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The Application of Open Educational Resources to EAP Curriculum

Module by: Leif Anderson. E-mail the author

Summary: This project explores the potential application of open educational content to EAP (English for Academic Purposes) curriculum. Given the depth of international student mobility in the modern world, this topic has great potential for practical use in future ESL/EAP practice. While the mobility of the 21st century has brought many native English-speaking educators into ESL/EAP classrooms throughout the world, often these teachers have educational backgrounds in subjects unrelated to their students’ intended fields. Thus, they often lack the technical knowledge of the high technology and science fields needed to meet their students’ needs. This study explores the possibility of applying currently available and/or developing open educational resources which cover high-demand subject areas as a complementary piece of the ESL/EAP teachers’ pedagogy and curriculum. Although such a model would be fraught with practical learning imperfections, I suggest it could serve as an acceptable substitute in certain circumstances. Secondary research focuses on examining approaches and methods in applied linguistics and issues in EAP instruction itself to explore a framework in which such a model might work.


Two key themes in the globalization of education have been academic mobility and the globalization of English. Lingard and Rizvi (2009) have observed that universities in English speaking countries are the predominant recipients of globally mobile students, comprising nearly 80% of the world’s international students (p.170). This trend confirms that “the flow is largely one-dimensional, confirming a pattern in the global knowledge system that appears to have a language: English” (ibid, p.170). As a response to this pattern, policy initiatives to implement and improve English language instruction are emerging throughout the world. Policy goals to improve English proficiency are working on the assumption that English is a necessary means to meet the challenge of an era of information technology and the knowledge economy. In this context, educational policies of English instruction built around the teaching of science, mathematics, technology, finance, and business are rapidly emerging.

To meet this academic demand and to seize the lucrative financial opportunities associated with it, English speaking institutions are seeking innovative means to entice international students and dissuade them from matriculating with competitors (Labi, Birchard, & Overland, 2008). U.S. study abroad statistics confirm that the majority of international students attending American higher education programs are seeking degrees primarily in the sciences, engineering, and business (Burelli, 2010). Innovation has come in the form of several English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programs designed to assist with the transition into an English-speaking academic environment. EAP programs have become increasingly available in English-speaking countries themselves, but are also emerging in non-English speaking countries as well.

In addition to the influx of international students to English-speaking countries, human mobility and global demand for English has brought waves of teachers from Western countries into international student source countries for the purpose of ESL instruction. While the policy goals of English initiatives in these respective countries are centered on using English for procuring the knowledge and skills for the global economy, often English teachers abroad are not equipped with background knowledge in high demand subjects. Frequently, ESL instructors have academic backgrounds in the humanities, social sciences, or linguistics. Although many of these teachers are quite competent in second language instruction, there may be a tendency for their effectiveness to plateau once students reach a certain point. Thus, this project intends to explore a solution to this disconnect between the academic demands of EAP programs abroad and the academic background of many of the teachers tasked with meeting these demands.

Twenty-first century educational technology has witnessed the birth of an open education movement, a movement built on the desire to provide equitable and open access to educational resources to people around the world. This movement will be further discussed shortly, but it is my assertion that emerging OER has the potential for application into EAP programs throughout the world by applying a converged pedagogy in which ESL-trained teachers are able to provide adequate instruction of subject matters outside of their field through the use of these resources. This essay is structured into three main parts; a discussion of the development of OER, approaches and methods in EAP, and critical issues and research in EAP. While this concept will require further research, at the very least, it is hoped that awareness is raised among curriculum developers within the applied linguistics/EAP field about the potential of OER.

The Development of Open Educational Resources

Modern educational practices are rapidly embracing what has been deemed the Open Education movement. This movement considers open publishing, open access, and archiving as segments of a global phenomenon “that builds on the nested and evolving convergences of open source, open access, and open science, and also emblematic of a set of still wider political and economic changes that ushers in ‘social production’ as an aspect of the global digital economy” (Peters, 2008, p.4). Perhaps a bit abstract, a more simplified standard definition might be that Open Educational Resources (OER) “are digitized materials offered freely and openly” (ibid, p.6). Regardless of how the movement is defined, numerous scholars have noted that a culture of open access to information and social production redefines notions of participatory democracy and intellectual property (Benkler, 2006, 2003, Moglen, 2003). As with any period of great change, the movement has been met with furious intellectual debate and legal battles, as outlined by David Wiley’s account of the tremendous struggles the movement has faced (2008). Although debate rages on, the development and implementation of OER is in full force and its benefits in regards to educational opportunity is increasingly evident.

