Coping with Online Schooling during a pandemic

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Illustration: Agung Wahyudi/IO

How Covid-19 reveals Indonesia’s weaknesses for the digital era

IO – “Indonesian youth will be ready for the 21st century in the 31st century,” read a quote from an article written by Amanda Beatty, Emilie Berkhout, Luhur Bima, Thomas Coen, Menno Pradhan, and Daniel Suryadarma, published in Centre for Economics Education Annual Research Digest 2017-2018. 

The first time, I read this paper a few years ago, it felt like an overstatement. But with what we all see in Indonesia in the teaching & learning process using online distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, the statement turned out to hold a lot of truth. This nation is not ready to develop technologically superior human resources in the era of Industrial Revolution 4.0, which hinges on digitalization. Indonesia’s unpreparedness is plain for everyone to see, how everyone seems clueless, from policymakers, teachers, parents, and students themselves in embracing online distance learning. 

Since around March, there have been many complaints regarding the chaotic delivery of online distance learning, ranging from a lack of enabling gadgets, disparity in access to internet which has yet to reach every corner of the archipelago, costly internet data packages, lack of digitally-competent teachers who comprehend online pedagogy, unpreparedness on the part of parents in guiding their children’s study at home, to unmotivated students due to insufficiently-prepared lessons. 

These conditions have led many parties to demand schools be reopened and face-to-face learning be brought back. It seems like people don’t care anymore about the health and safety of their children, teachers, and the community at large this could result in schools becoming a new cluster in the transmission of Covid-19 virus. 

Once, I was invited to be one of the sources at the House of Representatives’ working committee meeting on online distance education. Other sources include representatives from the Indonesian Pediatrics Association (IDAI). They passionately recommended that schools not be opened too early even though the area is in the green zone and children not be brought to public places, that they are better off when they remain in home quarantine. The situation is still not conducive for face-to-face teaching and learning and can indeed be very dangerous with the Covid-19 virus still lurking out there. I would certainly be more trusting of the advice from health experts in this matter. Thus, our mindset should no longer be on bringing education back to the comfort zone of face-to-face teaching as in the pre-pandemic time, but rather on how to make online distance learning more effective in producing excellent human resources. 

3i framework in digital education 

In implementing digital education, there are three pillars required, namely, infrastructure, infostructure, and infoculture. These are integral and inseparable part in creating an effective and efficient digital education based on information technology. 

Infrastructure consists of all the basic structures and facilities, physical and social, that are required for the effective delivery of digital education. Infrastructure in this modern education trend usually involves devices (laptop or desktop computers, tablets and smart phones), electricity, chargers, internet access (wired or wireless), data packages, and other supporting devices, such as interactive whiteboards, cameras, microphones and headsets. Also included in infrastructure are teaching materials such as videos, presentation slides, documents, audio, e-books, etc. 

Infostructure is akin to infrastructure, except that it refers non-physical entities. Infostructure is the design of information resources that can be used and navigated more easily. For instance, cloud-based office applications, Learning Management Systems (LMS) to navigate teaching materials and School Information Systems (SIS) are all forms of infostructure in modern education. 

The last pillar is infoculture, defined as the process of disseminating diverse culturally-based information between the digital and non-digital eras. The concept of anywhere, anytime, and any device in digital education is one of the key differentiators from conventional education. Through this concept, learning can be carried out in a synchronous and asynchronous manner, meaning that it can be conducted in real time or students can choose their own time, material, and learn at their own pace. 

The digital education culture takes advantage of so-called multifunctional devices, which can be used as an information consumption and production tool. This is different from conventional learning, where the tool only has a single function. 

Thus, digital education must crystalize into students’ innovation and creation. Smart devices should not only be used as a means of consuming information/content, but a tool to innovate, create, and find solutions to various problems. 

Demographic Bonus: Threat or Opportunity? 

The government has repeatedly portrayed Indonesia’s demographic bonus as a great opportunity for the Indonesian people to “graduate” into becoming a developed country with a GDP target around US$7.4 trillion in 2050. 

If Indonesian human resources are not well-prepared in terms of competence and character, the demographic bonus can turn into demographic disaster. This is due to the fact that Indonesia will have a large working-age population but lacking the ability to compete in the digital era. 

According to a paper titled “15 years of education in Indonesia: rising enrolment and flat learning profiles” published in the Center for Economics Education Annual Research Digest 2017-2018 as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, the biggest challenge that Indonesia faces in improving its education system is complacency. According to the paper there are two types of complacency besetting the country. 

The first type of complacency is the illusion that learning performance will increase “naturally” or is “inevitable” over time, or a consequence of other broad positive changes in the economy, government, or society. If this occurred in other parts of the world, then it will also happen in Indonesia, as evinced by the rapid progress taking place between 2000 and 2014 in various fields. Indonesia has made a very smooth transition from a long period of authoritarian rule to a stable and competitive democracy after President Suharto stepped down in May 1998. Indonesia is one of only a few countries in the world with an indicator showing increased government capability between 1996 and 2012 (Andrews, Pritchett, Woolcock 2016). GDP per capita has more than doubled during this period. 

