Addressing the digital divide

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – The Covid-19 pandemic has caused numerous disruptions–to our economies, our social lives and politics. It has thrown entire industries into bankruptcy, left countless numbers of people without jobs, and it will undoubtedly have an impact on national and global politics. 

The pandemic has also forced the world, where it can, to work and learn online. In fact, there is now emerging a new class of white- collar workers, known as ‹digital nomads›, who are looking to permanently abandon their office spaces and work at home. Many of these nomads are even thinking about relocating from the cities they work in to more exotic locale such as the Bahamas, Jamaica and here in Asia to tropical destinations such as Phuket and Bali. 

Students everywhere have been out of their classrooms since the pandemic erupted, as well, and with varying degress of success these students and their teachers along with their schools have been trying to cope with the challenge of online education. Ensuring students have sufficient access to the internet through their laptops or mobile devices has been an issue for some countries, especially in the developing world that have poor connectivity. In many cases, in low-income rural areas and city ghettos, parents can’t afford to buy a laptop or a mobile phone for their children, hence leaving an entire tribe of underprivileged youth facing the prospect of falling futher and further behind in their studies until schools can finally reopen. 

Take the case of India, a country that places a tremendous a mount of importance on its educational system. The world›s second most populous nation, India has the second largest number of internet users, as well. Yet most Indians, relying primarily on mobile data, don’t have access to fixed line internet. Signals are often uneven, making it difficult to stream videos smoothly, hence putting a big wrinkle in the ability of Indian children to learn online. Making matters even worse, most student households don’t own laptops, and with many poor families having only one phone and limited budgets to buy mobile data, lower-income students are at a huge disadvantage compared to better-heeled ones. 

Such differences, known as the ‘digital divide’, is one of the larger challenges that need to be addressed by governments. Wealthier nations in Asia, such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, have had fewer problems in delivering education in a purely digital format. But less wealthy countries, especially large ones such as India and Indonesia, face a tremendous uphill battle. 

To be fair, we can›t entirely blame governments for not being fully prepared to pivot away from traditional schooling to online learning. Although the World Health Organization had been war ning us that it was not a question of ‹if› but ‹when› a new pandemic would occur, nobody had the imagination to warn us that our educational systems needed to prepare for online learning. 

For now, it is clear what educaters and policy makers need to do. A partial substitute for online learning is national television stations–these can be used to reach a wider audience than other platforms since there is no need for viewers to have internet access, hence enabling the government to broadcast lessons for schoolchildren at home. It is not a perfect substitute, but for those unable to attend online classes, it is a good start. 

Indonesia has already moved in the right direction with offline learning through the Ministry of Education and Culture›s Learning at Home program through the state-owned television broadcaster, TVRI. The government has also been providing quotas for free mobile data, hence enabling children living in lower -income households to participate in online classes. 

Still, more can be done. At minimum, the government should ensure all students can buy or be given a mobile phone and have unlimited free mobile data as long as classrooms are shuttered. TVRI›s budget should be increased, as well, namely for the purpose of producing more educational content with longer broadcast hours. 

The Indonesian government also needs to be aware that it can’t afford to be complacent. Some school districts will start reopening, but the risk of new surges is unavoidable, and in such cases there will be the need to close schools and go back to online classes once again. The Jokowi administration must be realistic that, even in the best-case scenario, we will not see a widely-available vaccine for at least another year. When it comes to education, and hence the future of our children, more commitment is direly needed at this time.