Allow me to make a brief introduction to help contextualize the contents of this post... My name is Elton LaClare, and I've been working in the TESL/TEFL field for much of the past ten years - first in Japan and most recently in South Korea. My initial interest in self-access learning/ learner autonomy came about from the simple observation that year upon year the most accomplished of my students shared one thing in common: they'd all been proactive in setting the agenda for their own language development. The priorities they set were sometimes in line with the curriculum and sometimes shaped by their own personal goals and objectives. There was little commonality among the methods they employed to achieve their results. There was - of course - the temptation to attribute their success to my own influence, but the fact remained that in most cases they'd arrived in my classroom already possessing formidable language skills. As a teacher, I saw it as my responsibility to learn more about what it was that separated the high-achievers from the rest. That quest is what eventually led me to self-access learning/ learner autonomy. To summarize, I see learner autonomy as the key factor in the success of the aforementioned students. My view of self-access learning centres is that they represent the most likely means of guiding the wider community of students to similar results.
My enthusiasm for learner autonomy eventually led me to attempt to create a very modest self-access learning centre at a girl's orphanage where I'd been teaching on a voluntary basis. Resources were scarce (human resources most of all). The idea of a creating a 'drop-in' study environment was born as much of necessity as design. Zoning regulations precluded a separate facility, but the orphanage generously agree to shuffle things around to accommodate us on-site. An unexpected surge of donations left us with enough money to create a nice learning environment including computer resources. Things seemed to be going well, but sadly our centre foundered for reasons I least expected. Because of their age (most of the girls are elementary and middle school students) we didn't involve them in the planning of the centre in any meaningful way. It was only after we'd failed that I realized the basic principles behind successful development initiatives in the third world apply equally to creating a flourishing self-access learning environment. Myself as well the others involved in the project had ignored everything we'd learned during years of social welfare and development experience. We'd imposed our own vision of what the centre should be instead taking into account the needs of the users. This oversight extended all the way from the layout and furnishings to the educational materials and human resources. The experience raised a number of issues that I think would pertain to anyone active in the planning of a self-access learning environment or seeking to increase participation in an existing centre.
We are currently gearing up for a second attempt at starting a 'drop-in' centre for the orphan girls. I hope that through this forum I might be able to pick the brains of those with those with similar experiences.