Social Dimensions of Autonomy

AILA Research Network on Learner Autonomy Symposium to held at the 16th World Congress of the International Association of Applied Linguistics in Beijing 23rd – 28th August 2011

The symposium will focus on the social dimensions of autonomy, in other words how various social and contextual processes mediate language learner and teacher autonomy in particular settings. With autonomy being increasingly promoted as a crucial component and desirable outcome of language classroom pedagogy in many contexts including the host country for AILA 2011, and with technological development bringing about an increasingly interconnected world, there is a need to document efforts to explore practices intended to engage or enhance autonomous language learning which take into account the social dimensions of learner and teacher autonomy.

By ‘social dimensions’, we also refer to the participation of the individual in complex nets of socially interconnected relationships, the many social identities which emerge in one’s life span, and how these relate to the affordances for learning available in the social environment. Therefore, another aim of this symposium is to build on that of 2008 and to further reflect on learning, teaching, autonomy and identity as entangled socially-constituted processes. In the six papers, twelve researchers – representing diverse cultural, linguistic, and learning contexts- present findings.

See photos from the symposium


Existing in language(s): Hong Kong and German perspectives

Alice Chik, City University of Hong Kong
Stephan Breidbach, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

This paper will present findings from an ongoing online language learning histories (LLHs) exchange programme between Hong Kong and German university students which advances narrative knowing and explores autonomous language learning practices. The first phrase was conducted in 2008 with Hong Kong English majors and German pre-service English teachers sharing their LLHs and discussion through an online wiki space. Interaction between the two groups was less enthusiastic than anticipated, citing various structural challenges including age and academic programme differences, and most importantly, the space of online interaction.

The first project was instrumental in formulating its successor, which started in the Fall Semester of 2009. Similar groups from Hong Kong and Germany were recruited, but the research team encouraged the students to take charge of the directions of interaction. The groups responded by nominating discussion topics and opting for a Facebook group and Skype meetings for further interaction, facilitating lively discussion and multi-media materials sharing.

We will discuss exchange in the digital social networking age in terms of potentials and limitations for learner autonomy development, and assess the impacts of out-of classroom contexts such as popular culture and the new media on autonomous language learning.

Development of learner autonomy through social learning

Tomoko Yashima, Kansai University

The paper focuses on how Japanese EFL learners develop autonomy in learning through a theme-based ELT curriculum integrating Model United Nations (MUN). MUN is a social activity in which learners assume different roles, represent different interest groups, and collaborate to reach to agreement. Interviews were conducted four times with each of eight students over the three years of high school. In addition, reflections from 75 students on participating in MUN sessions along with online discussions preceding these sessions were analyzed to understand the social process of opinion formation and collaborative learning. Results revealed that students had learned English mostly by just doing as told while attending “cram” schools but that they gradually learned to take control of their learning. MUN stimulated learners in many ways; 1) students saw ideal L2 selves in highly proficient, active peers, which made them see what they lacked and feel the need to take the initiative in communicating; 2) many students enjoyed the collaborative work and sensed that they were communicating what they really wanted to express, which made them want to study English harder; and 3) some students became interested in global issues and expanded career options.

Learner autonomy: Perceptions of EFL undergraduate students across Asia

Tin T. Dang, La Trobe University, Australia
Margaret Robertson, La Trobe University

Complexities and diversities of learner autonomy in language learning at both conceptual and operational levels have been widely discussed in contemporary literature. Since the current social turn of this construct, socio-cultural factors in relation to local contexts have been paid more attention. Therefore, this study aims to explore possible contributions from situational attributes to students’ perceptions of learner autonomy. Any pattern differences are analyzed and interpreted with the adoption of socio-cultural theory. The study employed a five-point Likert scale in a 45-item questionnaire which was developed from 62 items in a pilot. Data were collected from over 1000 EFL undergraduates in mainland China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. A general pattern of students’ perception was created and discussed in relation to several independent variables such as gender, English proficiency, and general computer skills. Variations in patterns from each group of students were also analyzed. With the production of a learner autonomy inventory by the end, the paper puts forward suggestions for future autonomy promoting attempts in EFL. It also raises methodology issues and possible adaptations for later use. Therefore, its contributions are significant to both classroom practices and research instrument of the area.

