TOEFL’s rapid retreat from Vietnam: How computerisation allowed IELTS to dominate

“Let this be a warning to educational technologists…no matter how dominant a stake you hold, you serve the market and it could eat you for lunch”

The computerization of the TOEFL exam allowed the IELTS to dominate Vietnam, says Deren Temel, Manager of International Development at SEAMEO RETRAC in Ho Chi Minh City.  In this week’s PIE blog, Temel discusses “the TOEFL exam’s self-inflicted collapse” in Vietnam, and asks readers to lend their insight in the comments. 

Before we get into the strategic disaster that dethroned the TOEFL exam’s dominant position in Vietnam’s English credentials market, lets set a few things straight. Credentials are certificates, exam scores, or degrees that describe someone’s prior learning and/or skill level. The international recognition of credentials allows students to continue their education across borders.

For Vietnamese international students, an exam score describing their English proficiency is the most fundamental credential for mobility. An exam has four primary external stakeholders – students who take the exam, proctors who give the exam, test prep centres that improve students’ scores, and institutions that recognise a student’s exam score.

From the opening of Vietnam’s doors in 1986 until 2005, the US non-profit Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) TOEFL exam was the dominant player in Vietnam’s English credentials market. The TOEFL’s dominance stemmed from the fact that until 2005, US colleges and universities, almost exclusively, recognized the TOEFL as the gateway credential for international enrollment.

Given ETS’ privileged position with US institutions, it must have gambled that for efficiency sake it could force Vietnamese stakeholders to upgrade from a paper-based to a computer-based exam in a single year.

“ETS underestimated how quickly Vietnamese stakeholders would shift to a competitor’s credential and that US institutions would follow them”

In 2005, TOEFL exam proctors across Vietnam learned that the paper-based TOEFL exam would be quickly replaced with a computer-based exam. Vietnamese proctors would have to purchase state-of-the-art computers, speciality servers, and new software to continue providing the exam. Their exam prep techniques and amassed study materials would soon be obsolete. The high cost of computer upgrades drove up tuition fees, TOEFL prep centres closed, and students fritted over the mechanics of the exam software.

“The TOEFL exam had suddenly become a test of computer skills; skills few young Vietnamese students had mastered in 2005”

To illustrate students’ panic, some anxious students travelled to Cambodia where the paper-based exam was still available. Although the long-term benefits of a computerized TOEFL could increase efficiency, the high short-term costs on students and proctors shocked the market and gave their competitor, the IELTS exam, an opportunity to usurp the TOEFL’s dominant market position.

Without access or preparation for the computer-based TOEFL exam, aspiring international students needed an alternative credential. The UK’s British Council and Australia’s IDP heavily promoted Cambridge University’s paper-based IELTS exam as just that alternative.

The IELTS was positioned as the gateway credential to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK. The positioning of the IELTS as the gateway to the Commonwealth education sectors coincided with a sharp rise in Vietnamese enrollment worldwide, particularly in Australia and Singapore, in the late 2000s. The result was self-perpetuating: With Vietnamese overseas enrollment going up in Commonwealth sectors, test prep centres shifted to offering IELTS courses. The shift to IELTS left test prep centres that had paid for the TOEFL’s costly upgrades stuck in the red.

We can imagine that ETS anticipated that by pursuing the upgrade to the computer-based exam it would lose some students and proctors, but the presumed reliability and efficiency of computer-based scoring would retain US colleges. In the credentials market the recognising stakeholder, in this case, US colleges, defines a credential’s market value.

“When Vietnamese students shifted to the IELTS, US colleges and universities followed them and their money”

With all four external stakeholders shifting their allegiance; the IELTS dethroned the TOEFL as Vietnam’s most valuable English credential.

The new dominance of the IELTS would bring with it the widespread adoption of Cambridge’s other credentials for young learners, students, and professionals. Today’s international educators are often surprised to learn that although Vietnamese society is tied to the global media and the Vietnamese-American diaspora, students are adopting British English vocabulary in preparation for these exams. Ironically, the rise of the IELTS is shifting the evolution of the Vietnamese-English lexicon.

Let this be a warning to educational technologists who tout the scale and efficiency of the digital era, no matter how dominant a stake you hold, you serve the market and it could eat you for lunch.

So PIE readers, to kick-off our debate:

1.) What could ETS have done to prevent the IELTS from usurping its market share?

2.) Who was ETS most crucial stakeholder?

3.) What could ETS do now to regain lost market share?