Ngo Anh Nhan said.  

FSPPM’s case studies are used in the Master of Public Policy program, executive education programs, and short courses

Vietnamese case studies 

A turning point in FSPPM’s case study teaching development happened when the faculty decided to directly compile Vietnamese cases after years of purchasing Harvard’s copyrighted materials.

“When we borrowed Harvard’s cases for our teaching program, we appreciated them for their practicability and relevance to the Vietnamese context. But we also realized that nothing is better than giving students the chance to study real cases in Vietnam, getting exposed to Vietnamese policies and clearly feel the impacts of these policies on Vietnamese society and their own lives. A case study’s relevance depends on the policy being investigated, otherwise the meaning of case studies will be lessened,” Dr. Anh recalled. 

With their strong theoretical foundation and rich experiences, Fulbright’s faculty have so far compiled more than 100 Vietnamese cases for economics, public policy, finance, and state administration courses. 

The Vietnamese cases, combined with Harvard’s, form the larger archive currently in use by FSPPM. Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thanh said the combination helps the school incorporate global knowledge into Vietnamese policy education, setting it apart from other Vietnamese universities. 

This factor also contributed to Fulbright’s accreditation to the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), an international accrediting body for public policy and management schools, for a period of 7 years, the highest accreditation outcome possible.

Nguyen Huynh Thu Truc was a FETP student 13 years ago who enrolled again for the Master in Public Policy’s 2020 class in the Leadership & Management concentration. According to Huynh Thu Truc, Fulbright’s case study quality has soared to new heights. After joining other LM students and alumni to participate in a short course at HKS in August last year, she realized HKS’ case study lectures are not different from those at Fulbright school. HKS professors had cleverly incorporated Vietnam’s economic issues within the larger global context. 

“In the early days of FETP, there were not many Vietnamese cases for graduates to study; they were mostly compiled from other countries. Yet the biggest benefit of case studies is that students can identify the nature of the problems laid out and come to conclusions. In this way, they will understand how a theoretical and analytical framework helps in solving problems. Having the chance to compare real problems occurring in Vietnam with others in the world made the lessons far easier to learn,” she explained. 

Policy initiatives from case studies 

Original cases were used as typical examples for theoretical lessons about public policy at Fulbright and continued to be updated constantly. Fulbright’s professors always keep an eye on the latest issues in the world, the region and Vietnam and update case studies day by day. They can pick one case in a course this year, but they can select another case for the same course next year depending on emerging economic issues that are relevant to their lectures.

Dr. Tu Anh oversees Regional and Local Development, an optional course with a record enrollment rate, and always puts the latest cases in his lessons. In his class, the theoretical framework remains the same but the cases differ one year to the next. 

“I usually keep the rate of ratio of cases to theory balanced at 50/50. But this year I have only 6 theoretical lessons among the total 18 lectures; the remaining are case studies, which means case studies make up to 70 percent,” he said.

Fulbright professors did not only “import” case studies from Harvard, nor do they only compile Vietnamese cases. They also lead their students on site visits to reflect on lessons learned with field experience. Site visits are the most exciting part of Fulbright’s case study process. 

In June this year, Dr. Tu Anh led his students to Binh Thuan Province as part of the Regional and Local Development course. Fifty-three students of both Policy Analysis and Leadership & Management concentrations were divided into 11 groups. 

At the request of FSPPM the graduates gained access to documents and information provided by the provincial government, departments, and agencies for a socioeconomic overview of the administrative region. Later, each group was tasked with studying a key aspect of the region through their own research and an analytical framework discussed in class. Based on the theories and case studies, the groups drafted their schedule to work with local authorities. 

During two working days, FSPPM students met with seven departments and agencies of Binh Thuan Province and key business representatives, visited a solar power plant, a tourism area, and dragon fruit farms. 

Dr Christopher Balding teaches The Negotiation

After the site visit, they spent two weeks writing reports before submitting them to instructors. Before these reports were officially submitted, instructors organized an online discussion session for students to prepare their conclusions.

The official reports will be edited and compiled by faculty members to become a comprehensive study on Binh Thuan’s development policies and sent back to the provincial government as a thank-you gift for their collaboration and support. It bears significant meaning for participating students, both as the outcome of their course, and as proof that the subject of their study at Fulbright really matters. 

“We wish to see our students reflect upon what they learn in the class, take it beyond the classroom and into ‘real life’. We want them to apply theories to solve specific problems in provinces and cities across Vietnam after meeting real people, seeing real things and real problems. This inspires and motivates students to do meaningful things and contribute to the community with policy feedback, helping these provinces improve their competitiveness and develop further. I believe the research and policy findings compiled in the reports of our students are qualified enough as a support and reference, useful to the provincial government in their development strategies,” Dr. Tu Anh emphasized. 

However, the implications of such a course are more far-reaching. For FSPPM professors, the site visits put their students at the center of real problems. These problems also inspire professors to continue updating their teaching program and conduct new research on a province’s socioeconomic issues. When connected, the pieces of local policy research form together a bigger picture of Vietnamese policy research. 

“This means a lot because our school does not only aim at finishing a course. Case studies do not only inspire students but also help faculty to approach new problems and find the direction for their next research. These research findings will be discussed and become part of policy dialogue to contribute strategic solutions for local development and the development of the country as a whole. This is a virtuous cycle of research, teaching, learning, and policy dialogue,” he explained. 

Xuan Linh

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