By Anne Suryani and Ahmad Bukhori Muslim.

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in abrupt shifts in schooling practices across the world, including in Indonesia.

In March 2020, when the Indonesian government announced the first official Covid-19 cases in the country, the Ministry of Education and Culture (now known as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology) responded by issuing a circular instructing educational institutions at all levels to switch to virtual teaching and learning.

This sent more than 68 million students across all year levels into home learning.

As the government has struggled to keep Covid-19 infections under control, many students have remained stuck at home. After a major spike in cases in July 2021, the government announced on 16 August that the social restrictions known as PPKM would be extended for another week at least, suggesting it will be some time yet before students can return to in-school learning.

In complying with the ministerial order, primary and secondary schools have required strict attendance by teachers, who must deliver teaching and learning programs from schools, not their place of residence, to make use of school-owned technology. Students, meanwhile, remain in their own homes.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to have more lenient policies, allowing lecturers to manage online learning courses on their own, and many prefer to teach from home. Without proper preparation, however, this sudden shift to virtual mode has resulted in significant challenges for teachers, lecturers and students.

The most salient challenge is the lack of sufficient internet infrastructure to support virtual learning. Indonesia does not have the privilege of widespread internet coverage across its large archipelago. Many teachers and students in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Medan, Surabaya, and Makassar have the luxury of good internet bandwidth that enables them to access online learning tools, such as Zoom, Google Meet and Google Classroom. They can engage in online learning activities without major connection constraints.

Meanwhile, students in remote cities and districts may suffer because of poor (or no) internet or electricity connection. National media have reported that some students have had to climb hills and even trees just to get a decent phone signal for remote learning activities. The international school educated Minister of Education, Culture, Research and Technology Nadiem Makarim was widely ridiculed early on in the pandemic when he admitted that he was shocked to learn that some areas of Indonesia still only had limited access to electricity.

Further, personal computers or laptops are still a luxury for most Indonesian youths, even among university students. Consequently, most students at all educational levels rely on mobile phones (or their parents’ phones if they are young) to access online learning. As a result, teachers typically send learning tasks or instructions to parents’ mobile phones via WhatsApp. After students have completed their tasks, parents take pictures of the homework and send them back to the teachers.

This makes it very difficult for children whose parents do not have mobile phones or live in remote areas without reliable internet connection. They may have no way of accessing online learning and rely on individual teachers’ understanding and creativity to ensure they can still access education.

Supported by local governments, some teachers in remote areas have managed to solve this problem. One solution has been to provide free wifi access at local subdistrict and neighbourhood government offices. Without proper precautions, however, these kinds of gatherings may become unintended opportunities for virus transmission.

In some remote areas, particularly where Covid-19 case numbers have not been high, teachers have continued to organise limited classroom sessions (1 or 2 days per week) or even pay home visits to ensure students are learning.

Another challenge relates to the maintaining teaching and learning quality online. Students in remote areas may be left behind by their peers in large cities because of disrupted internet connections and other limited schooling facilities. By nature, online learning encourages more cognitive-based tasks over hands-on practical work, which is harder to do virtually. Studies worldwide have shown that pandemic-related virtual learning has resulted in significant learning losses among students, particularly in developing countries with poor telecommunications infrastructure.

Another major constraint relates to student engagement. Many Indonesian students may believe that home learning is not as serious as regular school learning. Remote learning activities are typically more relaxed as students usually remain in their homes with only distant monitoring from teachers. As such, they tend to take a more casual approach to virtual classroom sessions.

For example, some students turn off their cameras during classroom activities and work on other tasks, lie on their beds or avoid work altogether. Many students are reluctant to involve themselves in group discussions and remain silent unless requested by their teachers to speak up. Some students reportedly ask teachers for permission to leave online sessions to help their parents with household chores.

As home learning drags on, psychological strain and boredom among students and parents is setting in. Parents argue that home learning is not effective as they cannot provide the necessary support for their children, particularly young children of early childhood and primary school ages.

Many are now demanding that their children return to normal in-person school activities soon, despite the risk of Covid-19. Responding to this pressure, some local educational offices in big cities tried out limited in-person classroom sessions in June 2021, hoping to restart normal schooling activities in July.

But the recent major spike in Covid-19 cases that Indonesia has put an end to these plans, and learning activities at all educational institutions remain virtual.

Despite a slow start, the Ministry of Education and Culture has now launched several strategies to support online learning programs. For example, it has worked with the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology and state-owned communications company Telkom to try to improve telecommunications infrastructure.

The ministry has also provided internet data vouchers for students, from early childhood to tertiary levels, so that they can access online learning materials without charge. Vouchers have been provided on a monthly basis and can only be used for online learning. In an effort to improve the quality of teaching and learning activities, as well as student engagement, the ministry has also offered training in online learning material development for teachers and lecturers.

But despite this government support (delayed and somewhat uneven as it is) and the valiant efforts of parents, prolonged online learning is a significant challenge for students. Having been forced into virtual modes of learning within limited supporting facilities for almost two years now, most Indonesian children and their parents are experiencing severe drain and boredom.

Students are bored staying at home and their parents are tired of trying to assist their children with limited facilities. Children miss their schools, teachers, classmates, and other important schooling activities. Students (and parents) have now started to realise that the schooling experience is irreplaceable. Even the most cutting-edge technology for online learning is no substitute for the humanity of teachers.

Education is not solely about knowledge transfer. Education should be able to support the holistic development of children as human beings.

The sooner that the government can increase the pace of its sluggish vaccination drive and lower Covid-19 infection rates the better – not just for the health of its people, but also for the education of Indonesia’s next generation.

Photo by M Agung Rajasa for Antara.

This piece was originally published in the Indonesia At Melbourne blog, a joint initiative of the Asia Institute in the Faculty of Arts, the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS) in the Melbourne Law School, and the Indonesia Forum, all from the University of Melbourne.

As home learning drags on, students and teachers are beginning to suffer