Like R.A. Kartini herself, our contributor Tracey Yani Harjatanaya is passionate about education. A doctoral candidate at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, UK, Tracey is an educator and a board member of Yayasan Perguruan Sultan Iskandar Muda, a school that champions equality and diversity based in Medan, Indonesia. In this article, Tracey shares first-hand insights into the challenges of schooling in the time of pandemic and the silver lining that comes out of it.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the rapidly changing national and international economic, political and social landscape had already led to many kinds of uncertainties. Yet, no one predicted that the scale of uncertainties could escalate to this extent under a pandemic.
As a microcosm of the society, education is one of the many sectors that is adversely affected. School administrators, head teachers, teachers, students, and parents are all left in limbo as lockdowns are implemented worldwide and distance learning becomes the ‘new normal’. As an educational researcher, educator and a board member of Yayasan Perguruan Sultan Iskandar Muda, a private multicultural school in Medan, Indonesia, I have noted how education is once again expected to respond to a new kind of uncertainty. And we are struggling, more than ever.
At the core of this struggle lies the questions of how to ensure learning takes place, and when it does, how to ensure it takes place safely and that no one is left behind. Doing this amidst a pandemic is not easy, both psychologically and logistically. It takes discipline and motivation from the teachers, students, and parents to keep moving forward and live this ‘new normal’.
Teachers are as affected as the students and parents, and it is a challenge to get used to the routine of distance learning. Like people in other jobs, a lot of teachers have to juggle between teaching and tending to their own families.
Having a routine at home is a positive distraction from the precariousness. It is also needed to keep us sane and create a sense of control. Nonetheless, this may be easier said than done – even more so for people from vulnerable groups.
Too often, distance learning is interpreted as digital learning. This is demonstrated by the popular use of online meeting and digital learning platforms. The availability of advanced technologies at times like this is of course a blessing, as it brings people closer together and makes communication, and thus distance learning, possible.
However, assuming that everyone has the same access and capital (knowledge) to digital media is misleading, and, in fact, perpetuating existing inequalities. All of us recognize that vulnerable groups in the society, such as those living in remote areas with limited infrastructure or those who have limited access to gadgets, are already left behind in terms of resources before Covid-19. The impact of this digital divide on children in these groups is becoming more pervasive when quality learning is reduced to live-streaming teaching and learning.
To illustrate, I am going to share a glimpse of my experience working at Sultan Iskandar Muda. Despite being a private school, more than half of the students come from economically-deprived backgrounds. Even after their tuition fees are subsidized or waived, many of them still cannot participate in digital learning because they do not own a mobile phone, let alone a laptop.
Among those who do have mobile phones, there are some whose phones are not sufficiently supported to run the required apps for digital learning, while others have limited internet data to participate in frequent live-streaming meetings with their teachers.
In the case of younger students, the role of parents (often mothers) is significant since they become the teacher’s partner in facilitating learning at home. Children whose parents are used to using what seems to be a straightforward app to digital natives (Millennials and Gen Z), such as Whatsapp, do not find much technical difficulty.
For parents who mainly use their phones to call or text and have limited digital capital, however, distance learning quickly turns into a burden; one that adds onto their existing struggle of earning enough to sustain their lives in these difficult times. Meanwhile, teachers have to quickly learn how to operate various types of media and use them critically and creatively to meet students’ needs.
In light of the discussion above, one may ask what schools can do to ensure quality learning is accessible to all students regardless of their circumstances. This is an important, yet complex, question to answer. First, it is crucial to identify the role of education in the face of uncertainties and what could be expected of teaching as social and spatial divisions increase.
My fellow educators in Sultan Iskandar Muda and I agree now more than ever that learning is not a one-size-fits-all activity. It also requires multi-stakeholder collaboration. While there are many struggles and frustrations, I have witnessed first-hand how more educators, students, and parents become more creative and united in making sure learning still takes place.
Teachers are helping each other as well as parents and students to learn more about technology, from simple things like how to download videos in Whatsapp to more challenging tasks like how to provide a fun learning activity at home. When learning using technology is not possible, printed learning materials are collected by parents or delivered by teachers while following the health and safety protocol.
School leaders and administrators figure out ways to help students stay at school when parents are experiencing financial hit. We make sure teachers can still take away their full pay, even though parents struggle to pay tuition fees. All of us work together to make sure that there is still a degree of certainty at this time of uncertainties. All of us sacrifice to make sure that young people still have a purpose and something to look forward to when they wake up in the morning.
We have learned how in the face of global uncertainties, education, particularly educators, should remain resilient to protect a better tomorrow for everyone. Because when things get better, they have to continue educating the nation to cope with many other uncertainties awaiting.
Photos provided by author.