Agoes Rudianto documents walkie-talkie schooling in rural Indonesia

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In Indonesia’s rural communities, where laptops and internet access are sparse, classes are being taught over the airwaves

In 2020, UNESCO released a report showing the pandemic’s widespread effect on education around the world. More than 290 million students globally have had their studies disrupted due to the closure of schools and universities. 70 million – around a quarter – of these students live in Indonesia, where access to online classes and resources is not guaranteed. In remote towns and rural areas where income is low and internet infrastructure is sparse, many families cannot afford a laptop, and decent signal or WiFi is hard to come by. 

Schools in these areas have resorted to lo-fi solutions, such as walkie-talkies. Jakarta-based photographer Agoes Rudianto recently visited one such school to document the challenges that these communities are facing. “At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I spent every morning with my four year old, helping him to study online,” he says. “We are lucky enough to have a laptop and a good internet connection for distance learning, but I knew that not all children and parents are so lucky and I wondered what the solution was for them.” 

In Rudianto’s search for answers, he made his way to Mojo Elementary School in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java. Here, he found a rudimentary yet effective approach to tackling the education crisis. A system revolving around walkie-talkies – either purchased by the school or donated – allowed the children to be taught classes over the airwaves. In one photograph we see a teacher communicating with his students using a relatively basic setup consisting of a laptop, headphones and a microphone.

This teacher, Sigit Pambudi [below], is also an active member of the Indonesian Radio Amateur Organization and was lent a walkie talkie by the group to use for educational purposes. Community-wide efforts have been an integral part in supporting the town’s children during the pandemic. 

Sigit Pambudi, a teacher in Mojo elementary school. 27. “Apart from being a teacher, I am also active as a member of the Indonesian Radio Amateur Organization (ORARI). Friends from the organization lent me a walkie talkie that my students used for distance learning”.

But, even for children in higher-income areas, the challenges of underdeveloped infrastructure persist and they are required to adapt. “Some students [with laptops] who live in hilly or mountainous areas find it difficult to attend online lessons,” explains Rudianto. “The internet signal is weak and unstable, so they must travel to the edge of a cliff or a forest or the side of a road to be able to listen to the material being delivered to them by their teachers.” While the pandemic has not been the great equaliser that it was initially purported to be, it is clear that, in Indonesia at least, sacrifices are being made.

Though some schools have since reopened, in areas with low vaccine coverage, many remain closed. For the students, in-person learning is now long overdue. “The students are getting bored of studying at home. They have been forced to do that for more than a year and they long to go to school and be face-to-face with teachers and friends,” says Rudianto. “I plan to make portraits of them when they can finally go offline. Someday soon I hope.”

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.