E27: Brain drain no more: Why Topica CEO sees edtech as the answer to Vietnam's education woes

(e27, June 2nd, 2016) Pham Minh Tuan also explains how the company maintains its 82 per cent retention rate.

The number of edtech startups in Vietnam has grown from 60 to over 100 in 2015, turning the country into one of the largest edtech communities in Southeast Asia.

According to edtech group Topica CEO Pham Minh Tuan, there are several factors that contributed to this phenomenal growth, starting from the entrance of VC firms such as IDG Ventures and CyberAgent Ventures in the market as early as 2004.

“The first generation of edtech startups were founded around the mid-2000s, and by now, startups have learned a lot from their successes and failures. Second, Internet and smartphone penetration is on the rise,” he explained in an interview with e27.

There is a burning desire from Vietnamese students to learn, combined with exploding demand for degree education, professional skills and language skills due to foreign investment, regional and international trade agreements.

“Some research estimate that the size of education market is seven times that of telco market … Just think about how much you and your family would invest on education each year, and how much would you spend on buying new phones, paying subscription fees and downloading apps,” he added.

Find out how edtech is going to save the country’s education sector, and to what extent it will do.

Here is the edited excerpt of the interview.

A New York Times‘ piece on Obama’s visit to Vietnam stated that “Vietnam’s higher education system is considered poor” – which leads to brain drain. Do you believe edtech innovations will be able to effectively tackle this problem?

I am among those who believe that edtech is the only way to tackle this problem. If we wanted to bridge the demand-supply gap in education by investing in traditional institutions and learning centers, we would have to build thousands of campuses and buildings, and train millions of teachers, professors. The investment amount needed would be several times our annual GDP, and if we had all the resources needed, it would still take decades to see results.

Edtech, on the other hand, allows us to leverage existing teachers and professors more effectively, without building expensive facilities. For example, at Topica, we have engaged nearly 2,000 managers and professionals to teach in our online degree programs, and hundreds of native speakers based in the US and Europe to tutor in our online English speech practice programs.


The managers and professionals bring the most relevant knowledge that employers need, but they would not be able to travel to campus three to four times a week to teach in a traditional way. The native English teachers work from their home countries, and it would be impossible to bring all of them in to teach in physical language centers.

Edtech therefore allows student to remain in their jobs and stay in their homes while still receiving great education.

What are the hurdles in edtech gaining widespread adoption in Vietnam and beyond? For example, are employers ready to recognise certificates obtained from online courses even if they are from reputable universities?

It is actually not that hard anymore to get students to adopt online education, at least for the first time. Any startup can design attractive landing pages and persuasive sales scripts, and many customers are very open to trying new online learning programmes.

But it is a lot harder to get them to come back for another course, or to refer their friends. Quite often we can see edtech startups launching with great buzz, get a phenomenal growth for a few months, or even a couple years, and then flat out.

Each year at Topica, we spend two months focussing on “4H”, which is internal training on how we can improve the overall quality of our products. During this time, our product teams are requested not to grow their revenues, so all employees can receive training on our “4H Quality Spiral” methodology, and participate in dozens of quality enhancement projects.

Many of the projects will continue throughout the year, but the 4H months help us fully concentrate in quality, and build a deep appreciation of quality and the methodologies into all of our 1,200 full-time staff and 2,000 instructors.

The result we are most proud of is a 82 per cent retention rate over 12 months for our online degree programs, which is comparable to that of the top four online colleges in the US.

We have also launched a partnership with Coursera, one of the first initiatives in Asia, where students can learn with video lectures from the world’s top universities, receive world-class tutoring and support services from Topica, and get both certificates from Coursera and degrees from local universities.

Another is with Franklin University in Ohio, where students study the first three years with Topica at very affordable tuition fees, then complete the last 18 months at the Franklin campus, and receive a fully accredited US college degree. As far as we know, this is the first time in Southeast Asia where a local online degree program is validated in such a way by an accredited US institution.


We are also investing in gamification to enhance student engagement, adaptive learning to ensure the most efficient learning paths for each individual student, and developing apps on new platforms such as VR, smartwatches, telepresence robots, drones to experiment with ways teachers can more richly engage students from a distance.

All these efforts helped us gain adoption not only in Vietnam, but also Thailand, Philippines and most recently Indonesia.

Do you see a future where edtech will replace traditional educational institutions?

I believe edtech will be part of all education activities in the next 10-15 years, dramatically enhancing teaching and learning.

The question whether edtech will replace traditional education is the same as asking if electricity will replace mechanical machines. In some cases it will, in other cases electricity blends in with mechanical parts to make them better. We won’t be talking about “edtech” anymore, as all education will involve some technology, the same way we are not talking about “electronic machines” anymore.

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