Digital learning tools open a world of possibilities for ethnic minority girls in remote Viet Nam
The story of Ma Thi Si
Nestled deep in the remote mountainous areas of the Northwest Region of Viet Nam lies a small village named Ham Rong, inhabited mostly by families from the Mong ethnic minority group. Every morning, girls like 11-year-old Ma Thi Si, wake up early, dress in traditional clothes and attend school in their village.
What – or rather, how, Si and her friends learn at school has changed dramatically in recent years. Teachers were trained to use Augmented and Virtual Reality (AVR)-assisted teaching methods through a programme by the Ministry of Education and Training, with the support of UNICEF Skills4Girls and local civil society organizations. Now, children like Si use tablets with virtual reality glasses to experience interactive 3D learning that combines a view of the real world with computer-generated elements, all without stepping a foot out of their village. From exploring the solar system to animals to engineering, students are fast embracing and mastering the new technology, improving their digital literacy and other 21st-century skills.
Si has always loved learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects but the real-life application of technological innovation is completely new to her. “When we used to learn science, teachers would go through textbooks and explain things using the blackboard,” says Si.
Trang Tho Pe, a teacher from Bat Xat Secondary School in Lao Cai, says the new technology has opened up a world of opportunities for adolescent girls, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“Girls are hardworking and perform well in class. However, they often underestimate their ability and disengage prematurely from STEM subjects,” says Trang.
Trang remembers how different her own childhood was. She would walk four kilometers to school and study by oil lamps in a space sheltered by bamboo and palm leaves. Despite these difficult conditions, school brought Trang immense joy. She worked hard and looked up to her teachers, who tirelessly helped her learn useful skills and encouraged her to dream big.
“In my childhood, there was no television, let alone tablets. When teachers told us different scientific theories, we could only imagine how they worked in real life,” says Trang.
Now, aged 35, Trang is an award-winning technology teacher and has made it her mission to introduce all girls in Lao Cai to technology like AVR, and to challenge stereotypes that hold girls back.
Viet Nam has achieved near-universal education, women have comparatively high workforce participation, and women and girls’ healthcare has been improving but there are still gaps amongst certain groups. Out-of-school rates for ethnic minority girls and boys of secondary school age are twice the national average. In some mountainous districts of the country, only 10 per cent of ethnic minority girls sit the exam for upper secondary school.
“It’s quite common for children to be socialized into gendered roles from early on in Viet Nam. Women and girls also carry a huge burden when it comes to housework and childcare,” says UNICEF Deputy Representative, Lesley Miller. “This is why UNICEF’s programming includes teacher sensitization and training, working with policymakers on curriculum reform, and rolling out innovations in teaching and learning materials.”
“Over 400 teachers—67 per cent of them female and 24 per cent from ethnic minorities themselves—have been trained to deliver their usual curriculum in a more adaptive and collaborative way using technology like tablets, computers and augmented reality glasses. It’s important to us that girls—and boys—have female role models motivating and inspiring them to engage in STEM learning,” says Miller.
To date, trained secondary school teachers, like Trang, have reached almost 30,000 adolescent girls and boys in the first cohort of pilot schools. Viet Nam’s Ministry of Education and Training is now committed to rolling out the initiative nationwide with a focus on girls in remote communities. The reasons, which fuel UNICEF’s new Adolescent Girls Programme Strategy, are compelling: emerging economies could boost their GDP by an average of 10 per cent should they achieve 100 percent upper secondary schooling for all girls by 2030.
“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, when the importance of digital connectivity became starkly obvious, UNICEF Viet Nam made plans to ensure that our digital learning programme didn’t just benefit the urban areas or just the middle class. We didn’t want to widen the digital divide. So, from the very beginning, our strategy was to reach the most vulnerable and most marginalized populations. Now, the programme will be scaled up further not by UNICEF, but by the Ministry of Education. While the focus in Viet Nam is on empowering and uplifting girls, it doesn't mean our interventions are only about girls. When girls have better opportunities, boys also have better opportunities,” says Miller.