The second type of complacency is that “they” (the global and national education experts in charge of Indonesian education) know what to do. Once education becomes a priority, it will be easy to make progress with intensified “business as usual” or derogatorily called BAUWMM (Business As Usual With More Money). With Indonesia’s commitment to spend at least 20 percent of the state budget for education, there is an assumption that the country is not really complacent. Most of the budget is allocated to increase teacher salaries, aimed at improving their performance. But a study of the impact of this policy, titled “double for nothing” (de Ree et al 2017), found very conflicting outcomes. 

The above argument is reinforced by the fact that Indonesian children could only score 371 on the PISA reading test in 2000 and after seven times taking the same test over a period of 18 years, Indonesian children still achieved the same score in 2018. It’s a far cry compared to the average of children from OECD countries with a score of 487 in reading on the 2018 PISA test. If reading ability is low, then surely learning ability will be low as well. If learning ability is low, then automatically the level of intelligence must also suffer. 

Similarly, Indonesian children’s mathematical ability is also low, with an average score of 379, compared to OECD countries at 489. In the field of science, Indonesian children’s average score is 396 against OECD’s 489. 

Proposed solutions 

Distance learning amid the Covid-19 outbreak is not yet ideal. Many problems have emerged, among them students given poorly-designed homework assignments, teachers recording lessons in classrooms and sending them to their students’ phones, many teachers with no experience in online distance learning now being forced to do it because they have to follow local government’s “learn from home” policy aimed at curbing Covid-19 transmission. 

We can all see how unprepared teachers are, how stressful parents are as they have to accompany their children in studying at home, and of course how confused students are with the deluge of assignments from their clueless teachers. With this in mind, there are several solutions proposed, including: 

First, the four pillars of education from UNESCO, namely Learning to Know, Learning to Do, Learning to Be, and Learning to Live Together. Now is the perfect opportunity to recalibrate the direction of education system which has strayed too far from its original mission. 

Education institutions should once again teach Leaning How to Learn instead of Learning What to Learn. This can clearly be seen from the content of online learning where teachers are still fixated on spoon-feeding students’ content of the curriculum instead of letting them seek the answers themselves. 

With the internet, students can learn to know, learn to do, learn to be, and learn to live together with a very different approach than in the pre-internet era where the teacher became the only source of knowledge. Teachers can simply facilitate how students can seek information from reliable sources, not based on hoaxes, and not simply the opinions of someone whose credibility is questionable. 

The solutions offered must have a strong theoretical foundation and not just be eccentric ideas. The solution must be worked out in groups even if they do not meet face to face. The solution must be presented in the form of video and uploaded to social media such as YouTube, Facebook, Linkedin, Line, or others. Assessment will be based on the number of views, “likes”, and comments/ interactions generated by the uploaded content. 

Please give this concept a try. I’m sure the benefits will be more concrete for the students and it will definitely reduce the stress level of parents at home, empower teachers in implementing online learning, and bring the education system back on track. 

Most of us will be surprised by the creativity and innovation of our young generation who thus far are deprived of the opportunity because they waste their time in learning what to learn. And this concept will change parents and teachers’ perspectives on the use of gadgets, which so far have been mostly seen as consumption instead of production tools. And this is where the real process of developing superior human capital begins. 

Second, there should have been a solution to how Indonesian children have been unable to learn for months due to lack of access. The government should have taken concrete measures to solve the problem. For example, the Education and Culture Ministry can collaborate with the Communication and Information Ministry, State-Owned Enterprises and the Villages, Disadvantaged Regions, and Transmigration Ministry. 

Third, nonformal teachers must also be prepared to carry out effective and efficient online distance learning. The government should invite national and international education experts and figures to provide training and mentoring for those teachers so it can eventually improve the teaching and learning process. Learning through television and radio, which is an outdated 20th century technology, does not meet the learning needs of the 21st century. Also invite parents’ active involvement. The current situation causes problems and requires out-of-the-box solutions. In essence, parents need support and guidance so the teaching and learning process at home can be more effective and efficient. 

The National Child Protection Commission (KPAI) recently received around 200 complaints related to online teaching and learning activities from home. Chief among them was the one-way, non-interactive teaching and learning activity. There are still many teachers who are confused with managing distance learning. The variety of available media are also not used optimally to foster online learning. On the other hand, many students whose parents are daily wage earners are having difficulty buying internet quota, not to mention that not all them have adequate devices. 

The unpreparedness of our education system during the pandemic, especially the fiasco in online distance learning, has shown how outdated it is. We are sorely lacking in facing the challenges of the 21st century. 

The impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the education sector does not mean that the government should create an emergency curriculum as conceived by the Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim. Supposedly, the current curriculum can be empowered for distance learning. But the problem lies in the capability and comprehension of teachers, as well as limited facilities. Also, teachers have yet to optimize the existing curriculum in their teaching. 

Fourth, each local government needs to reevaluate the state of education in their region, because not all students are on the same footing when it comes to online learning. There are a variety of factors that prevent them from participating in online lessons. Afterward, the local government needs to create a blueprint, implement it and then reevaluate it for further upgrading. (Indra Charismiadji)

Indra Charismiadji is an Educational Practitioner at the Center for Education Regulations and Development Analysis (CERDAS). He completed his studies at the University of Toledo, Ohio, US, with a double degree in finance and marketing. He furthered his studies at Dana University, Ottawa Lake, Michigan, US. After gaining experiences in several US companies, including Merril Lynch, Omnicare Inc., and Dana Corporation, in 2002, Indra decided to return home, and play an active role in developing the quality of education in Indonesia.