In this issue of Teaching Assistance, the author introduces a Self-Access Learning Center for which he was responsible. Based on utilization statistics and an investigation into why the center was poorly attended, he explains strategies that helped to revitalize its outreach. These ideas could inspire managers to maximize attendance at 45 other centers at universities across Japan or anyone thinking of launching an educational facility to help students become autonomous language learners.
In 2014, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology initiated the Top Global University Project aiming to enhance the globalization of Japanese university students. Consequently, Japanese universities focused on expanding opportunities for students to study abroad, promoting campus diversity, and increasing the number of credit courses taught with English as the medium of instruction. To achieve higher levels of internationalization, Self-Access Learning Centers (SALC) have been established at over 45 universities across Japan (JASAL, 2019).
What is a SALC?
SALCs are educational facilities tasked with providing the necessary resources and tutelary support for students to confidently take charge of their own language learning at their own pace. The resources offered vary with each center, but typically students can expect to find a selection of extensive reading materials, such as graded readers, an audio-visual digital bank with native language movies and TV shows, one-to-one language help sessions, and language classes for various purposes.
The First Stage of the SALC at Kagawa University (KU)
In June of 2014, KU established the English Café (EC). This SALC has two separate rooms in a 400 square meter space. One room is an open-plan student lounge area with seating for 100 people in which students can study, hold sports club and society meetings, find out about opportunities for study abroad, and attend cultural events. The second room served as a classroom for language learning (Figure 1).
Initially, the EC had few resources for independent study but had a full-time English language teacher as well as support from volunteer teachers from faculties within the university. Its original focus was to provide Japanese students with opportunities to practice their spoken English via taught classes rather than emphasizing self-directed learning. From one to three 90-minute, non-credit classes were being offered daily in the EC during the period of June, 2014 to March, 2018. At this time, students could join a class they were interested in without being required to sign-up in advance. These classes provided students with the opportunity to improve their spoken English as well as to prepare them for study abroad.
However, it was felt that the EC was being underutilized both in terms of the number of students visiting the student lounge for self-study purposes, as well as the number of students specifically participating in classes and events. From April to August, the average number of monthly visits to the student lounge was 719 (Figure 3), with class and event participation averaging 287 students for the same period (Figure 4). This meant that in a university with approximately 6,500 enrollees there were only 23.9 student visits a day to the facility when averaged over a 30-day month.
Investigating the Underutilization
In July of 2018, a 15-item multiple-choice questionnaire was distributed to first- and second-year undergraduate students (N=622) in all six faculties for whom English study was obligatory. The items centered on students’ language learning beliefs and their view of the atmosphere, layout, and usefulness of the SALC. The results revealed three problems that were possible causes of the underutilization of the SALC. Firstly, a significant proportion of students (n=260) did not have confidence in their ability to use English. They believed that only English could be used within the facility, and they decided not to make use of it. The second issue was that attendance was inconsistent for those who did make use of it. Finally, a large number of students (n=271) had a negative impression of the classroom area within the EC where all classes were being held at the time, labelling it as hairinikui (not very welcoming).
Solutions to the Three Problems
The proposed solution to the issue of 42% of students being reluctant to enter the SALC because of the perceived English barrier was a complete rebranding of the SALC as of April, 2019. The facility was renamed the Global Café (GC), where each month was designated to a specific cultural event planned alongside international students from these cultures, and six new conversational language classes (Chinese, French, German, Korean, Spanish, and Thai) were made available to students, each of which were conducted by native speakers.
To improve the lack of consistent participation in classes, a registration system was implemented before the beginning of the Spring 2019 Semester to replace the walk-in classes. It was believed that both the actual effort of registering for a class, as well as factoring the class into their schedules at the beginning of the semester, would make students more committed to attend the classes consistently.
As 44% of students felt the separate classroom area was unwelcoming, a new, partially-secluded ‘sofa space’ area was integrated into the student lounge and is where conversational classes currently take place, with the classroom area being reserved for classes that require a quieter environment, such as for TOEIC preparation.
Data for the 2019 Spring Semester showed significant increases in both the number of individual student visits to the SALC as well as in the numbers of students that registered and consistently attended classes. This is believed to be in part due to the three proposed solutions mentioned above. In terms of the individual visits to the SALC (Figure 3), data from April to August of 2019 showed an increase of 145% compared with the same period in 2017, with the average monthly visits rising from 719 to 1759. A similar increase was seen for class and event participation, which increased by 80%, with the monthly mean for this period rising from an attendance of 287 to 517 (Figure 4).
The Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (2019). LLS Registry. Retrieved from https://jasalorg.com/lls-registry/