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Indonesia’s Nadiem Makarim on COVID-19, change agents in learning & human development

“I think I’ve come to terms with the limitations of technology in the educational space,” said Nadiem Makarim, one of Asia’s most successful tech entrepreneurs and Indonesia’s current Minister of Education and Culture.  

Nadiem, 36, founded Gojek, which has grown from a motorcycle ride-hailing app to an on-demand multi-service platform and digital payment technology group valued at USD 10 billion. 

Nadiem resigned from Gojek in October 2019 when Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo asked him to serve in his second term cabinet. An innovative tech entrepreneur could be that change agent needed to reform an education ministry bogged down by bureaucracy.

A few months later, Indonesia is one of Asia’s hardest-hit countries by COVID-19. 

Hundreds of thousands of schools were closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Approximately 68 million students had no choice but to learn from home. Four million teachers had to teach remotely. Would education technology come to the rescue?

“Education is very personal, very heavily dependent on face to face interaction because students — especially at a younger age — their prerequisite to learning is actually trusting the adult or the mentor in front of them,” explained Nadiem, who spoke about the education challenges in Indonesia during the pandemic along with a vision for the way forward at “Educating the Nation: 2020-2045” organized by The Jakarta Post.

“And the building of that relationship is what then triggers the emotional component of learning, which is the key to lifelong, continuous learning. A constant feeling that I can be better. And I will seek knowledge all my life.”

Photo by Artem Beliaikin

“At the end of the day, the best use of technology is to enhance the capabilities of the teachers and the principals to do what they’re meant to do for the development and learning for the children,” said Nadiem.

Before the pandemic, EdTech was to build the capacity of the next generation of Indonesian teachers. Now it’s looked at to solve the distance learning problem.

Indonesia has a vibrant EdTech scene, with learning technology startups attracting a good share of venture capital in Asia. Driven by a substantial youth population, the government is providing incentives for technology-based learning.

But with the learning disruption brought about by COVID-19 school closures, education technology struggled to bridge gaps for Indonesian learners from varied income backgrounds. Access to communication infrastructure across the country’s 17,000 islands was inconsistent.

Education gap, economic crisis

Assuming a COVID-19 pandemic-induced income shock of negative 1.1 percent, The World Bank estimates an additional 91,000 children in Indonesia will drop out of school with students losing about a third of a year of learning.

Learning relates to earning capacity in the future. This learning loss will result in lifetime income losses of USD 151 billion across 68 million students. 

“That gap, which was already massive pre-pandemic, could be potentially permanently unbridgeable,” admitted Nadiem. “We, as a government, cannot just see this as a health crisis. We need to also see this as an economic crisis.”

Emergency curriculum

With some degree of distance learning for the foreseeable future, Indonesia had to restructure the curriculum and focus on the essentials. 

“So we created this new kind of emergency curriculum that dramatically simplified the competencies and achievements,” said Nadiem, as parents and teachers were getting overwhelmed with online learning. 

Developing teacher guided day by day modules helped parents assist their children with learning. 

“The participation of parents has become one of the most important factors of the success of distance learning,” explains Nadiem.  “We had to reimagine the curriculum from the perspective of a parent instead of a teacher.”

Television and radio remains an essential learning resource. “Belajar dari Rumah (Study from Home)” launched by the Ministry of Education and Culture served students without access to the internet. 

TV serves as an essential resource for learners without internet access.

Cost of internet access

For distance learning, the cost of internet access is creating a significant economic strain on many parents. For families with more than one child, the cost of online learning can be prohibitive.  

According to Nadiem, the penetration of smartphones is bigger than most people would think in Indonesia. In villages, a lot of people can access a smartphone from either their neighbor or someone nearby.

“We’ve heard the biggest issue is the affordability of data. So we are fighting for some support in the data cost perspective,” said Nadiem. 

“We are undergoing discussions with operators of telcos as well, to be able to achieve that. So fingers crossed, I cannot promise anything, but it’s something that we will fight for.” 

The way forward

As of August 7, schools in designated “green and yellow zones” were allowed to resume face-to-face learning by the Ministry of Education and Culture

But with social distancing measures in place, schools are not operating at full capacity, leading to a hybrid model of face-to-face and distance learning. 

Indonesia continues to grapple with the pandemic as it celebrates its 75th anniversary of independence this week. President Joko Widodo and Nadiem are looking ahead to the 100th anniversary in 2045. Laying the foundation for the next generation of Indonesia’s human resources is on their minds.

“What kind of a human is our educational system trying to develop?” asked Nadiem.

“We’re trying to create a next generation that is relevant to the real world, that is relevant to the needs of the workforce, but also has specific skill sets that are able to adapt in the new era of technological advances,” said Nadiem.

Indonesia teacher school
Photo by Husniati Salma

The critical transformation that is required is on the teaching side. “Human development within the educational system depends on the quality of teachers,” he said.

In Indonesia, almost 70,000 teachers are retiring annually. The new supply of teachers is an extremely important part of the strategy of regenerating talent in the educational system and creating transformational change, said Nadiem. 

“So what we’re choosing as the next generation of teachers are not just teachers that are smart and tech-savvy and have a passion for teaching, but also our potential change agents that can create islands of change once they arrive in the schools.” 

LEARNTech Asia
LEARNTech Asia
LEARNTech Asia showcases innovation in learning in Asia. We feature stories and resources in online learning, workplace learning, adult education, EdTech, and creative solutions by teachers and trainers in learning institutions, non-profits, and enterprises that enhance human capacity and inspire communities of lifelong learners.