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As a middle-aged man teaching EAP (English for Academic Purposes) and technology (sometimes) to students half my age I do wonder about the term ‘digital native’ and how it absolves me of a lot of responsibility. My students seem so at ease with computers, smartphones and tablets, it’s difficult to imagine that I could possibly pass on anything useful about technology that they don’t already know. Compare their seeming comfort with my own painful introduction to computers in my mid-twenties and ongoing struggles with them and I feel it would be the most incredible impertinence to try to teach them anything.
But I know this is an intellectual dodge, and one that most EAP teachers do. Spend a few hours teaching EAP students and it soon becomes clear that they are digital natives only in a very restricted sense of the term. Comfortable does not mean competent. Social Media or Instant Messaging smarts are not digital skills (at least not yet) that will help them with their studies at university. There are definitely digital literacies they possess but very few of them are academic digital literacies.
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And yet most of my students struggle to do these things. I know this as I see it every day with mine and other teachers’ students at our centre, and many of my former students who’ve gone on to study at university in the UK often contact me asking for help with them.
Is it just a language issue? They have the skill but just can’t do it in English. Possibly, but they’re perfectly able to navigate technology in English in other contexts such as smartphones and websites when they want to send messages or book tickets. It’s rarely the case that they are linguistically deficient. Or is it an access issue? Maybe they just haven’t had access to technology and lack practical experience. Again, possible but unlikely. I’ve never got the sense from speaking to students that they haven’t had access to computers/internet in their own country.
Again it comes back to that term ‘digital native’ and how it allows institutions and teachers to pass the buck and offload responsibility at every stage of the students’ career. Most of the students coming to our school are planning to start a Masters at university here in the UK and when they go to their departments, their professors assume that we - the English Language Centre - have passed on these key digital skills to them. We on the other hand naturally assume that they learnt many of these digital skills in their home country or doing their undergraduate degree. And I imagine when they were in their home university doing their undergraduate degree, the teachers thought that these digital skills were taught to them when they were at high school. And students just muddle through as best they can, lucky if they have a teacher who knows these things, unlucky if they don’t.
And the painful truth is that it is convenient for us to pass the buck because most of us ourselves don’t possess the digital literacies that students need to acquire. How many of us can really search effectively on Google? Find our way around academic databases? Create a kick-ass Powerpoint presentation? Based on the teachers I’ve talked to and judging by the quality of presentations I’ve seen at a few conferences lately, not very many.
And it’s not something that we should necessarily be embarrassed about - ok, maybe a little, but not as much as we actually are. Think of it in terms of the health professions. Just as GPs have a grasp of a range of illnesses/ailments but not in depth, EAP teachers are expected to have a good working knowledge of a range of subjects: linguistic skills (speaking/writing/listening/reading), academic skills (note-taking, giving presentations), digital skills (search skills, presentation software). But unlike GPs, EAP teachers can’t refer students to someone with more expertise if they reach the limits of their knowledge. They either just admit ignorance or wing it.
But we really should be able to refer them to someone else. Most professions have become more and more specialised with new job titles and roles being created as new skills are needed by people. EAP seems to be the opposite, as new skills are needed by students, teachers are simply expected to take them on board and add them to their current ones. No wonder they feel swamped at times.
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I’d be fascinated to hear what other EAP teachers think about this and what the situation is in their place of work. Do you think it’s our responsibility to provide this kind of digital training? Should there be specialist teachers to do this or should EAP teachers learn how to do it themselves? Comments are welcome below.