Matt Salusbury investigates web-based academic English courses aimed at both students and teachers
NEXT GENERATION A frame from the digital interactive comic strip from Epigeum’s online course (courtesy Epigeum)
An EAP course delivered entirely online? Is that possible? One provider has devised a model for delivering such courses online as a subscription service to 25 international higher education institutions in the UK, continental Europe, the US, Australia and Malaysia, and has just started making one available to the National University of Singapore. And it doesn’t just cover EAP for students either – their online course offering also has elements of professional development for EAP tutors.
The English for Academic Studies online course is provided by Epigeum, a spin-out from Imperial College London which was acquired by Open University Press in May 2015. Its courses are developed through the global collaboration of experts from 27 ‘leading universities’ and partner universities, and shared by subscription.
Is the online EAP material tailor-made for each participating university, and for the very different academic cultures in each country? Epigeum told us (via Louise Stuart-Muir, deputy director of their PR agency Say Communications) that ‘nothing is tailor-made for any specific country. However, one of our lead advisers, Professor Wu Siew Mei, is director for English language communication at the National University of Singapore,’ on an expert panel along with Dr Julie King, director of academic English at Imperial’s Centre of Academic English.
From Epigeum’s description of its courses, there seems to be a strong emphasis on navigating the vagaries of academic culture, core academic language and ‘academic identity’; Epigeum clarified that ‘identity’ here is about students learning how they can show themselves in a positive light and create a good impression academically.
There are in total six EAP courses for students, aimed at Ielts 5.5 and equivalent to B2 on the CEFR, relatively low compared to the entry requirements in English-medium universities. They’re ‘designed to support postgraduate students in the effective use of English in their academic studies with some elements appropriate for undergrads too’. They can be used with pre-sessional students on intensive courses, or in-sessional alongside the student’s subject degree course. The ‘core activities’ of the course will take up about 23 hours, with another 80 hours of optional extras.
It’s possible to do the entire course online only, with multiple choice ‘quizzes’ at the end of each of the six courses to demonstrate whether you’ve followed all the material. (You’ll need 80 per cent in each of these quizzes to progress.)
But for those institutions that may be wary of online only, there are extra ‘pods’ the students can complete. These extras include portfolio work which can be discussed in class or in a tutorial afterwards. Institutions can also buy into supplementary packages of extra ‘communicative tutor-led’ activities that can be marked – they come with guidelines for tutors.
How can you do EAP using exclusively online material? Epigeum’s courses have a lot of pre-recorded and edited video material in both the student and EAP teachers’ courses. There are, for example, authentic interviews with students and academics, actual seminars, lecturers and tutorials including one-to-one teacher/student sessions that have been filmed. There are written plain texts, sometimes accompanied by audio recordings.
There’s a lot of on-screen interactivity in the course material – cloze and gap-fill activities using drop-down menus, and there are ‘action mazes’ which ask a variety of questions on a given scenario, with different responses giving different routes through an activity. There are paragraph-sequencing and notetaking activities in which students rewrite or re-arrange material (often based on video or audio footage) to test their paraphrasing skills. There are plenty of labelling diagrams and matching definitions. And there are interactive ‘graphic comic strips’ to illustrate further academic scenarios.
The courses are presented in two variants, one theme-based, concentrating on the skills above, one skills-based (the four skills reading, writing, speaking, listening).
The course for teachers – designed for teachers of English with varying levels of experience and background – is aimed at professional skills development, as well as giving plenty of advice on how to use the course modules for students effectively. According to Epigeum, ‘It’s not a training course but as a professional development module providing theory, background, tips, advice and activities to help teachers improve their existing practice.’ Among the topics covered are blended learning, academic discourse, social media community-building and research. It also makes reference to the themes in the English for academic studies courses for students, with advice on how best to teach them.
The teachers’ course is less interactive than the students’ ones, but there are exercises involving watching an authentic teaching session on video, filling in an observation form and then comparing it to an already completed one.
There are 25 international higher education institutions collaborating on the development of the course, from a range of very different academic cultures. Of these, two are in Australia and sixteen are in the UK, including some major names in British EAP. Also on board are the British Council, Graz University of Technology in Austria, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, the ancient Universita Di Bologna in Italy, Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the University of Malaya, the University of Oslo and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa.