Self-access Learning: Thinking Outside the Box (Report on the JASAL Forum at the JALT 2010 Conference in Nagoya)

Caleb Foale, Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University, Japan

(Published in Learner Autonomy in Language Learning (, January 2011)

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Benson (2001: 9) notes that in language learning, the provision of self-access centres (SACs) has become so widespread that self-access is now often considered as being synonymous with self-directed or autonomous learning.  He also notes however, that the relationship between self-instruction and the development of learner autonomy should not be taken for granted.  Individuals engaged in language learning in self-access contexts necessarily bring different levels of communicative competence, and different degrees of ability to take control of their own language learning and, as Nunan (1997) suggests, it is often the case that learners at the beginning of the learning process do not have a clear awareness of what constitutes the best approach to their learning.

In order to address this, many self-access centres now employ sophisticated systems designed to provide language learners with support.  Approaches necessarily differ from one context to another, but the promotion of learner autonomy is a common principle shared across many different centres. The 2010 Japan Association of Self-Access Learning (JASAL) forum, held in Nagoya, provided a valuable opportunity for educators involved in self-access language learning in Japan and South Korea to come together and share ideas and innovations regarding their professional practice.

Two autonomy related themes emerged from six poster and two oral presentations: The importance of providing self-access environments that engage learners; and the benefits of breaking down barriers to self-access learning.

Self-Access Learning Environments and Learner Autonomy

Jean Paul Duquette of Ritsumeikan University introduced the idea of self-access language learning through the virtual world of Second Life™.  He also outlined his ongoing research activity relating to this mode of language learning, focusing on aspects of learner motivation for learners involved in language learning in virtual worlds.

Duquette explained how, with the support of the Cypris Society, (a Second Life™ based EFL language learning and research community) learners are able to become engaged in a wide range of socially focused language learning related activities and receive support from instructors and other users in their online activities.  He showed that through involvement in Second Life™ learners are able to engage freely in language use and learning with other people from across the globe at any time of the night or day. In addition to his poster presentation, he also gave a multi-media based demonstration of some of the ways that learners can take advantage of the social nature of the online virtual world by interacting freely with others, playing games, becoming involved in learner driven social activities and organizing their own events.

Satomi Shibata, of Tokoha Gakuen University, reported on her research into the roles that undergraduate teaching assistants can play in creating a supportive environment in a self-access centre.  She discussed her experiences at two different centres where she has worked (Nagoya Gakuin University and Tokoha Gakuen University), outlining the multifaceted roles that student teaching assistants play in providing a range of administrative services.  These include record keeping, borrowing and lending assistance, and the organization of special events. She stressed however, that in addition to these activities teaching assistants also act as role models, speaking practice partners and advisors for users of the centres.

Shibata described how, in her initial research, she conducted semi-structured interviews with five language learners who used the self-access centre at Nagoya and had achieved their shared goal of going abroad to study.  She found that among the notable experiences of these learners, they valued the assistance provided to them by teaching assistants.  Therefore, in a follow up study she focused more closely on the roles of ten undergraduate teaching assistants in the self-access centre at Tokoha Gakuen.  From data collected through semi-structured interviews and field notes, Shibata found that teaching assistants were important role models for other users of the self-access centre, in particular because students were able to see the potential for their own language learning achievement by observing the successful language learning behaviours of the teaching assistants. Shibata reported that teaching assistants were considered by other students as having a higher status than their friends, but were also regarded as being more accessible than teachers.  Shibata concluded that the bridging role played by teaching assistants not only encouraged SAC usage among the student population, but also led to benefits in terms of language proficiency and autonomy for SAC users and the teaching assistants alike.

The value of peer support in a self-access centre was also one of the aspects highlighted by Juanita Heigham and Shannon Kiyokawa from Sugiyama Jogakuen University in Nagoya.  Documenting the evolution of their university’s SAC over the five years since its establishment, they presented a range of measures that have been employed to promote SAC usage by language learners.  Their presentation detailed the way in which, at various times, learners have been required to attend classes in the centre and use it for non-class language learning activities. They also detailed the ways in which incentives, such as the granting of extra credit for course grades, have been used as a means of promoting attendance in the centre. They indicated that combining many of these initiatives along with changes in the layout of the centre and its overall physical expansion did change patterns of SAC use.

Heigham and Kiyokawa also described how the overall concept of the centre has changed as they have worked to better cater to learner needs. They emphasised the significance of shifting the administrative model of the centre from one based around the involvement of native English speakers to one where learners are responsible for its day to day operations. This has made learners key stakeholders and the pivotal element around which most of the centre’s activities are now conducted. In addition to this, they credited the promotion of their centre as a place for ‘active learners’ as another significant step in encouraging learners to use the facility.

The value of stakeholder involvement in the establishment of self-access centres was reinforced by Elton La Clare of Gwangju National University of Education in South Korea, who presented a case study of two attempts to establish a self-access learning environment in a girls’ orphanage. La Clare contrasted an initial top-down approach to establishing a language learning resource centre (which was ultimately unsuccessful) with a second bottom-up approach which more deliberately focused on the needs and wants of its users. He detailed the challenge faced when attempting to foster learner autonomy in an environment largely antithetical to personal agency and independent decision making, and explained that a key to success in establishing the SAC was the drawing of clear boundaries between its activities and the authoritarianism displayed by the orphanage’s administrators.  La Clare also detailed how a commitment to learner involvement, the careful selection of learning materials, and the establishment of clear protocols for centre usage also assumed a degree of importance that had not been part of the original ethos in the establishment the centre.

