Coronavirus pandemic

Studying at home tough call for some kids in Indonesia

Many in remote parts of vast country have no smartphones or TVs, let alone Internet access

Officials disinfect motorists from Madura islands before entering Surabaya, on April 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

No Wi-Fi for virtual classes and no smartphones or TVs to watch their teachers or the government's educational programmes.

Millions of schoolchildren, especially in the backwaters of Indonesia such as Komodo Island in East Nusa Tenggara, Rupat Island in Riau province and Madura Island in East Java, are struggling with home-based learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, as they lack basic technology such as Internet connection.

Some teachers have ended up visiting students in their homes for daily lessons.

Thirteen-year-old Indriyani Safitri has been studying at home on Komodo Island with up to seven of her friends since end-March. "I've borrowed my father's handphone because my friends don't have one. We use it together," the junior high school student told The Straits Times over the phone.

Sometimes she must walk 100m to 200m from her house to get an Internet signal. But what bothers her most is the absence of the teacher who sets homework for her students on WhatsApp.

"Studying at school is better. We can directly ask our teacher questions when we don't understand," said Indriyani.

Her father, Mr Ramang Fatahullah, 42, lamented the fact that he could not always help his daughter.

"It's really hard to teach my daughter because her (study) materials are difficult," he said.

The father of three also has another issue, saying the cost of the Internet connection has become less affordable for him these days.

"With the pandemic, all tourism jobs are lost," said Mr Ramang, a tour guide on the island which is home to the well-known komodo dragons.

On Rupat Island, nine-year-old Ragina has mostly used her relative's smartphone to receive and send her school assignments. This is because the family's Internet access is limited and the connection intermittent, said the elementary pupil's mother, Madam Erna, 37

Sometimes, Ragina and her mother will ride on a motorbike to submit assignments to the teacher at her house.

Students complained about a lack of interaction with their teachers in virtual classrooms in a survey conducted by the Indonesian Child Protection Commission in April. A majority of the students also said they were tired because of the amount of homework, with tight deadlines, assigned by their teachers.

But in Sumenep, on Madura Island, elementary school teacher Avan Fathurrahman, has taken an out-of-the-box approach.

Every day, he makes home visits to some of his 19 pupils, taking with him a set of encyclopedia and children's storybooks, some of which the children can borrow.

He also entertains pupils in the lower grade, conducting storytelling sessions with hand puppets.

"I want my pupils to experience fun learning," he said. "With that, I hope to nurture their interest in reading, with which they can get much knowledge."

The 40-year-old native of Sumenep has been zipping around on his motorbike, often along muddy and slippery roads on rainy days, to reach his pupils since late March. Most of them have neither television to watch lessons on public TV broadcasts nor smartphones to do online learning.

Mr Avan believes online learning is good but said the policy needs to be adjusted, given the diverse realities in the vast archipelago where many schoolchildren, like his pupils, are from low-income families and live in remote areas.

"The parents of one pupil even wanted to borrow some money to buy a new phone. And I explained to them that they didn't need one. It's okay if they don't have it. Let me just go around," the teacher said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2020, with the headline Studying at home tough call for some kids in Indonesia. Subscribe