Sources of OER have emerged in the form of such sites as MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Rice University’s Connexions, and many others. Although each resource remains equally relevant in the broad scope of the movement, MIT’s OpenCourseWare is perhaps the most known. In their assessment of OCW’s development, Lerman, Miyagawa, and Margulies (2008) assert that a culture of open sharing transforms education in two fundamental ways:

  • By providing educational resource and knowledge access to people throughout the world, including those who may be at an economic, political, or social disadvantage in the global economy
  • By enhancing educational quality as educators are able to apply OER to their classrooms

In addition, their analysis explains that the target audience for OER includes educators, students, and self-learners. OER content itself typically includes:

  • Planning materials: syllabus, calendar, pedagogical statement.
  • Subject matter content: lecture notes, reading lists, full-text readings, video/audio lectures.
  • Learning activities: problem sets, essay assignments, quizzes, exams, labs, projects (ibid, p.214-215)

These contents are applicable in a number of different contexts including, as I argue, as source material for the EAP classroom.

While the application of OER to explicit educational purposes generally alludes to the ability to provide open access to science and technology-focused resources, I am most interested in how these can be applied to second language acquisition. An article by Linda Tabb Smith concerning the application of an open education ecosystem to language teaching argued for the implementation of OER to L2 acquisition based on the premise students will be more motivated if language choice is available and money is not a concern (Tabb Smith, 2008). Her article was written in the context of foreign language learning in the United States and the perceived language deficit; however her conclusions can reasonably be applied to an international context. Global economic circumstances have made English the primary second language requirement in much of the world, but the notion of choice is still applicable in the sense that the subject content that accompanies an English class can be a motivating factor. Students of the English language are more motivated to learn if the content is of professional or intellectual interest to them. This concept is further explored in following section.

Approaches and Methods in EAP Instruction

In order to show how open educational resources can be applied in EAP instruction, it is first necessary to examine the approaches and methods in language teaching which comprise EAP instruction. Like any other pedagogical theory, EAP approaches are not without weaknesses and criticisms. However, despite historical fluctuations in methodology, core approaches remain largely intact with variability from institution to institution and teacher to teacher. This section is not designed to argue for any infallible form of EAP instructional method, but simply to lay out the theoretical framework from which my argument is based.

In terms of language theory, most models of EAP instruction are premised on the functional view of language. Richards and Rodgers (2001) define the functional theory of language as emphasizing “the semantic and communicative dimension rather than merely the grammatical characteristics of language, and leads to a specification and organization of language teaching content by categories of meaning and function rather than by elements of structure and grammar” (p.21). By de-emphasizing grammatical structures and syntax, language learning outcomes are elicited through active communication and discovery from the learners themselves and do not require excessive explicit instruction from the teacher. In subject-specific classrooms, instructors may often be inclined to re-direct classroom dynamics back towards explicit explanation due to the depth of the subject content. However, as this paper argues, the presence of open education resources in the classroom may lessen to probability of this and give teachers the more desirable and effective task of mediating explicit OER content and learner-based communicative styles. Language teaching methods derived from the functional view include communicative language teaching, cooperative language learning, task-based teaching, and content-based instruction. A synopsis of the first three is outlined in the following table, followed by a more in-depth discussion of content-based instruction.

Table 1

Communicative Language Teaching

Cooperative Language Learning

Task-based Teaching

Integration of language through content-based instruction Language learned through communication Meaningful language supports learning process
Students assume more active role in learning, variety of interaction types Classroom activities should elicit authentic and meaningful communication Activities which involve real communication
Develop use of language which supports cognitive development Fluency is important communication dimension Meaningful tasks support learning
Integration of wide range of curricular materials Integration of different language skills Lexical units essential to language learning
Formal, Informal, and Cooperative learning groups Learning involves creative construction and trial-and-error Motivational tasks illicit the input and output processing needed for language acquisition

(Richards and Rodgers, 2001)

As a byproduct of the Communicative and Cooperative Language Teaching approaches, Content-based Instruction (CBI) has emerged as a common method of English language instruction. CBI refers “to an approach to second language teaching in which teaching is organized around the content or information that students will acquire, rather than around a linguistic or other type of syllabus” (Richards and Rodgers, 2001, p.204). As discussed earlier, the large numbers of international students matriculating at English-speaking institutions are engaged in study related to knowledge economy and high technology majors. Forming a language syllabus based on the subject matter that students require for their professional and academic aspirations ensures that content exhibits real-world applicable qualities and thus, should allow for the successful integration of a communicative approach. The challenge for CBI instructors is forming a pedagogical approach which balances the explicit instruction of content and a learner-based communicative method. In addition, finding a means for CBI teachers to provide effective instruction in subject areas they might not have strong backgrounds in remains a policy concern, but may be alleviated through the use of OER, as argued in this essay.

