Dr Chris Lima offers advice on ways to teach digital literacy to prepare students for EAP classes.

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Computers and mobile devices are now part of the education landscape. In most universities, the libraries are not only the places where you find collections of books but also where computer rooms and facilities are located so students can carry out their reading and research. Students attending lessons, lectures and seminars are often seen taking notes on their tablets and accessing content on their laptops. PhD students are often asked by supervisors to record their meeting on their mobile phones. In such a context, the ability to use a wide range of electronic devices effectively has become part of the set of academic skills students are expected to possess and develop. Digital literacy is the term often used to describe this set of knowledge and skills.

The ability to use different devices, connect them to each other and make their use part of the learning process has become crucial for successfully carrying out everyday tasks such as doing coursework, communicating with lecturers and colleagues, submitting assignments and accessing marks and official documents. Most universities now use Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and student portals that work as an extension of the lecture theatre in the case of face-to-face courses or entirely replace the physical space in the case of online distance learning courses. Being able to operate in such environments requires some technical training but, above all, a healthy dose of learner autonomy. Students need to be able to navigate such digital spaces on their own, decide their own schedules and make their own choices and decisions regarding their learning. In this article, I focus on two particular aspects of digital literacy that are fundamental for EAP learners: the use of internet resources and interactive tools, and the use of the digital libraries.

The use of internet resources and interactive tools

EAP tutors need to prepare their students for a learning experience where the contact hours with lecturers and tutors will be quite limited. It is important that students learn how to find, select and use free online resources on their own. EAP tutors and course designers should create lessons and materials that:

  • make students aware that not all free internet resources are equal. There are sources that are reliable and ‘academic’ and others that simply cannot be accepted as academic references. Teaching students to recognize the differences is the very first crucial step;
  • make students develop their own search skills. Design tasks that lead students to do some research on the topic to be discussed in the following lesson or session. Full participation in the lesson should require the knowledge they will have acquired through their internet search;
  • make the most of the VLE, if you have access to one. Assign homework that requires students to share content online, create online portfolios, post on discussion forums or write a blog;
  • require students to use their mobile devices. For example, these can be tasks where students have to use an online dictionary, post on social media, take pictures or record video or audio files;
  • expand the range of forms of assessment. Go beyond individual essay writing by including individual online portfolios, reflective journals and collaborative online projects.

The use of the digital libraries

Information technology has also had profound influences on libraries. In the past, libraries were physical spaces where collections of books were stored for access, reference and preservation. Nowadays, besides such functions, libraries are also the repository of digital versions of books and rare manuscripts that help to preserve the integrity of precious documents while making them widely available for everyone’s perusal. Libraries have also become portals through which thousands and thousands of journal articles and e-books can be accessed with just a couple of clicks. Moreover, long printed reading lists are being replaced by electronic reading lists where the titles of books and articles are live links that give direct access to the files in the online library catalogues.

EAP tutors need to prepare their students for this new age of the digital library since, in the course of their university studies, the library should be at the centre of their academic life. Reading is the foundation for knowledge and research and EAP courses should reflect that. EAP tutors and course designers should create tasks that require students to:

  • use the online library catalogue before going to the physical library to borrow books;
  • identify the most relevant journals in their field and search them to find articles to be used as references in their writing assignments;
  • use online databases, especially to search for e-book collections, dissertations and thesis repositories;
  • make use of the online reading list if you have one.

To conclude, using technology has become an indispensable and integral part of academic and research life. EAP tutors and course designers need to keep this in mind if they want to prepare their learners to effectively join the academic community. However, although the ability to use technology for learning is an important aspect of studying at university, students and tutors need also to be aware that any technology is only as good as the uses we put it to. Being able to use various devices and navigate the internet with confidence does not intrinsically guarantee learning or high-quality work. These skills have to be combined with more conventional forms of literacy, critical thinking, academic honesty and plenty of reading.