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[Analytics] Covid-19 is widening Indonesia’s education gap

Children eat snacks next to the Jambe river filled with trash and household waste in Bekasi, West Java province on 2 November, 2019. (AFP Photo). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Three Indonesian children were learning from home with adequate equipment and facilities — a laptop and table for each child. Ulfah Alifia specially for the East Asia Forum.

A desperate father stole a smartphone to help his son’s distance learning. Three high school students were caught for attempted robbery — they wanted money to buy a smartphone for online-learning purposes. These three stories went viral in Indonesia, revealing home schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying Indonesia’s existing education inequalities.

The Indonesian government introduced a distance-learning policy in mid-March 2020. Teachers, students and parents are facing many challenges as a result.

A SMERU study — a portrait of the first three months of home-based learning — captures variations in the learning practices of Indonesian students. Unequal access to facilities and infrastructure, differences in remote-teaching abilities, the type and location of schools, as well as students’ environment at home contribute to these variations.

Distance learning relies heavily on network coverage, yet the data shows that coverage varies highly between regions. According to Statistics Indonesia, in 2018 more villages in Java received a strong signal compared to other regions of Indonesia, followed by Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali and Kalimantan, respectively. Only 25 per cent of Maluku and Papua received a strong signal.

Because of unequal Internet access and poor network coverage, many teachers are unable to teach to the best of their ability. About 30 per cent of teachers in Java do not teach every working day. The proportion is even higher for teachers outside Java, where as many as 50 per cent do not teach every day.

In many cases, their students have either no smartphone or internet access. These teachers visit their students and usually only hand out assignments (without teaching at all). This practice is common in public schools in rural areas, particularly outside Java. Teachers in these areas are often unable to assess their students’ assignments or provide opportunities for question and answer sessions.

Under COVID-19 social-distancing restrictions that force people to stay at home, parents play an important role in supporting their children’s learning. But not all parents have the capacity to give this support. Those from poor families experience difficulties supporting their children’s home-based learning due to limited facilities such as not having a smartphone or Internet data. The situation is complicated if the family has only one smartphone but more than one child learning remotely.

SMERU finds that students with above-average performance in class are likely to have a supportive home environment. They live in urban areas, with better access to facilities during remote learning. Their well-educated parents actively participate in guiding their learning from home as well as communicating with their teachers regularly.

Children with poorly educated parents, and who live in rural areas, tend to spend their time playing rather than studying. Their parents are usually unaware of their children’s education and they are less likely to participate in children’s learning because they do not know how to fill that role.

These findings confirm that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds suffer a proportionally greater loss due to COVID-19 school closures. The education and learning that they miss out on has a dramatic negative impact in the long run.

The government’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy fails to address problems because the situation varies for teachers, students and parents. The Ministry of Education and Culture (MoEC) needs to consider better special interventions for teachers and students in areas with limited infrastructure. This should involve scheduling additional teacher visits or setting up more open-air schools. Schools can also assess student and parent needs for learning support such as more detailed guidelines for parents, phone credit support and training for teachers to adapt to the new learning environment.

To avoid further gaps in education, teachers need to know the level of their students’ abilities during the home-based learning period until schools are fully reopened. Schools, with the assistance of the district education agency, can conduct periodic assessments to identify students’ learning level.

Teachers need to apply differentiated teaching approaches based on their students’ needs. The MoEC can develop practical guidelines for this approach for teachers, along with providing support or a platform for teachers to improve their ability in implementing it. The government should also develop a system to monitor teachers as well as students during the distance learning period.

In the long run, the government must boost equitable infrastructure development. The government should also invest in teacher education reform such as developing a curriculum specifically for distance learning and education emergencies as well as mastery of teaching technology.

Ulfah Alifia is a senior researcher at the SMERU Research Institute, Jakarta.

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