Friday, 25 April 2014

Digital literacies for EAP students: who's responsible?

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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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My students need digital skills such as how to search effectively using Google Scholar or academic databases. The ability to evaluate digital resources for credibility and trustworthiness. How to write effective emails to communicate clearly and unambiguously with their professors and tutors. Use referencing and plagiarism software properly to ensure that the writing is suitably sourced and referenced. Organise Powerpoint slides so that they support but don’t overwhelm the spoken aspects of their presentation.

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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Our centre has taken strides in this area, we have a Director of Technology-Enhanced Learning and there will soon be a Technology Coordinator to assist him in training students AND teachers in using technology. Over the last year, students have had a limited number of digital skills lessons but with the new roles created, that will allow us to increase it to a mandatory five hours per term. Hopefully, this will lift some of the burden off teachers and let them focus on what they are good at, teaching English for Academic Purposes.

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.


  1. I'd suggest that yes, given we are preparing students for success in the higher education context, it is our responsibility to have a firm working knowledge of these types of skills, not simply language. In fact, my colleagues and I often remark how the ratio of academic skills vs language skills seem to be tipped more towards the former in what we work together with students on. Having said this, we must include that our learners aren't, for the most part, learners of lower level proficiency either.

    It behooves us to investigate how these skills play out for ourselves first and then share with students ways to discover what works for them. Just as a simple example I've seen rarely mentioned: Microsoft Word functions. Students know how to type, but they don't know so many other basic skills that prove useful (footnote functions, tables, styles, etc). Perhaps some might argue it is not our domain, but I'd argue otherwise. Whether or not we grew up with this technology ourselves, we do need to prepare our students for their futures, not our past.

  2. I agree on some levels Tyson, we can't pretend these digital skills don't exist and I think teachers should do their best to become familiar with them. At the same time, we have to be realistic and realise that EAP has many teachers of an older generation that still struggle with technology, good teachers who struggle to keep up regardless of the help/training they are given. If some of that burden for instruction could be taken away from them and given to someone who feels confident about technology, I don't see any harm in that.

    I think I would like to see a bit more specialisation in EAP (and EFL in general to be honest), at times teachers are expected to be experts in all aspects of the learning process, but if teachers could focus on one or two areas they feel most confident/knowledgeable in (speaking, listening, digital skills, presentations etc) and really develop in those areas, it would lead to happier teachers and more informed students!

  3. I'm with you Tyson. I have found that it's not only a responsibility, but a necessity. If I want students to submit "academic" work, then I ALWAYS need to show them how to do that. I really hate the old "Digital Natives" cop-out. My young adult students are super with texting and instagram, but when it comes to plannnng, researching, and writing a research paper, they are lost at sea! I don't like the fact that I, as a language teacher, have to teach basic wordprocessing and Google skills, but if I want students to get through this 'academic prep' program... then that is just part of the 'prep' that falls to me! I just wonder how they got this far without acquiring those skills! Shouldn't they have picked this up in their "digitally native" high-school careers? Your entire last paragraph, Tyson, is exactly my point too!

  4. Great post. I love the idea of having a tech expert on hand to give students specific sessions - which teachers can then sit in on and learn too. Our students have a library introduction (by library staff) which includes quite a bit about using academic search tools (including hands-on practice). I found it really useful to sit in on the session (for the first time at least) so that I could then refer to it in class when it cropped up or send them to the relevant info to check details.
    I liked your GP analogy - I have areas where I feel quite confident, like assessing the reliability of online sources, but others where I know my knowledge is a bit shaky and I'd really like to be able to pass them onto an expert.

  5. Great post! the "digital native" idea oversimplifies the issues. Some research we did on students at our own university showed wide variation both between students and between media/skills. Assuming that students are equally comfortable and competent with any "new media" would be like assuming that someone over the age of 50 would be equally at ease with typewriters and microfiche systems because they are both "old media".

    1. Thanks Robin for your comment, I've been doing a bit of research as well through questionnaires and it's clear that many of of our former students are struggling with technology and noone in their departments are providing any kind of support. You're right the 'digital native' idea does vastly oversimplify the issue.