Jakarta: On school days, the three teenage students hop on a motorbike and ride to their personal study hall: a spot along a narrow road outside the Indonesian village of Kenalan where they can get a stable cellphone signal.
Sitting on the shoulder of the road, they do their lessons on smartphones and a single laptop as cars and motorbikes zip by. The three students – two sisters and their 15-year-old aunt – have been studying this way on the island of Java since March, when Indonesia closed its schools and universities to contain the coronavirus.
“When the school ordered us to study at home I was confused because we don’t have a signal at home,” said one of the girls, Siti Salma Putri Salsabila, 13.
The travails of these students, and others like them, have come to symbolise the hardships faced by millions of schoolchildren across the Indonesian archipelago. Officials have shuttered schools and implemented remote learning, but internet and cellphone service is limited and many students lack smartphones and computers.
In North Sumatra, students climb to the tops of tall trees a mile from their mountain village. Perched on branches high above the ground, they hope for a cell signal strong enough to complete their assignments.
Around the globe, including in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, educators are struggling with how to best make distance learning viable during the pandemic. But in poorer countries like Indonesia, the challenge is particularly difficult.
No internet access
More than a third of Indonesian students have limited or no internet access, according to the Education Ministry, and experts fear many students will fall far behind, especially in remote areas where online study remains a novelty.
Indonesia’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus have met with mixed results. But testing has been limited and independent health experts say the actual number of cases is many times higher.
With the start of a new academic year in July, schools in virus-free zones were allowed to reopen, but these schools serve only a fraction of the nation’s students. As of August, communities in low-risk areas could decide whether to reopen schools, but few have done so.
Some dedicated teachers in remote areas travel long distances and give face-to-face lessons to small groups of students in their homes. And since April, Indonesia’s public television and radio networks have broadcast educational programming several hours a day.
But most students study online using cellphones, often buying packages that provide small amounts of data. Some families have only one phone that is shared among several children, who often must wait for their parents to come home so they can download their assignments.
Teaching online is new for many teachers, especially in rural areas. Students are often confused by the lessons, and parents - who may have only an elementary school education themselves - can be unprepared for home tutoring.
“Students have no idea what to do and parents think it is just a holiday,” said Itje Chodidjah, an educator and teacher trainer in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. “We still have lots of areas where there is no internet access. In some areas, there is even difficulty getting electricity.”
The difficulties faced by rural students today will further contribute to inequality in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country, said Luhur Bima, a senior researcher with the Smeru Research Institute, a Jakarta-based public policy center.
“Even without the pandemic, there is a big gap between the rural and the urban,” he said. “The students learn very little during normal times. When the pandemic came, they just stopped the teaching activities.”
Balance between health and education
The Minister of Education, Nadiem Makarim, who founded the tech company Go-Jek before entering politics, has wrestled with how to balance students’ health and education. Closing schools can set them back academically and lead to loneliness and depression. “The question is how we make a trade-off between health risks and permanent loss of learning for areas in Indonesia that simply cannot, or find it extremely hard, to do distance learning,” he said.
“What’s happening right now in Indonesia and in other countries is not just a loss of learning,” he added. “The level of stress, loneliness, and tension are felt by both parents and students, not to mention the teachers. These are not small issues.”
The ministry, Nadiem said, has simplified curriculums, abandoned the standardized national exam and authorized school principals to use operating funds to pay for students’ internet access.
Today, about 13 million people across 12,500 remote villages have no access to the internet, said Setyanto Hantoro, president director of Telkomsel, the country’s largest telecommunications company, which is cooperating with the government to provide service in far-flung areas.
Among the areas where Telkomsel is working to bring access are Kenalan, where the three girls study by the road, and the village of Bah Pasungsang, where as many as 20 students a day climb trees to study. But those efforts will not be completed until 2022, Setyanto said.
Kenalan is in a mountainous area about 15 miles northwest of the city of Yogyakarta and close to the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur.
Most of the villagers are farmers, growing corn and cassava, from which they produce slondok a popular snack.
The three roadside students, sisters Siti and Teara Noviyani, 19, and their aunt, Fitri Zahrotul Mufidah, are unusually dedicated to their studies.
But working outdoors is particularly difficult, especially when it rains. On one recent day, Noviyani joined her class despite a steady drizzle.
“I used one hand to hold my mobile phone for Zoom and the other to hold my umbrella,” she said. “The lecturer and my friends could see the cars and people passing by, who all greeted me.”
After the girls’ difficulties received attention from the local news media, cell service was installed at the village community center. But the signal was weak and they returned to their spot on the roadside, said Noviyani, a student at Muhammadiyah University of Magelang.
Hilarius Dwi Ari Setiawan, 11, a Kenalan sixth grader, did not own a device, so his father, Noor Cahya Dwiwandaru, a farmer, took out a loan to buy an $85 phone.
If Cahya stands in the right spot in the kitchen and holds the phone high, he can get a weak signal. To download Hilarius’ lessons, he stops work and rides his motorbike to the nearby village, where the signal is better.
“The children get stressed with this situation,” said Vincentia Orisa Ratih Prastiwi, Hilarius’ teacher. “Their parents get angry. Their younger siblings disturb them. The teachers’ video explanation is not clear.”
One morning a week, Ratih, 27, meets Hilarius and four classmates for in-person lessons at one of their homes.
She sympathises with their difficulties. “It’s hard to demand help from the government because everyone faces this pandemic,” she said. “But, if possible, the signal problem here should be fixed.”