La Clare put forward his belief that, on current evidence, continued success is likely to be strongly linked with learner initiated activities which have begun to develop organically around musical and other performance related activities.  In order to capitalise on this, he also described how such activities are now openly encouraged and supported, and he outlined the processes by which learners also recently cooperated to paint a mural in the centre.

In summary, while each of these presentations reflected different levels and types of learner involvement, they also suggested that modelling and promoting agency can be effective means of developing greater autonomy across a diverse range of learning environments, and that the involvement of learners should be a central consideration in the establishment and operation of self-access facilities environments both on and offline.

Breaking down barriers to self-access learning

André Parsons of Hokkaido University of Education in Hakodate reported on his experience of learner empowerment where students became directly involved in the creation of listening comprehension resources for his university’s self-access centre.  He explained how, over a series of fifteen classes, the concept of self-access learning was introduced, learners became familiar with digital video resources and selected resources for producing DVD based listening comprehension materials. Parsons then detailed how he guided learners through the process of developing listening resources that are now available to all SAC users.

Parsons reported that engaging learners in the production of such materials has helped the development of the university’s self-access centre in several ways:  It has provided it with a greater range of in-house listening materials than would otherwise have been possible, has given learners a greater stake in its development, and has served as a means of generating greater learner awareness of he SAC’s purpose.

Parsons explained that feedback from learners involved in the materials development process suggested that they overwhelmingly enjoyed and derived benefit from their involvement, and that the freedom to choose and develop their own materials and to work at their own pace were aspects of the process that received notably positive evaluations. He also suggested there was evidence that being involved in the process of resource creation helped to increase learners’ knowledge of the target language.

Drawing on learners’ experiences in a different way, Yukiko Ishikawa, Daniel Sasaki, and Greg Lindeman of Soka University in Tokyo explained how they developed a framework of learners’ language needs.  Starting in 2008, they derived the framework from the type of queries that students frequently brought with them when meeting with learning advisors at their institution’s self-access centre. Based on these data they reported how they produced informational leaflets based on learners’ needs and distributed them throughout their university in order to make them accessible and available to all students.  By tracking the demand for these flyers over a three year period, the Soka team reported that they have been able to determine fluctuations and patterns in learners’ interests and needs.  This information has, in turn, proven to be extremely useful in informing the development of self-access programs and policies at Soka University.

Ishikawa, Sasaki and Lindeman reported that the development of the leaflet system has provided ongoing benefits to learners, learning advisors and administrators alike. Firstly, it allows learners easy access to information about available learning resources that are directly relevant to their needs. Furthermore, this information that can be taken away and digested after an advising session is over.  For advisors, the flyers provide supplementary information which augments the advice that they give learners in advising consultations. Finally, the ability to analyse patterns of flyer usage is useful for SAC administrators who can track changes in students’ learning needs and interests and use this information to schedule workshops at relevant times, inform the development of in-house learning materials, and support students’ language learning needs more generally.

The importance of breaking down barriers and allowing learners easier access to language learning resources has also been a consideration at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Chiba, where administrative systems have been developed and refined in order to help learners gain easier access to services.  Tomoko Hoshi and Yuko Momata described the overall role that administrative staff play in supporting the educational and research activities that take place in the KUIS self-access centre.  They explained that by carrying out duties such as ordering and cataloguing materials, maintaining equipment, keeping statistical records, dealing with student queries and providing support and guidance to student staff, they are ultimately able to provide a high level of service to learners, both directly through the provision of services and indirectly through their support of educational and research activities.

They underlined their commitment to innovation and the ongoing improvement of the learner experience by showing how they have developed and refined the booking and reservations procedures in their centre, moving them from paper based to online systems. They explained how this provides learners with easier access to advising and other services, and has been a key to breaking down barriers to SAC use.

A team of learning advisors from the same institution outlined some innovations in the field of advising for language learning which have recently been implemented. Against the background of a ‘dialogue, tools and context’ model, Yuki Hasegawa, Katherine Thornton, Bob Morrison, Tanya McCarthy, Junko Noguchi, Keiko Takahashi, Atsumi Yamaguchi and Jo Mynard reported on the benefits of empowering learners by reinforcing their centrality in the practice of advising for language learning.

The learning advisors described a sequential learning program they use to help individuals develop the capacity for taking control of their own learning. Firstly, they detailed the use of a learner training module designed to help learners better understand some of the processes that underpin independent language learning. They showed how the skills gained in this program of study are subsequently used by learners to create plans for independent language learning based on their own unique learning profiles, and how these personalised learning plans are operationalised in further self-study projects.

The KUIS advisors also described how they provide ongoing support to learners who participate in this study sequence, communicating with them through advising consultations, diaries and interviews. They also discussed how a variety of tools are used to help learners with a range of activities including the determination of wants, needs and interests; the discovery of new and appropriate strategies for language learning; and reflection on differing aspects of the language learning process.

In conclusion, the eight presentations given at the 2010 JASAL forum gave some indication of the diverse ways in which learner autonomy is being promoted in self-access centres through the creative exploitation of available resources in extremely different contexts.  Moreover, the level of commitment and innovation shown suggests that in Japan and South Korea the relationship between self-access and the development of learner autonomy is being explored and developed so that individuals at all stages of the language learning process are well supported in their efforts to take control of their own learning.


Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning. London: Longman.

Nunan, D. (1997). Designing and adapting materials to encourage learner autonomy. In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy and independence in language learning (192-203). London: Longman.

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