The CBI approach to language teaching have been implemented in a number of English language programs throughout the U.S. and Europe; including Language across the Curriculum, Immersion Education, Immigrant On-Arrival Programs, Programs for Students with Limited English Proficiency (SLEP), Language for Specific Purposes (LSP), English for Science and Technology (EST), English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Occupational Purposes (EOP), and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) (ibid., p.205-207). For the purpose of this study, when EAP is discussed, assume that elements of other similar programs are also applicable to my assertions. The CBI approach is based on the assumption that second language acquisition is most successful when the language is used as a means of acquiring information rather than an end in itself and that CBI reflects learners’ needs (ibid, p.207). Language theory of CBI asserts that language applies integrated skills, is text- and discourse-based, and is purposeful (ibid). Richards and Rodgers (2001) have outlined an excellent assessment of CBI course design, teaching activities, teacher roles, and contemporary models of CBI. According to their analysis, teaching activities in a CBI curriculum should focus on:

  • Language skills improvement
  • Vocabulary building
  • Discourse organization
  • Communicative Interaction
  • Study Skills
  • Synthesis of content materials and grammar

Furthermore, Richards and Rodgers assert that the teacher’s role in a CBI formatted curriculum should consist of:

  • Variance in classroom instruction format
  • Team-building and group work
  • Jigsaw reading arrangements
  • Coping strategies for students
  • Implementation of process writing
  • Use of appropriate techniques for error correction
  • Development of student self esteem
  • Definition of background knowledge and language skills needed for learner success

The broad range of learning activities and learning outcomes in a CBI format leaves instructors with limited opportunity to incorporate actual subject content into their pedagogy. In addition, Richards and Rodgers point out that “language teachers may be insufficiently grounded to teach subject matter in which they have not been trained” (ibid, p.220). However, the advent of OER materials in given subject areas, particularly audio and video lectures, transcripts of lectures, and reading passages on content may allow EAP instructors to focus on language-specific activities without burdening themselves with content they are not comfortable with. EAP programs at institutions based in English-speaking countries may have subject area specialist available to handle this end of CBI instruction, in a team-teach model for example, but EAP programs in non-native English speaking countries may have limited means of recruiting such specialists and are in a position to develop a flexible approach where ESL-trained teachers can effectively teach subject-area knowledge. The open education’s doctrine of educational equity and access has created a wide range of educational resources available for ESL specialists to apply their skills to create a hybrid applied linguistics-OER model of EAP. With a wealth of subject-specific OER in tow, CBI instructors can focus on synthesizing content with grammar, developing students’ lexical range, devising ways to improve study skills, eliciting a communicative approach with group work and team-building techniques, preparing jigsaw reading activities, and focusing on the writing process all within the confines of subjects they might not have a strong background in.

Contemporary models of CBI include theme-based, sheltered content, adjunct language, team-teach, and skills-based instruction. Many of these models require a third party subject specialist or are a part of programs geographically located in English-speaking institutions where international students are already matriculating and thus, have academic content available “in-house.” These models have come under intellectual criticism and discussion of these insights as well as current research perspectives follows in the next section.

Critical Issues and Research in Contemporary EAP

International student mobility and the globalization of English have greatly increased educational demand for EAP programs. The previous section outlined some of the language approaches and method utilized in EAP curriculum, with Content-Based Instruction at the forefront. This section will examine some of the critical issues and contemporary research perspectives in EAP. The focus will be on how the application of OER could alleviate some of these issues and how research results suggest the effectiveness of an OER-based Academic English model is feasible.

A chronological examination of the evolution of EAP instruction reveals that the instructional philosophy has gone through many changes in recent decades. As Benesch (2001) explains, “during the years of register and rhetorical analysis, vocabulary and grammatical choices were the context…later, as attention shifted to communication and learning, skills and learning strategies became the areas of attention. More recently, with acknowledgement of the social construction of knowledge and language as discourse, social practices have become central to EAP research and teaching” (p.23). Although the crux of my argument for the application of OER to EAP is built around the use of a fully developed OE course module in a subject-specific context, Benesch’s comment on the social construction of knowledge in EAP raises another possibility for the role of OER. Social construction of knowledge within the framework of open education has considered such phenomenon as peer to peer collaboration and social networking as applicable mediums for learning in the 21st century. Further examination of these mediums may very well open the door for additional applications of OER content in EAP programs which go beyond what is argued in this essay.

Critical analysis of EAP pedagogy and ideology has examination several issues within the practice. In what has been deemed the L2 Compositionist’s Critique, critics argue that strictly academic focused writing detracts from general writing, which is presumed to better prepare students for a wider range of life experiences (Benesch, 2001, p.36-40). However, as a response to this critique, we must consider that students enrolled in EAP programs are doing so for the explicit purpose of academic language learning. Students concerned with a more broad application of their second language application have a wide range of standard ESL programs available to them. A second critique of the L2 Compositionists, and one we have touched on briefly, is that EAP instructors are attempting to teach content outside of their specialty (ibid, p.36-40). EAP programs geographically located in English-speaking countries have responded to this by implementing linked, adjunct, and team-taught courses in which the language teacher works in close collaboration with subject specialist, forming a triad of student- language teacher-subject specialist interaction. For the purpose of EAP programs outside of English speaking countries, where supply side problems of subject specialist availability cannot meet demand, I am proposing OE resources as an option for the third vertex in this triangular relationship.

