Monday, January 25, 2010

Adventures in Self-Access

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.


Renee said...

Dear Elton,
Bravo to you and your formidable efforts. I am in a similar boat and, ironically, was printing the cover of a DVD - the first I've made so far, documenting the activities of the SALC at my university that just started in October - when your message came up. (On a side note, if any of you want to organize pictures into a video for promoting your SALC I HIGHLY recommend - they still have a promotion for schools you can apply for through Animoto for Education - you'll love it.) I gave a tour of the center for our English teachers on Saturday and will present an appeal this Thursday to all language teachers to form a coordinating body. Last year, I submitted a proposed design, but the administration created the kind of center they wanted-quite modern and attractive, I'd have to say. Luckily, since we virtually have no staff, it's been almost entirely up to the students as to how to use the center. Being in Japan where community and 'belonging' is so important, it is not surprising that most of the participants wanted to work in small groups. 6 groups were formed within the first weeks. After giving a questionnaire last week, I found that the primary concern of our students is lack of knowledge that the center exists (it's quite off the beaten track). Several who love reading and using the e-learning software can often be found in the quiet study room while others often stay after the designated study group time. Most students came when there was something organized (especially for a party!!). I told the students that I didn't have much time, so they coordinated a lot of the activities - decoration, buying snacks, bringing music, etc. But, they appreciated the participation of faculty - storytelling, singing, and especially extra food!
I would love to hear from those of you on this list who have more established centers. I posted once over the New Year holidays (bad timing) requesting that those of you who have been involved with establishing a SALC share some of your stories. If any of you can share a comment or two, that would be great. For the paper I'm writing now on setting up our SALC, I was asked to make a chart listing the SALCs at universities in Japan, and, in particular, to site those at universities which do not have any departments related to foreign language or international studies (such as where I work, Surugadai University). If you know of any, please let me know.
Thanks again to all of you on the list who have already helped me so, so much, especially Hisako, Jo, and Lucy. You are planting wonderful seeds of change!

Garold said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

It is very encouraging to me to hear stories from you, Renee, and others, who are out there enthusiasticly creating independent learning opportunities for students. More and more, I see self-access language learning as being about community as much as it is independent learning. Communities, I believe, cannot be created, but as educators we can take steps to encourage their development.

Reading your postings, I get the feeling you are doing great work. We learn by doing. Self-access learning is an adventure in doing.

Also, I think you should write a paper documenting your experience as a case study. I believe that self-access language learning has reached a place where we are ready to take a critical look at our practice.

Please keep in touch and best wishes for your continued adventures in self-access language learning!


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Lucy said...

Hi Elton, Renée, Garold, and others,

Apologies coming to this discussion so late ... I've been swamped with PhD writing in recent weeks and have just re-surfaced! It's great to see this blog (and JASAL) used for their original purpose - i.e. to share ideas and help each other to (co-)create better self-access environments. It's also lovely to read the update of your centre, Renée, as it's a while since we were in touch and it's great to hear how you've been developing.

I'm so impressed that Elton is creating his centre in an orphanage - I think that must really be a first!

I think one of the most important things for self-access to be successful is to involve learners in the development of the centre. At the university where I was involved in the creating of a centre, we tried (and they still try) to involve students in the running as much as possible. I know also that in Garold's previous institution they formed a 'friends of the self-access centre' club, to try to get learners involved. Here are some other suggestions:

1. Involve students in the basics: choosing how the centre should run, the design, the resources available. This could be done on a voluntary or paid basis. (Personally I think voluntary is probably best, at least initially!).

2. Have students work on a committee, either by themselves or together with teachers, choosing resources and equipment for the centre on an on-going basis.

3. Ask students to write reviews of materials to inform other learners of their worth, and post these around the centre.

4. Ask students to produce art works (paintings, photos, etc. ) to decorate the centre.

5. Have learners working behind the counter processing and issuing materials.

6. Form regular clubs: film, book, music, which are run by learners for learners (perhaps with some teacher support initially).

7. Have students actually MAKING learning resources for use in the centre.

You will undoubtedly find some other great ideas in the 'self-access bible':

Gardner, D., & Miller, L. (1999). Establishing self-access: From theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lastly, Renée, you mentioned that letting learners know about the existence of your centre was problematic. When we started up, we advertised the centre in the student toilets: in between the mirrors in the female students' toilets, and above the urinals in the mens'. It worked like magic ;)

Good luck to you both and keep us posted as to the development of your centres. How about sending Hisako some photos so we can post them on the new JASAL site?