Neil's News

Teaching in Vietnam

26 February 2017

My wife and I just finished teaching a two-week Computer Science class for high school students in Vietnam. We started with Blockly Games, then moved on to ray-tracing using POV-Ray, digital logic using CMOS gates, micro-controller programming using Arduino Trinket Pros, wall-following using Ozobot, and a couple of projects in Pascal.

The class went very well. Students were remarkably disciplined and worked hard on unfamiliar topics. It was not uncommon to receive emails after midnight with project code. Transitioning from one computer language to another was no problem for these kids; although Pascal was what they were familiar with from school, Blockly, JavaScript, Arduino, and POV-Ray were easy to pick up. After the first week we thinned the class down from 30 to 10 as planned, and significantly increased the difficulty.

There was a notable correlation in the students between English skills and programming skills. The reason became apparent when they searched for documentation. A Google search for "capitalize string Pascal" returns half a million results (including Pascal's official documentation and Stack Overflow), whereas searching for "Pascal đổi sang chữ in hoa" reduces the pool to a handful of local blogs. Until machine translation can become completely transparent, English literacy remains an educational force-multiplier.

A cultural issue we ran into is that Vietnamese students are unaccustomed to asking questions in class or volunteering to answer a question. Teachers dispense truth, students memorize, tests verify. This didn't fit well with our more Western teaching style which involved asking leading questions and trying to encourage class participation. At times it felt like teaching to a brick wall. Over time a compromise was reached: as teachers we adapted to the lack of feedback, and a few of the braver students occasionally spoke up.

A more amusing cultural difference was that when asked to render snowmen in POV-Ray, none of the students had ever made a real snowman. Most of the snowmen ended up with traditional Vietnamese straw hats.

Here's our class photo album. A big thank you the staff and students of L Qu Đn high school in Da Nang for giving us this opportunity.

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