A number of years ago, I was involved in designing a self-access centre at a university in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It responded well to learners' needs with a modest collection of books and homemade instructional kits in a physical environment that favoured informal group work and social exchange in English. It was also low-tech self-access: there were cassette players for individual and group listening, two televisions and VCRs with multiple headphones—and not a computer to be seen.
Since then, I've continued my involvement in the design of self-access facilities. Recently, however, I've witnessed a radical shift in self-access modes of learning, a shift towards high technology, and the use of the computer in particular. The fact is that these days the majority of language centres feel that they can't do without high technology. Students expect to find computers among the facilities available to them; and teachers and administrators are aware that computer-assisted language learning (CALL) is gathering prestige and that they must keep up with the trend.
One major reason for the widespread acceptance and growth of self-access CALL is that, like other self-access activities, it tends to be regarded as promoting autonomy, which we all know to be a highly valued goal. In my view, however, any correlation between CALL and learner autonomy should not be taken for granted. To begin with, not all students are interested in computers for language learning. Their learning style, which 'the good teacher' knows to respect, might not be in harmony with CALL. Such students might display more autonomous behavior when engaged in other tasks, such as group-oriented project work. It is also possible that some learners who do take to the computer would prefer to use it in a more teacher-directed environment.
Another point to consider is the degree of student computer competency. Many CALL activities involve using the Web, and it is an immensely seductive resource for the language learner and offers genuine opportunities for self-directed learning; its open-endedness encourages learners to create their own pathways and goals. However, in view of the Web's lack of structure, there is real potential for disorientation. Learners, particularly those of lower proficiency, may not have developed skills of navigation to find what they want; and if they find it, they may not know how to exploit the material. They will need a good deal of guidance from the teacher.
Computer-mediated communication (CMC), where learners communicate with one another on the Internet by e-mail or in real-time electronic discussion, is a further area of CALL which is said to develop autonomy. Equality of participation and critical learning skills are also claimed as outcomes. But here too, unless very carefully thought out, disorder threatens, especially in the case of highly organised long-distance projects, in which participants' absence of experience with this kind of CMC can cause great problems. This may include various technical difficulties, frustrating in themselves, which can impair both motivation and socialisation. Also, time differences between countries can make it hard to arrange to meet.
To conclude, I would like to underline the point that technology is only one of many tools for language learning. However, in the case of willing and interested learners engaged in Internet projects, individual or collaborative, a high degree of technical competence is needed, as well as skills in evaluating material on the Web. Learners—certainly most of them—therefore require training. The trainers should be the language teachers, but are they ready and qualified to do the job? My experience suggests that the majority are not. If the management of a language centre, having purchased expensive, modern computers with appropriate language learning software, wishes to exploit the rich potential of CALL, then it must give committed teachers adequate training and time to develop ideas and pathways for their students. I fear that in most language centres this does not happen.
As for the self-access centre I designed in Phnom Penh, it too deserves some high technology. But not, I hope, at the expense of its sociability and human character.
(NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Learner Development SIG Newsletter Learning Learning 8 (1), 2001).