Why Tech is the Future of Education in Indonesia

In order to modernize an education sector plagued by uneven access and outdated curriculums, Indonesia's public and private sectors must double down on digital
Why Tech is the Future of Education in Indonesia
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VP-Investor Relations at BRI Ventures
7 min read
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Imagine a world where all repetitive tasks have been taken over by robots. It is a world where factory lines of machines build self-driving cars, drones shuttle packages from house to house, and artificial intelligence chatbots answer customer questions over the phone. All of these things already exist, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. Each day, all over the world, formulaic jobs that used to be considered the domain of human beings are becoming automated or digitized.

Current models of education are preparing our children to work in an economy that will no longer exist once they graduate from university. The workforce of the future will likely be built around human-centered and creative services, operating through heavily digitized channels. As such, it is imperative that Indonesia’s education sector pivot toward a modern curriculum that emphasizes technology with a human touch.

Education technology—commonly called ‘edtech’ by stakeholders in the start-up and venture capital game—is often overlooked compared with other subsectors of the tech ecosystem. This is likely because of outdated attitudes toward education that place importance on rote memorization and obscure notions of ‘ethics’. 

While traditional values have their place, it is best to take a pragmatic approach to education and consider the fact that Indonesia’s educational institutions are first and foremost responsible for helping students grow into well-adjusted contributors to society.

Arguably, sentimentality has no place in the preparation of a competitive workforce, but that does not mean that the digital workforce of the future will behave like robots. Conversely, it is the most human of functions that cannot be automated. Jobs requiring creativity, collaboration, and intimate communication between humans cannot be replaced by algorithms. It is crucial that we equip Indonesia’s schools with the capacity to prepare our youth for such an economy by doubling down on systemic digital transformation.

The state of the nation

Indonesia is ranked 41st out of 63 countries overall on the Institute for Management Development (IMD) index. While the nation ranks 24th for appeal, it also clocks in at a dismal 51st for investment and development. This indicates that the Indonesian workforce possesses high potential for participation in the global economy, relative to its current position. 

To put this untapped potential into perspective, let’s consider that there are currently over 87.2 million students enrolled in the Indonesian education system. There is also a staggering and unfulfilled demand for teachers; a 7:100 ratio of teachers to students. This ratio is even worse on the outer islands, where schools have historically been underfunded and understaffed. 

In order to improve the above ratio and equip educators with the latest tools and tech, both public and private sectors must work together to tackle some key barriers to digitization.

First, we must address the lack of innovative capital in the educational sector. The Jokowi administration proposed an IDR 505.8 trillion ($35.51 billion) budget for education in 2020, a 50 per cent increase from 2015. While a significant portion of the education budget has historically been allocated to scholarships and the maintenance of existing schools, a portion must also be set aside for edtech investment.

Second, there is the issue of equal infrastructure development among schools. There exists a large disparity between schools in rural provinces and model schools in large cities that must be bridged. Equipping teachers with a digital curriculum when students don’t have laptops or an Internet connection is useless. The Palapa Ring Project, a recently completed undersea fiber optic superhighway that stretches from Sabang to Merauke, is one of many potential solutions to this issue born out of a public-private partnership.

Third, and most importantly, Indonesia needs more teachers to participate in the workforce. An abundance of edtech and cash to spend on digitization will amount to empty promises if there are no educators willing to teach in the field. Providing attractive incentives, financial or otherwise, for world-class educators to teach in Indonesia is one way of conducting a ‘reverse brain-drain’, and improving the country’s prospects.

Indonesian edtech today

The Indonesian edtech sector can basically be split into four categories, namely marketplaces, online class platforms, school management systems and student loans. Ruangguru, an online private tutoring marketplace, has managed to get over 6 million student users on board to study over 100 subjects online. Zenius, another online marketplace, provides self-learning materials for students under the national 12-year school programme across Indonesia. 

Another edtech platform, HarukaEdu, also provides administrative services alongside their online learning courses. Their services range from assisting universities during the recruitment process to providing content and operational assistance to institutions. Even more interesting are the corporate learning programmes they provide, which are geared toward upskilling working-age people. 

In a world where workers will have to re-learn their jobs every decade or so (or risk becoming obsolete), upskilling is every bit as important as tertiary education. The customizable learning models provided by Ruangguru, Zenius and HarukaEdu are still in their infancies. They do, however, provide a glimpse into a future where education is not limited by distance, age, or social strata. 

The Ministry of Education’s recent scrapping of Indonesia’s National Exams, an outdated measure of performance that determined a student’s place in the educational hierarchy, should be taken as a green light for change from the public sector. 

That said, to really reform Indonesia’s education system, dreaming up policy won’t be enough by a long shot. Change has to take place systematically on a nationwide scale. This opportunity calls for innovative start-up founders to participate and bring in their expertise to shape a new system. Marketplaces have the opportunity to gather teachers capable of providing appropriate materials, and online classes can provide a space for students to review their comprehension of learning materials.

‘How’, not ‘what’

Only 16 per cent of Indonesian adults aged 25 to 34 have obtained a tertiary education, far below the OECD average of 44 per cent. The next decade thus represents a pivotal point where we can either digitize the education sector and prepare our youth to work in a knowledge-based economy, or stick to outdated models that prepare them for jobs which may not even exist when they grow up.

China’s successful efforts at cultivating and retaining domestic talent are an example of what a public-sector education reform backed by private-sector technology can achieve. Like Indonesia, China is currently in the process of reforming its infamous university entrance exams and curriculums to instead emphasize science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. The difference is that their reforms are backed by seven of the world’s 10 edtech unicorns and the world’s largest digital learning market at 172 million online learners.

Tech is advancing at an exponential rate and taking society with it. In order to maintain a competitive workforce in a globalized world where the only constant is change, we must educate our students on how to think rather than what to think. Accordingly, the platforms, technologies, and institutions that educate our youth must reflect this.

As Go-Jek’s Harvard-educated founder and Indonesia’s newly minted Minister of Education Nadiem Makarim recently put it: 

“We [Indonesians] must prepare our new generations to seek knowledge out of their own volition because what they are currently learning in schools is no longer applicable. The content of our studies doesn’t matter anymore—what matters are the skills being learned. How to think, how to structure ideas, how to solve problems and how to collaborate with each other. Those are important skills.”

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