The Vietnam Education Foundation and the Digital Utility

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The Vietnam Education Foundation and the Digital Utility

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Benefiting from global economic integration is not easy. It means more than trading or even getting FDI. It means creating conditions so that local knowledge is attractive to higher value added activities that draw in high quality capital, technology and management. This inflow sparks further activity, faster growth, and acts as an inducement for young people to acquire ever-greater skills. How does one get started on this virtuous circle?

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  1. Fulbright Economics Teaching Program Technology & Development Vietnam Education Foundation and the Digital Utility The Vietnam Education Foundation and the Digital Utility David Dapice Benefiting from global economic integration is not easy. It means more than trading or even getting FDI. It means creating conditions so that local knowledge is attractive to higher value added activities that draw in high quality capital, technology and management. This inflow sparks further activity, faster growth, and acts as an inducement for young people to acquire ever-greater skills. How does one get started on this virtuous circle? One sure way is to train large numbers of people in science and technology. In Vietnam, the Soviet Union provided quite good scientific training at the graduate level, but that meant that higher-level education within Vietnam did not develop so much. Also, the Soviet model of separating research in institutes from education in universities has proven somewhat less productive than mixing them. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a distinct decline in the level of scientific training for Vietnamese scientists and engineers. At the same time, budget cutbacks meant many institutes had to become self- supporting. This often meant doing applied services, or even leaving science altogether. A number of surveys in the 1990’s concluded that science education and research in Vietnam was slipping and badly needed to renovate itself.1 Many initiatives are underway but one of special interest is the Vietnam Education Foundation. This is a US foundation established by the US Congress and announced by President Clinton on his visit to Vietnam.2 President Bush has appointed its Board of Directors and it is just starting its activities. It is charged with promoting science and technology (S&T) in Vietnam, primarily through providing scholarships for Vietnamese who have been accepted to graduate S&T programs in the US, but also by running special one-year programs in both Hanoi and HCMC to prepare young Vietnamese scientists for graduate studies in the US. These programs would make use of US scientists who would teach and advise on curriculum development. Initial funding for 15 years is about $5 million a year.3 It may be augmented if there are more qualified applicants, with funds from both public and private sources likely. Part of the hope of the VEF is the hope that the curricular investments made in the preparatory programs will also help improve the teaching of science throughout Vietnam in all of the universities. To accomplish this, there are a number of other related initiatives also aiming to upgrade overall S&T. One, the Millennium Science Initiative, helps select developing nations to create new science research groups that are well tied into global knowledge networks and run by scientists in a lean and productive manner. Rather than 1 See, for example, “Science, Technology and Industry Strategy for Vietnam,” UNDP, 2001. 2 The source of these funds is payment of debt owed to the US by Vietnam. It came from the 1995 normalization of relations. Vietnam got the foreign exchange assets of the old regime in exchange for agreeing to make the (smaller value of) payments on the old regime’s civilian debt. Many Americans argued that this exchange, while normal legal practice, lacked historical sensitivity. 3 This amount can support a surprising number of graduate students since after the first year, many S&T graduate programs support their students from university resources, freeing the VEF to support more first year Vietnamese. Perhaps 100 per year could be supported from current levels of funding. David Dapice 1
  2. Fulbright Economics Teaching Program Technology & Development Vietnam Education Foundation and the Digital Utility have a large permanent staff, there is a small core group and a large number of young, bright scientists rotated through. The hope is they will find ways to apply for interesting research funding and return to their home institutions and improve the level of teaching and research. Vietnam is currently in line to be a MSI member. However, another initiative has even wider implications. This is called the “Digital Utility.” The fact is that good research requires good libraries and access to huge amounts of information that is complete and up to date. Very few developing nations have invested enough to provide this for their scientists, much less students. In response, a number of foundations and other groups have suggested an alternative. Why not develop an electronic library that provides this access? Furthermore, why not include in this library not just books and journals, but also entire classes? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has begun listing all of its classes – lecture notes, readings, problem sets, and tests. Anyone wanting it can get it through the Internet, for free. If, in addition, lectures of excellent teachers or researchers were also on-line (they are now available on videotape in entire courses for hundreds of dollars), then many poorly budgeted universities could upgrade both their teaching and that part of research that required information more than expensive instrumentation. This pattern need not be restricted to science either. If the copyright and technical issues can be overcome, there would be a huge jump in the availability of knowledge to anyone with an Internet connection. The name “Digital Utility” comes from the new conception of information. Like electricity, it could be turned on and provided to whomever wanted it, cheaply and immediately. Rapid drops in the price of electronic storage, wireless broadband (high speed Internet), computer chips and fiber optics will make the economics of the digital utility attractive even in poor nations. (Some computers are now being sold for $200 in US discount stores!) The low price of Internet Cafes in Vietnam already suggest approaches that would work for their universities, especially as regulation improves and existing technologies are more widely applied. If the MSI and preparatory programs put all of their research, lectures and curricula on-line, this would be a huge boost to all Vietnamese universities. Ultimately, these other universities may themselves contribute both research and classes to the general pool of knowledge. There are many stumbling blocks. Aside from working out payment protocols for recent scientific journals, there is the issue of language. Vast amounts of materials are published in English and they cannot all be translated. Until most scientists are bilingual, if indeed this happens, the question is how to help them access material not in their own language. One possibility is machine translation. This does not currently work very well, but is getting better, especially at narrow subjects where a learning algorithm is built into the software. (As human corrections are made to the raw “machine” translation, the software incorporates them into future machine translations.) Alternatively, language students with some science knowledge may be asked to translate summaries of the articles in return for scholarships. This would be a good incentive for more people to learn English! If the Digital Utility is developed in Vietnam, it could jumpstart the renovation of many universities and both education and research. By extending opportunities to so many, the likelihood that both domestic and foreign investment related to knowledge industries will find Vietnam attractive is greatly increased. This is illustrative of the kinds of investments needed to succeed at global economic integration. David Dapice 2
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