COVID-19 and learning inequities in Indonesia: Four ways to bridge the gap

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A mother looks on while her daughter uses the free Wi-Fi in the village office to study.  A mother looks on while her daughter uses the free Wi-Fi in the village office to study.

“The challenges to educate my child are lack of electricity and my age, because I can’t catch up with difficult lessons, especially as a farmer. Once a week, the teachers come to [the children’s] homes so they can nurture and take care of the children. In other villages usually they have difficulties finding the children, because the children accompany their parents to the fields.” Sutil, who lives in a remote village in West Kalimantan and does not have access to the internet or television.

“I think my challenge is juggling my job with family responsibilities. And the (poor) internet connectivity makes learning harder.” Rosa, a teacher in Bekasi whose daughter attends a private school and is accessing online learning.

Since March 2020, students, parents, and teachers in Indonesia have been grappling with school closures affecting 62.5 million students from pre-primary to higher education.  As of August 7, schools in green and yellow zones have been given the option to open if they are able to implement social distancing and water, sanitation, and hygiene guidelines.  

Over the past four months, most schools and madrasahs have made an unprecedented shift to home learning, though exactly how they’ve done it varies with the geographic and socioeconomic diversity across the nation. The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) and the Ministry of Education and Culture (MoEC) are providing training and other support for teachers using online learning platforms. MoRA has adapted its e-learning application, originally designed for classroom learning, to deliver online learning. The platform allows teachers to upload learning materials and assignments, and students to submit their work, and these features are being expanded.

MoEC has partnered with EdTech companies to provide free access to online learning platforms and with telecommunications operators on free internet quotas for teachers and students. It also moved quickly to launch educational TV programming – Belajar dari Rumah (Study from Home) – on April 13, which has become a key learning resource for students without access to the internet (an estimated 95% have access to TV). The government is also providing e-books and worksheets to schools and has authorized the use of Bantuan Operasional Sekolah (BOS) funds to print and distribute these. On August 7, MoEC also announced the option for schools to use a simplified emergency curriculum.

A closed school in Jakarta, Indonesia.
A closed school in Jakarta, Indonesia.

While the government has taken many timely steps to support learning from home, COVID-19 still poses a significant challenge to education. Assuming a pandemic-induced income shock of negative 1.1 percent, we estimate an additional 91,000 children in Indonesia will drop out of school – a 0.13 percentage point increase in primary dropouts and 0.15 percentage point increase in secondary dropouts using a World Bank tool.  Assuming most schools remain closed through the end of July, our model predicts that on average, children will lose about a third of a year of learning. Learning is linked to their capacity to earn in the future since it gives them the skills needed to be productive. Therefore, this will be accompanied by lifetime income losses of US$151 billion across 68 million students. If schools remain closed for longer without additional action to support learning, the losses in learning and earning will be even greater.

Disadvantaged students are likely to be the most impacted. For example, poorer children will likely fall behind their wealthier peers who have better access to online learning, and most children with disabilities will be unable to access special services.

Some measures Indonesia can take to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on learning and inequality are:   

1) Develop more solutions to reach students without internet access  

No-tech, low-tech, and high-tech approaches for supporting learning should all be available and resourced. MoEC’s educational TV programming has become a key resource, but more direct support is also needed. In many areas without internet connectivity, teachers are already making home visits to students. Where these visits are appropriate, the government to provide guidance on how to conduct them safely and clarify that BOS funds can be utilized to pay for teacher transport.

2) Increase connectivity and train teachers to deliver more effective and interactive online learning

Most teachers and students were not prepared for the sudden move to online learning. According to a MoEC Rapid Survey on learning from home (April 27), teachers identified internet network and monitoring student progress as their key challenges. Indonesia can support learning now and increase system resilience through investments in online teaching and learning capacities, data storage, and disaster-resilient infrastructure . For example, every sub-district to have schools equipped with laptops/smartphones, internet, electricity, water and sanitation facilities, as well as a library with printed learning materials for self-learning.

3) Identify and support those falling behind with differentiated instruction

When schools reopen, efforts should be made to identify student learning gaps, provide extra support to students who have been most negatively affected, and to differentiate instruction based on their learning levels. MoEC recently announced plans for such an assessment to differentiate instruction (the details of how this will be implemented are still to follow). Teacher professional development with a focus on differentiated learning is recommended as a part of these efforts. These formative assessments and ability-based grouping can be a permanent part of improved teaching practices post-COVID-19.  

4) Support disadvantaged students to return to school

The national and sub-national governments to take additional measures to ensure that those who are most likely to drop out, such as students from poor households and older children assisting with household income, are able to stay enrolled in school. First steps can be clear communication and socialization around school reopening, with special outreach including home visits to those most at risk.

Milions of Indonesians like Sutil and Rosa are trying to support their families and their children’s education during the pandemic. Ensuring their children are able to learn is an investment in Indonesia’s human capital and recovery, as well as a more resilient education system for future crises.  


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Deepali Gupta

Communications Consultant

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