Contextualising Service Learning for Vietnamese Higher Education
The term ‘service learning’ has appeared on the horizon of Vietnamese higher education in the past few decades and is one among a wide range of pedagogical approaches that have been imported from the West. ‘Looking outward’ (Nguyen & Tran, 2017), especially to the West, is a legacy of long-lasting foreign domination that has shaped political and social changes in Viet Nam. Despite its Western roots, the service learning approach also appears to have accommodated Vietnamese ideological influences associated with creating a more capable workforce, fulfilling socialist responsibilities, and cultivating Confucian moral values. This form of experiential learning is expected to respond to the dreams of the nation by producing young graduates who possess the expertise and ethics to meet Ho Chi Minh’s socialist ideology ‘Vừa hồng, vừa chuyên’ (Both socialist-minded and professionally competent), who are better prepared for a modernised and globalised workforce. Driven by these ideologies, service learning has become increasingly popular in Vietnamese universities. Yet, despite the widespread adoption of the approach, the contextualisation of service learning is underexplored in academic research. This study aims to address the research gap by investigating the inception, challenges and opportunities, and implications for the growth and expansion of service learning in Vietnamese context.
This multisite case study, which involved participants from four universities in Viet Nam, employed an interpretivist paradigm and Kuan-Hsing Chen’s (2010) Asia as Method as theoretical orientations. An interpretivist lens enabled an exploration of the subjective experiences of those who have been involved in service learning projects and the meanings they construct. Meanwhile, Asia as Method highlighted the specificity of the local context and offered a more radical edge to an interpretivist lens, particularly in terms of proposing changes to service learning in Vietnamese higher education. A reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2019) of interview, document, and observation data revealed three distinguishing features of service learning in Vietnamese higher education: the importance of communities as a means for educational change, the challenges associated with navigating power relationships, and the significance of benevolence as moral value.
My findings suggested important implications for policy development and service learning practices in Vietnamese higher education. In order to bridge the gap in literature on service learning in a socialist, communist, and Southeast Asian developing country, a framework for institutionalising service learning in Viet Nam is proposed, together with a set of tactics to support practitioners to sustain their service learning initiatives. I envisage that the framework will serve as a reference point for service learning initiatives in universities in the wider Asian region, particularly those with a Confucian heritage, ex-colonised territories, and developing countries.