Supporting Independent Language Learning in the 21st Century

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Tamara Milbourn, Matsuyama University

Supporting Independent Language Learning in the 21st Century. The Inaugural Conference of the Independent Learning Association, held at the University of Melbourne, Australia, September 13-14, 2003.

The Independent Learning Association (ILA) was created in 2002 to link professionals interested in sharing information about independent learning and self-access centers (SACs). There are currently about 300 members from around 35 countries. A principle aim of ILA was to hold a conference to bring members together to discuss their local practices and to start to develop a knowledge base, both theoretical and practical, about independent learning and SACs. Over the weekend of September 13-14, 2003, around 160 participants from 27 countries attended the ILA's inaugural conference, Supporting Independent Language Learning in the 21st Century, at the University of Melbourne. Through a variety of presentations, participants were able to discuss issues related to independent learning, such as learner and teacher autonomy, CALL, self-directed learning, and the role of SACs in language learning. A quarter of the approximately 60 presentations were directly concerned with issues relating to SACs.

The first keynote speech was given by Terry Lamb from Sheffield University, UK. Lamb, who is actively involved in helping develop language policy in the UK, gave a presentation entitled "Learning Independently? Pedagogical and Methodological Implications of New Learning Environments," which focused on the growing technology available to SACs. While stressing that pedagogy must keep abreast of new technologies, Lamb warned that these technologies should not be embraced just because they are new, but that there should be sound pedagogical theory behind using them. He also emphasized that technology does not equal independent learning, and made the interesting point that technology can sometimes be even more controlling than teachers.

Richard Pemberton from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) was another keynote speaker who discussed SACs at the conference. He spoke on "Self-Access Language Learning: Principles, Problems, and Good Practice." Pemberton stressed that self-access language learning, or SALL, is not merely guided independent learning or directed learning, but rather, it encompasses both the organization of materials for learners, and the development of learner autonomy. He quoted Esch's (1996) criteria for effective SALL systems: choice, flexibility, adaptability/modifiability, reflectivity/negotiability, and shareability. He then listed problems that SACs often face, such as time and financial constraints, a sound rationale and commitment, training, team and institutional support, and status. Next, he explained how HKUST solved two of these problems: perceived time constraints restricting student access to the center and a lack of team support for teachers.

The first of the problems reported by Pemberton was that students often commented on their wish to improve if they had the time. However, students were only using the SAC on a drop in basis. The solution lay in integrating SALL into established courses and, eventually, creating required SALL modules. Student reaction to the increase of SALL requirements has been generally positive. According to Pemberton, students particularly liked learning different language learning strategies. Learners became aware that in SALL the focus is on process, not product. They also appreciated that learning about learning was applicable to areas other than language learning.

The second problem Pemberton dealt with was the lack of team support. Although the university had established the SAC, the teaching loads of individual teachers left little time for anything other than materials development and face-to-face teaching. It was proposed that the teaching load be reduced in order to ensure adequate time for teachers to effectively staff the SAC, and the university granted the proposal. The teachers have now formed a core SAC team that works together, holding monthly meetings to discuss ways to be proactive in the SAC, and submitting proposals for various funded projects. Pemberton concluded by suggesting that the HKUST SAC has made significant progress since it opened in 1993, that it is more organized and reaches more students than ever before.

Sarah Toogood, also from HKUST, presented details on one project mentioned previously by Pemberton: "VELA: A Virtual English Language Advisor", describing it as an "interactive, self-adaptive (artificially intelligent) database (driven by data-mining technology)." In other words, VELA is a computerized consultant that directs questions to students, guiding them through various choices about their language learning, while accessing a huge catalog of strategies and materials. The computer program takes the students through the five basic elements of a student's first consultation (Voller, 1998): 1) goal setting, 2) narrowing down those goals, 3) time-planning, 4) study management, and 5) giving advice. VELA tries to link skills the student wishes to pursue (reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary) with any other interests the student might have. Toogood stressed that VELA does not replace teachers themselves, rather it helps students complete the first step, and then their results are sent to a teacher who will work with the student. Toogood claims that VELA solves many problems that challenge the advisory system, such as students often studying at 3:00am when no real advisor could be available. VELA was scheduled for implementation with 800-900 students in the 2003 fall semester at HKUST.

In their presentation on "Supporting Learner's in a Self-Access Center," Anna Dowling and Jane Pierard from Massey University, Wellington Campus, New Zealand, discussed the importance of training students, especially those inexperienced with independent learning, to use the materials in their SACs effectively. Dowling developed a handbook to assist in student orientation to the SAC, resulting in a dramatic increase in student use of CALL programs following instruction. An interesting innovation suggested in this presentation was to establish a student peer system, in which those students already familiar with the SAC help new students understand how the system works. In a similar vein, in their presentation "Using an SAC Guide to Encourage Experimental Independent Learning Strategies", Caroline Wright-Neville and Dai Harris from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia discussed the implementation of a SAC guide system in their facility. Through implementing this system, they learned that students became encouraged by hearing about what other students were doing. Some recommendations made included: students should focus on fewer activities; SAC work should be included in course requirements; and some students should have independent learning partners to assist them.

In a presentation by one conference organizer, participants learned about the research that lead [led] to the creation of the ILA. John Jones-Parry from the Manukau Institute of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand discussed "Self-Access Language Learning in New Zealand and Australia." He described how managers of various SACs in New Zealand and Australia completed surveys about their SACs, and how analysis of these surveys showed a number of interesting trends. There were many indications of confusion over the role SACs play within institutions and within independent learning. For example, the day-to-day running of SACs often took precedence over pedagogy. Managers of SACs were not always formally trained in autonomous learning. In addition, many SACs were being used as marketing tools by their institutions. In the future, Jones-Parry suggested the need for developing standards for SACs, as well as academic courses on SACs and SALL for teachers-in-training at universities.

Finally, Michelle Tamala from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia shared her experience running an SAC in her talk, "Assessment, Testing, and Self-Access Language Learning." She discussed different barriers to the development of learner autonomy in SACs, placing them into two categories: actual and perceptual. Actual barriers included: time allowance for specialist teachers; financial support from the institution; and the limits of the actual physical center. Perceptual barriers were found by Tamala to have been put in place by management, teachers and students alike. She also indicated that management often considers that independent learning equals technology, or that an SAC is a cost-effective way of dealing with large numbers of students. Teachers may think that independent learning only happens in the SAC, or that SAC teaching is not real teaching. She reported how students often have thoughts like "This is not real learning" or "Why isn't my teacher teaching?" Tamala ended by suggesting that these barriers need to be broken down by inducting teachers into the SAC, so that they can clearly explain to their students the role of the SAC in their learning. Most importantly, teachers need to stress the significance of moving "from the what of learning to the how of learning."

The inaugural conference of the ILA was an invigorating exploration of current issues and themes surrounding independent learning and SACs. As a bonus, the organizers set up a post-conference tour of SACs around Melbourne. This chance to actually observe SACs in action was a suitable end to a conference dedicated to building bridges between professionals with similar interests, so they may share experience and knowledge in order to create sound independent learning and SAC pedagogy for the future.

Further information is available on the ILA website,, or by email,


Esch, E. (1996). Promoting learner autonomy: Criteria for the selection of appropriate methods. In R. Pemberton, E.S.L. Li, W.W.F. Or, & H.D. Pierson (Eds.), Taking control: Autonomy in language learning (pp. 35-48). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Voller, P. (1998). One to one consultations [Video and guidebook]. Hong Kong: English Centre, University of Hong Kong.