E-learning as a mechanism of social distancing

AS the Covid-19 outbreak grows and the number of cases in the population increases, community mitigation activities such as social distancing are warranted.

Social distancing is an infection control measure to reduce transmission from infected people to susceptible individuals by increasing the physical distance between people or reducing the frequency of congregation in socially dense community settings, such as schools, universities or workplaces.

Social distancing may be the most effective way for people who are not infected to avoid getting sick. However, it may lead to schools closing, necessitating the use of different modes of teaching and changes in workplace practices, ie increased use of telecommuting and remote-meeting options, staggered work hours, and spacing workers further apart.

Cancellation of mass gatherings/social events are also social distancing options. An analysis of the 1918 flu pandemic (the Spanish flu) showed cities that implemented social distancing efforts early had significantly lower death rates compared with cities that adopted similar policies later.

Tertiary educational institutions such as colleges and universities are one of the settings that should apply social distancing. In 2017, there were 538,555 students enrolled in Malaysian public universities with each university having between 5,000 and 30,000 students. These students attend lectures in crowded lecture halls which predispose them to the transmission of Covid-19. As an alternative to face-to-face teaching, e-learning is among the choices.

E-learning is not a new idea and, in fact, many universities around the world implement it on a large scale through something called Massive Open Online Courses (familiarly known by its acronym, MOOCs). Fast wireless Internet access, like 4G, has enabled e-learning to be conducted on many types of mobile devices like laptops, smartphones, tablets and phablets, making e-learning implementable just about anywhere with a good Internet connection.

Almost all learning can be conducted through e-learning except for hands-on teaching involving mechanical manipulation, machinery and chemical and biological specimens – although virtual reality with haptic feedback could emulate mechanical manipulation to a certain extent. Even clinical teaching can be conducted through e-learning to some degree, although clinical examination and treatment might be challenging to perform via e-learning.

We look at the implementation of e-learning during the current Covid-19 outbreak not only as a means of social distancing but as an opportunity to accelerate the usage of a technology that could perhaps be a game-changer for students going through the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

PROFESSOR DR MOY FOONG MING (Epidemiology) & DATUK PROFESSOR DR AWG BULGIBA AWG MAHMUD (Public Health Medicine and Epidemiology), Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya

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letters , Covid-19 , social distancing


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