During coronavirus, many university students encountered online higher education. With classes, tutorials and lectures moved online, students had to adapt quickly to online learning management systems. This happened to myself, who in my final year at Macquarie University, had to take units online.

Despite previous encounters with online learning (I had done previous modules online), I still felt out of my depth. When I reflect on the first semester of 2020, I believe I regressed in many ways (academically speaking). Of course, one can’t atribute this solely to online education. Much of the world was in lockdown, and fears of the pandemic were, and still are, very much real. I worried about everything: the world, the economy, my family, the political scenario, human rights and my friends.

This wasn’t an easy time, and I shouldn’t be hard on myself for lacklustre results in that semester. As Sydney rebounded from COVID, I took my final semester in person (while taking one class online) and finished with good marks. Not bad! But as I analyse my experiences with online learning, I’ve realised a pitfall. A lack of verbal communication.

Verbal communication involves speaking and listening, and it’s hard to develop those skills when they are rarely assessed online. Much of my ‘input’ on classes was done through forums and replies. This meant I could spend a whole week considering what I’ll type in a reply. However, in tutorials, it’s very ‘think on your feet.’ You don’t have hours or days to consider your response. Although it’s not always a fun situation to find yourself in, these experiences are helpful to verbal communication.

When you are in conversation with someone, you must articulate your perspective well. This is true for debates and general discussion. If I ask your opinion on a movie or book, it helps if you provide a timely answer with further insight. Instead of shrugging and saying ‘it was alright’ and not having any eye contact, you should clarify your thoughts while having appropriate posture.

Of course, there are instances where you can’t converse well on a certain topic. We’re human after all, and we can’t wax endlessly on all topics. But in an academic setting, you must take care in how you present yourself and your perspective. When you are giving a presentation on say, nationalism in English football, you don’t want to endlessly stutter, have no preparation, and not engage with your audience. It makes for a boring talk, because there is no energy.

A university education, especially in the humanities, should develop your verbal communication skills. The ability to talk and listen well is crucial in the workplace and in family life. Unfortunately for myself, I find my written skills are more sophisticated than my oral abilities. It’s easier to articulate a point online than in conversation. A long term consequence is more time spent online (than in the ‘real world’) because it’s easier.

I worry this is a problem with online higher education. Verbal communication is important, and requires more emphasis. However, I appreciate the many wonders of online education. It’s great for distance learners, parents, mature students and the time poor. But no one should neglect their development of verbal skills.

Here are some suggestions on how you can develop your verbal skills:

  • Join a social club, especially in a field requiring communication (theatre, debating, book clubs, etc)
  • Start a YouTube channel or podcast
  • Talk to people more. A simple conversation can teach you conversational nuances and social skills
  • Create a video diary

You don’t have to do all of these. But verbal communication matters.

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