Social dimensions of autonomy: three case-studies in a Mexican SAC

E. Desirée Castillo Z., Carolina Aguilar M., Adriana Curiel R. and Manuel Villa R. Universidad de Sonora, Mexico

Through three case-studies (a Mexican indigenous studying Agronomy, a Colombian living in Mexico, and a young Mexican housewife mother of two children), this presentation will explore the different reasons that those learners have to learn foreign languages (one or three at the same time). We will also show how the different experiences they have had in their lives, as well as how they envisage themselves as speakers of the language, their possible future selves (Dörnyei, 2009), are currently shaping their behavior when learning languages, and specifically while working in SAC. Through their different positions they have in society, and the complex systems they have been and are part of, this study will also show how they live the fact of wanting to learn a language, and what speaking foreign languages represents to them. Finally, by not just considering learners as people that come to a SAC, but connecting them with their world, this study will help to see them as individuals with a wider net of relations, resources, desires and hopes, which will bring, at the end, to a better understanding of learners working in an autonomous way. The data has been gathered through learning journals, observation, and interviews.

Autonomy as a glocal phenomenon: a listening case study

Diego Mideros and Beverly-Anne Carter, University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago

This paper looks at the practice of autonomy in a Second Year Spanish as a Foreign Language course at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus. The two year qualitative study centred on students’ perceptions and responses to a ‘traditional’ listening comprehension curriculum using video-taped materials, in comparison to a more interactive curriculum delivered with Web 2 technologies. Data were derived from student journals and surveys. Teacher observations completed the data set. A follow up to the initial research took the form of in-depth student interviews.

This action research (Wallace, 1998) project built on earlier findings about the social dimension of autonomy (Dam, 1995). Indeed, notions such as interdependence (Boud, 1988); and collaboration (Carter, 2006) seem equally valued in the literature on autonomy and on technology-enhanced learning. Another of the study’s findings was the importance of teacher guidance and scaffolding as a necessary condition of autonomy (see, Blake, 2008; Mc Bride, 2009) in this, as in other contexts where autonomy is promoted.

Many of the common understandings of autonomy and technology-enhanced learning were thus ultimately confirmed, but also challenged by the peculiarities of the socio-cultural and institutional contexts.

“When I got a person to communicate with, I got a purpose to learn”: Evidence for social ‘autonomy types’

Lucy Cooker, University of Nottingham

What is language learner autonomy? Definitions (Little, 1991), versions (Benson, 1997) and perspectives (Oxford, 2003) of learner autonomy have long generated discussion amongst academics in the field, but over the years such descriptions have broadened in scope rather than attempting to isolate the components of autonomy (Benson, 2007). In this presentation, I will argue for an approach which goes beyond broad definitions of learner autonomy and instead considers learner-generated ‘autonomy types’. Autonomy types are not determined and fixed, but vary within an individual learner depending upon combinations of one or more factors, such as the language being learned, the proficiency level in that language, environmental variables, personality and mood.

I will explain how the taxonomy of learner-generated autonomy types was developed using Q-methodology and qualitative interview data, and then focus in more detail on the social dimensions of different autonomy types. Such social dimensions include, on the one hand, the driving motivation of communication and the satisfaction derived from working with others, and on the other, the competitive desire to learn alone and the rejection of membership of a community of practice.

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Cotterall  |  May 26, 2011 at 7:43 am

    What a brilliant symposium! Wish I was going to Beijing.

    Looking forward to hearing about it from those of you who do attend.


  • 2. Afshin  |  December 15, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    i, the same as sara, wish i could be in China… sounds like a great gathering on the these-days-hot topic of Autonomy.


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