Sieng Van Tran: A true yearning for learning

As a refugee in Britain, Sieng Van Tran had to struggle to gain an education. Now he is using his experiences to help shape his e-learning portal
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The Independent Online

Most of us take our education for granted, but not Sieng Van Tran. At the age of six, he was a newly arrived Vietnamese refugee in the UK who spoke no English. His experiences of education at a poorly performing secondary school in the Eighties taught him that teachers could not be relied upon as a first port of call. He was having trouble keeping up with the lessons. So he turned to computers for help.

Most of us take our education for granted, but not Sieng Van Tran. At the age of six, he was a newly arrived Vietnamese refugee in the UK who spoke no English. His experiences of education at a poorly performing secondary school in the Eighties taught him that teachers could not be relied upon as a first port of call. He was having trouble keeping up with the lessons. So he turned to computers for help.

Now 25, he is trying to convince others to do the same through his internet venture, ilearn.to, an e-learning portal. At present it provides access to nearly 500 on-line courses, most of them IT-based, and it has about 20,000 users, with a growth rate of 300 per day. While the majority of these are trialing courses for free, a percentage have caught the bug and are signing up to be committed e-learners.

Van Tran, who last September left a research post at Middlesex University to concentrate on developing the portal, has grand plans, although he has yet to raise substantial funding to expand the idea globally. His staff is small: three out of the 11-strong team, who include his girlfriend and his two younger brothers, have recently gone part-time to pursue their academic studies. Nevertheless, backers such as Alan Watkins, formerly of Cisco and now head of the Outsource Group, have put their faith in the venture and offered to finance it.

Van Tran says he is picky about partners, reluctant to relinquish the autonomy that he developed in the early years of his life, after he escaped by boat from South Vietnam.

"My father came to the UK first and got a job in a croissant factory, and was able to sponsor us to come. But first we were stuck in Malaysia in a refugee camp for more than a year. One of my brothers had asthma and my mother was constantly in hospital with him, so I had to look after my other brother. In doing so, I learned to be autonomous and responsible," he says.

His later experiences at school in Willesden, north London, shaped his thinking about how pupils learn. "There was a lot of support from teachers but only so much they could do when they had to deliver a curriculum within a certain period of time. I had to find a competitive advantage to stay ahead; to do more learning in less time."

Computers speeded up that process and helped him excel in maths and science. In these areas, he was less hampered by his lack of language skill. The hardest thing, he says, was his environment. "The school was poor. We had computers but nobody knew how to use them. There was no computer club."

Nevertheless, he raised funds to invest in his own programmable calculator and Commodore Amiga. "I had a different computer from other people and you couldn't exchange files easily. That was the sad thing. But I did learn that computers could provide people who were motivated with a mechanism to be an autonomous player."

That thinking led directly to the creation of ilearn.to, an idea which germinated in Van Tran's mind as he studied telematics (artificial intelligence) at Middlesex and went to the States on placement. His idea was to create a community of learners who would spend their evenings studying the finer points of project management or Microsoft certification skills and then use qualifications gained to get a better job.

He has developed the portal using technology pioneered by Autonomy, which tailors help to an individual. You might type "I'm having trouble with my printer" or "How do I create a dynamic website?" and the technology will source answers from across the internet, he says.

After ilearn.to has accumulated a critical mass, the plan is to introduce second-generation content, including digital speech tools to aid collaboration with other learners.

"It has long been recognised that one-to-one tuition is the best. We're taking that one stage further," says Van Tran. "Peers will help to increase understanding of a subject. The more students we have, the more valuable the network becomes. This learning model was in existence in the days of Plato and Socrates, when scholars used to travel around like gypsies and go after the greatest minds rather than a single school of thought."

So far, so idealistic. But where will the money come from? Van Tran says he has teamed up with the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) to offer learners unlimited access to courses for £25, with the DfEE footing the bill for the £150 per person remainder. He hopes eventually to make the courses entirely free to learners by persuading sympathetic employers and other organisations to foot even that initial expense.

Van Tran is full of plans for strategic partnerships and expansion. He is even willing to fail but says nothing will deter his commitment to what could be a life's work. "The obvious answer to the problem of boom and bust is to grow slowly, but I think the other way is to remember that a lot of this [dot.com activity] is experimental and sometimes it's better to fail fast. You save yourself a lot of time and you accelerate your proof of concept."

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