COVID-19 Op-ed

Reflecting Online/Distance Learning in Higher Education under COVID-19: Bitter Lessons from Timor-Leste

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Dr. Chen, Li-LiDepartment of
Political Science, Faculty of Social Science
Nacional Timor Lorosa’e

COVID-19 is changing how we teach and learn worldwide in a
significant way. According to UNESCO, almost 80% of the children and youth
are engaging in online learning (UNESCO, 2020). Timor-Leste struggles to
replace the face-to-face with online learning while abiding by the policies
of stay-at-home and social distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19. On
23 March, Ministry of Education announced that all schools have extraordinary
holidays until 28 in order to prepare students to adapt to alternative ways
of learning (Ministério da Educação, Juventude e Desporto, 2020). During the
state of emergency, schools are closed and classes are moved online. Teachers
and students have to adopt and adapt to a new norm-online or distance
learning.Although online learning is common to many universities worldwide,
universities in Timor-Leste do not have any experience or privilege to
conduct it. What’s more, many lecturers and students have experienced various
obstacles to practice online learning. Those who live in remote rural areas
and socio-economic disempowered ones are further impeded to participate
online courses. Although online learning seems to be the only solution to
ensure the access to education for all while schools shut down, utilizing
online learning without considering how it strikes vulnerable university
teachers and students risks deepening existing digital gap and social
inequalities.Currently teaching in the Faculty of Social Science of
Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL), the only national university in
Timor-Leste, I am at the frontline to conduct and observe the current
practice of online learning since 24 March until now (13 April). In the
following, I will share and discuss some of my observations.University
students and teachers are burdened to carry out online quality teaching and
learning without extra support. In 2019, education sector only got 10% of the
national budget of Timor-Leste. The budget was mainly used to cover salaries
and benefits as well as services and goods. After the rejection of national
budge 2020, all schools temporarily depend on a duodecimal system,
distributing “116.5 million with each state agency allowed to spend
one-twelfth of its 2019 appropriation (excluding minor capital) each month”
(Lao Hamutuk, 2020). In the Faculty of Social Science of UNTL, for example,
no funding was dispatched this year for maintaining or upgrading facilities
and equipment, such as internet and computers. Nothing from the package of
$250 million US dollars used for COVID-19 is spent on improving online
education (Martins, 2020). Students and professors in UNTL mostly rely on
themselves to access to internet, since there is no free WiFi coverage on
campus. Occasional power outage and unstable supply of the electricities
force regional server and working station to shut down. What’s worse, the
internet service available in Timor-Leste is expensive yet of slow speed.
Data price is 1MBPS USD 500 high while internet speed is 25 times slower than
other countries in Asia and the Pacific (Inder, 2019).Online learning is
ineffective and costly in Timor-Leste from teachers’ side. In UNTL, teaching
online has been considered as unrealistic and ineffective. In UNPAZ, one top
private university in Dili, only 50% of students can access online courses
(Amado, 2020). Teachers are rarely prepared to conduct courses online and
consequently are forced to move courses online simply based on their personal
knowledge and experiences with short notice. The main difficulty for most
teachers to deliver online courses of quality is the limited access to
technology and digital gap. Lack of telecommunication infrastructure and
information technology prevent teachers to transform to teaching online
smoothly, and it does not come without costs: For teachers who use webinar
and livestream tend to be deterred or paralyzed by slow and unstable
internet; For those who use Facebook and whatsapp to facilitate teaching are
prone to compromise quality of teaching, since social media has less
functions and tool kit. Moreover, they conduct online teaching without having
a clear boundary between work hours and private time, and even risk exposing
their privacy to the public. Teachers who are parents are burdened with work
while looking after children at home 24/7. While juggling between teaching
work and care work, some low-waged par-time teachers might be stretched and
even sacrifice their work with extra burden of care work at home.For students
who are in the receiving end of online learning, accessing and participating
online course are both stressing and burdening, especially for those who have
less resources or live in remote areas. There are 3218 students registered in
the Faculty of Social Science in the year of 2019. Unlike many universities
in America, which have ways to accommodate disadvantaged students, such as
welcoming them to campus to use free WiFi and electronic resources or
uploading videos and deliver them at their door step, the universities in
Timor-Leste are merely dependent on teachers working from home in response to
students’ needs (翁履中,2020). Nevertheless, most students have low connectivity
due to lack of electricity, internet credit (pulsa), electronic products
(laptop, cell phone, tablet), and even money to buy necessities. While many
students choose to return to rural areas under the fear of COVID-19 or
financial insecurity, they are more restrained to access to information and
participating education online. They also complain about the reliability,
speed, and price of the internet (Tam, 2020). The dean had to ask the
teachers not to oblige students who have no access to internet and online
course to attend online courses. What is more, online learning could further
marginalize the most vulnerable students instead of empowering them, since
they have to allocate the money for essential goods (Oxfam International in
Timor-Leste, 2020). It is worrisome that they would gradually disappear and
eventually drop out from school, which has more drastic gender implications
particularly on women.In addition, it is also difficult for students of
disabilities to be included in online courses while guaranteeing them with
reasonable accommodation. Neither special learning facilities in the faculty
exist for students of disabilities, nor orientation for lecturers to
accommodate them. While there are 16 students of disabilities out of 39
students in the program of Communal and Social Inclusion in the Faculty of
Social Science in academic year 2019, it remains unclear how they are
accommodated and perform in online teaching.It is undeniable that online
learning can provide flexible and accessible education, but it may burden and
stress teachers and students while deepening social inequality preexisting in
the society. The digital and economic gap among students and professors might
be too difficult to be bridged. Online learning under COVID-19 has brought
some serious challenges to the fore, and now is time for all of us to
confront the dire situation hidden under the equality skin and take immediate
Tome. (2020, April 8). Estudente
UNPAZ pursentu 50 la asesu estuda online
. Accessed April 12
2020.Lao Hamutuk. (2020). 2020 General State Budget.
Accessed April 11 2020.Inder, Brett. (2020). Speed
.  Accessed April 13 2020.Martins, Evaristo Soares.
(2020, April 2). Proposta
adisional la pasa, proposta original aprovadu
. . Accessed April 4
da Educação, Juventude e Desporto
. (2020, March 21). . Accessed
April 13 2020.Oxfam international in Timor-Leste. (2020). Towards economic
diversification in Timor-Leste.
Accessed April 11 2020.Tam,
Therese Nguyen Thi Phuong. (2020, April 13).
Information can Save Lives: Assessing public access to ICT in the midst of
COVID-19 in Timor-Leste
.  Accessed April 13
(2020, March 24). 1.37
billion students now home as COVID-19 school closures expand, minister scale
up multimedia approaches to ensure leaning continuity
. Accessed
April 13 2020.
翁履中. (2020, March 30). 借鑑海外,線上教育不只需要網路.
Accessed April 13 2020.

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