Distance learning with a difference: the walkie-talkies Indonesians turned to in order to keep lessons going
Photo essay
  • While schools around the world held their classes online during the pandemic, teachers at a primary school in Surakarta, Central Java, had to a lo-tech option: walkie-talkies
Photo essay

On March 16, 2020, Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture, Nadiem Makarim, supported regional government policies to close schools and universities, as the country grappled with its Covid-19 crisis.

Just 12 days earlier, on March 4, Unesco had noted that Covid-19 was disrupting the education of 290.5 million students globally. Data from the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture showed nearly 70 million of those were in Indonesia.

While many parts of the world struggled to round up enough tablets and laptops for an unknown period of distance learning, in Surakarta, Central Java, “only 70 per cent of our students even have cellphones”, noted teacher Sigit Pambudi, of SD Negeri Mojo Elementary School. “Even of those, most of the phones belong to their parents, so they have to share.” 

Acknowledging the problem, in Indonesia’s rural districts local governments provided mobile phones to students deemed economically disadvantaged. But, Sigit says, “We only got two phones for each class. Of course it was insufficient.”


Melvin Saputra, 12: “Because the school was closed, I couldn’t play football with my friends. I like playing football during lunch break.” Photo: Agoes Rudianto

At first, Sigit and his fellow teachers conducted online classes using the phones available, but after a month, attendance flagged to the point where some students disappeared. So SD Negeri Mojo teachers turned to another technology at hand: walkie-talkies.

Resourceful, yes. Creative, for sure. But the fix had its problems. Voices did not always come through clearly, although Sigit says using a VHF channel prevented anyone outside the class interfering with the two-way signal. And with students required to focus without pictures or graphics, to say nothing of having a teacher present in person, a new kind of discipline was required.

The beguiling black-and-white world of old Hong Kong

Two weeks at home became another two weeks, and then a year. The students were bored. They missed their friends. There was no Zoom tableau of classmates for the children of Surakarta; instead, their year of home schooling was conducted on outdated CB radio. 

Indonesia is struggling to cope with thousands of new coronavirus cases while easing some restrictions to support economic activity. Shopping centres, tourist attractions and offices have reopened, but Sigit says the number of vaccinated teachers is virtually zero, and at best, he will soon see the kids back in class for just two hours a day. The other lessons, he says, “will still be taught by walkie-talkies”.

So as children in more fortunate places return to the classroom in an environment where vaccines are at least available, for the kids at SD Negeri Mojo it will be “another two weeks” for a while longer.

Bunga Citra Lestari, 12: “I miss wearing my school uniform. Even though my uniform is narrow now, I still keep everything. I haven’t taken it out from the cupboard for several months and haven’t washed it. I can’t wait to go to school again. I am in the last grade of elementary school. Next year I will go to junior high school, wearing a new uniform.” Photo: Agoes Rudianto
A walkie-talkie repeater used by the SD Negeri Mojo Elementary School to broadcast the teacher’s voice during lessons. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

Riyanti Mulyaningrum, 11: “I can’t focus on the distance-learning system. Sometimes, my teacher’s voice is less clear. Once, the walkie-talkie frequency changed, but what can I do? I am afraid to go to school because of the pandemic.” Photo: Agoes Rudianto
This SD Negeri Mojo Elementary School classroom has stood empty for more than a year. Photo: Agoes Rudianto
Sigit Pambudi, a teacher at SD Negeri Mojo Elementary School: “Apart from being a teacher, I am also an active member of the Amateur Radio Organisation of Indonesia. Friends from the organisation lent me a walkie-talkie that my students can use for distance learning.” Photo: Agoes Rudianto
Yoga Putra Pratama, 12: “Studying using a walkie-talkie helped me to not buy expensive internet packages. The money can be used by our family for other purposes.” Photo: Agoes Rudianto