Proponents of an EAP ideology of pragmatism, argue that that language teacher should take a subordinate role in content-based, linked course instruction (ibid, p. 41-42). However, in this context, there exists the danger of subject specialists not trained in second language acquisition overruling instructional recommendations of “subordinate” language teachers and undermining the learning process of English second language learners. One examination of one particularly successful EAP program at the University of Birmingham in the UK revealed a flexible approach of cooperation, collaboration, and team-teaching between subject and EAP teachers (Dudley-Evans, 2001). Regardless of the delivery method, successful team-teaching required mutual respect of the subject and EAP teachers’ expertise and professionalism. However, Dudley-Evans does acknowledge that issues of “coverage” do emerge where language problems are ignored in favor of syllabus outcomes of the subject course. Additionally, we need to acknowledge that communication issues and dynamics of power in teacher relations could complicate the team teaching approach. Dudley-Evans’ argument concludes that, “an approach based less on actual team-teaching in the classroom but on collaboration outside the classroom and integration of the EAP course with the subject course may be a more appropriate and effective model for other situations, especially outside the UK” (ibid., p.237). In situations where subject specialists may not be available for outside collaboration, EAP teachers tasked with fusing subject content into their curriculum may find OER an effective means of integration.

In order to alleviate the tension between language and content in EAP programs, experimental programs have attempted to ease this burden. In 1990, an ESL program at UCLA implemented a Simulated Adjunct Model in which subject content, by means of video lectures from undergraduate courses, were imported into the class. These lectures were used in conjunction with content-area reading, writing assignments, and other related readings to form the core curriculum. In this context, EAP instructors were able to focus their teaching on language and skill-instruction, related discussion activities, and visual aids to complement the core curriculum. Brinton and Holten (2001) have asserted that the Simulated Adjunct Model “has proven a very effective way to deliver ESL instruction for academic purposes” (p.243). If OER course modules, from MIT’s OCW initiative for example, can be relied upon to provide the video and oral lectures as well as core content-area reading for a given subject, EAP instructors are left with the feasible task of developing writing tasks and discussion activities, locating related readings, and otherwise applying the other recommended teaching activities for CBI previously discussed.

On the application of video lectures from OER into EAP settings, we must consider effective approaches to ensure second language lecture comprehension. Tauroza (2001) cites three fundamental characteristics of lecture comprehension; first, students are required to combine information from both visual and oral sources and second, students usually hear a lecture in conversational style and third, students are required to process stretches lasting 15 minutes or longer. For the purpose of improving student lecture comprehension, Tauroza conducted a study designed to test two techniques for better comprehension. These techniques were:

  • Students receive a lecture title and spend a few minutes predicting the issues that might be covered in lecture prior to listening
  • Students receive an indication of the specific points in the lecture and spend a few minutes predicting what might be said about the points

Tauroza’s study concluded that the two techniques proved rather effective in improving listening comprehension. With the availability of OER video and audio lectures in subject content, and corresponding transcript, an EAP instructor without an expertise on the topic should be capable of applying these into the classroom approach. I might argue that lexical activities, jigsaw reading activities, and pre- and post-lecture discussion might also improve lecture comprehension, all of which can be developed by an EAP teacher using OER content.

This section has briefly examined some of the critical issues facing EAP philosophy and pedagogy. It has attempted to suggest how OER might manage some of these concerns. In addition, research which seemed to validate my case for the use of OER in academic English classroom was chosen for examination. Although the presence of a subject-area specialist in a team-teaching or adjunct approach might remain the ideal situation for an effective EAP classroom, the application of OER in academic English classrooms in non-English speaking or developing regions of the world may very well be a suitable substitute as many regions of the world lack the funding to recruit subject teachers. As the open education movement continues to develop and find the avenues to deliver access and an equitable distribution of educational opportunity and knowledge, the globalization academic English is emerging a viable context for such an opportunity.


As the development of the open education movement is still in its early stages, the range of practical applications for educator and student alike are only now emerging. As for EAP applications, this essay has suggested that OER provide a great source for complementary resource material for EAP teachers. In addition, the various circumstances related to the presence, or lack, of a subject specialist in EAP classrooms may lead to the use of OER as a “substitute” source, especially in developing regions with limited funding or access. In this way, the open education movement may start delivering on its promise of educational equality in the knowledge economy. It is my hope that curriculum developers in the EAP field may begin implementing OER and that subject specialists committed to the cause will continue producing and contributing to some of the great source material already made.


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