The good and the bad of open distance learning (ODL) during the Covid-19 Crisis: A student’s perspective

Today (18th March 2020) marks the first day of the Forced Social Distance (FSD) approach, imposed by the Malaysian government on citizens. FSD, or alternatively known as Movement Control Order (MCO), is implemented to ensure that Malaysians will maintain in their designated homes, thus, breaking the chain of infection. However, the implementation of this public health measure without any continuity plan will sadly disrupt business and other formal activities, which in turn will put the country’s economy at stake. To ensure that usual daily business and other formal activities, including education should continue at home, FSD should be supported by key actions from every stakeholder.

As students, we are also affected by FSD. Fortunately, due to the diligence of our department, we were already being asked to spend time indoors by the end of last week and were instructed to switch to open distance learning (ODL), which was operated through e-learning. The idea was to promote social distancing. By the time our Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (1) made the official announcement on FSD on the night of 16th Match 2020, we were already more prepared to use ODL.

At first, I was sceptical, as I have not experienced ODL before this. But I would say, ODL can offer a lot of incentives for both students and the lecturers. As for now, I have experienced four ODL classes with different numbers of students. These classes were Research Methods, Epidemiology of Diseases in Malaysia, Producing Better Evidence and Principles of Health Management, all usually delivered using through traditional face-to-face classes in lecture halls.

Let me talk about the advantages that I find of using ODL especially during this crisis of FSD.

With FSD being imposed, the need for ODL is even more urgent. First, FSD restricts physical interaction. Thus, ODL is convenient in achieving the need for social distancing for both students and lecturers. Both groups are maintained in their homes and without the risk of exposing others or being exposed to infected droplets.

FSD can be tormenting and this leads to the emergence of anxiety and feelings of isolation. The future is still unknown, and hopelessness can build up from time to time. Many were clueless on what to do during quarantine and many went for ‘lazy’ routine, including binge-watching TV shows. This is not recommended, as it leads to negative thinking. Lack of human social interaction can be overwhelming, especially for those who typically have a busy or extrovert lifestyle.

Anxiety And Depression Association of America (ADAA) had listed out a guideline on managing anxiety and isolation during quarantine (2). One of the recommendations made by ADAA is to support the need to have ODL for students and lecturers. ADAA suggested that individuals need to stay close to normal routine as much as possible. herefore, by having ODL, our normal routine is still preserved although with small modification. Additionally, a lot of us have used ODLS via Zoom to discuss group assignments. This activity ensures that human interaction is well-maintained. As my Family Health Lecturer, Dr Maslinor, has always stressed in her class: “Connectedness is important during any crisis”.

By discussing on what to do during crisis (Problem solving) with each other, we may empower each other and therefore, helps a lot in tampering any progression of anxiety and depression. Distraction from the crisis during e-learning may divert our worries and keeping us in toes with our class schedule (3). By keeping up with the schedule, we can also avoid feeling overwhelmed later when the crisis is over, upon going back to our normal routine. More importantly when we interact a lot with other people virtually, we reduce the desire to go out, hence, we are helping our government to execute the FSD efficiently.

Did I mention I was sceptical? Yes, the sceptical mindset is due to thinking that not being in a face-to-face teaching setting can lead to boredom as you can be easily distracted. But I think the online teaching platforms have the potential to reduce risks of distraction and boredom. The chatbox is one way of promoting engagement as it allows students to ask questions in a written form on top of verbal questions through microphones. This is another major aspect of the ODL that I really enjoy. Some of us students may be introverts, and some of us are also too shy to ask ‘stupid’ questions. The chatbox can engage more students, allowing them ample time to think and participate actively using the chatbox as lecturers attend to the questions one by one, prolonging the time to answer the question.

Additionally, students can present their work in ODL classes. Communication between students can continue virtually. Who would have thought that we could have a presentation ala debate between politicians in one of our ODL classes? Creativity is not obstructed even without face-to-face presentation. My group is becoming more and more excited to make use of e-learning tools that are available online. We are always exploring different ways to make our presentation on par or even better than the previous presentation while creatively incorporating entertainment values (or what they call “edutainment” now)

Exhaustion and fatigue or drowsiness are expected when you need to sit quietly in a lecture theatre for 2-3 hours straight and sometimes, you may lose some of the important messages in class and this is frustrating. Fortunately, while using ODL, you are not strapped in your seats. You can get up, stretching, and make coffee while listening to the class going on. Also, the major thing about ODL is the ability of recording. This is the beauty of ODL. You can repeat the recorded session. For this, I have experienced ODL using Youtube Live and Zoom. Both tools allow sessions to be recorded, with Zoom allowing both hosts and participants to record the session if they wish. While Youtube is free, Zoom can only last for 40 minutes per session for the basic feature. You need to pay to have an unlimited session. However, Youtube is a one-way camera; you can only see the host’s face. Meanwhile, Zoom allows multiple cameras which makes it more interactive.

Now, with every advantage come the disadvantages. ODL has been really great. With the camera being able to record you, you can see each other’s face and expression. With the microphone function, your voice is crystal clear. Despite all of these components, users including both hosts and participants must ensure that they have high-speed internet. Sometimes, low-speed internet may disrupt your interaction and that can be frustrating. But fortunately, I don’t think it is the most pressing issue, our country’s internet is still satisfying.

ODL is perfect for students or lecturers who are away for personal or family or work-related reasons. However, during FSD periods, ODL can be challenging especially for students or lecturers with other family members including young children. Face-to-face classes allow them to be separated from their children by sending the children to nurseries or schools, and can go to class with full focus. Unfortunately, that is not easy for them during this crisis. Their ODL experience can be challenged by the need to take care of their children during FSD. They are the ones who will be anticipating interference while engaging in ODL. However, I don’t see this as a big problem. At this point, I believe that all of the other classmates should have compassion and not be too disturbed by any interference from other family members. Additionally, the person who is anticipating interference may opt to switch the camera off, and can listen in. As the lectures on ODL can be recorded, he or she can also listen to the recordings at night when their children are asleep.

Some of my colleagues complain that ODL prohibits their ability to work/study at home. It is a tough time and even tougher to integrate into a new condition, especially when you are new to working from home. All this while, we attribute house as our personal living space, the lecture hall/homerooms as places to study, and the office as a place to work. To change our views on how these spaces can have a different function can be difficult for some of us. I hope that as time goes by, everyone can begin to see that learning is flexible; it can take place whenever and wherever.

In conclusion, ODL is a good continuity plan for students, lecturers, and higher learning institution during a crisis such as COVID-19. Apart from the ability of executing FSD efficiently, it is also a good preservation of good mental wellbeing during this crisis.

The article was written by Muhammad Khairul Asraf Shah Nizamuddin, MPH student, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya


  1. New Straits Times. 14-day Movement Control Order begins nationwide on Wednesday [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Mar 19].
  2. Gupta A. COVID-19 Lockdown Guide: How to Manage Anxiety and Isolation During Quarantine [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Mar 19].
  3. Moy FM, Awg Mahmud AB. Why suspend E-learning when it reduces anxiety during outbreaks? [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Mar 19].

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