After “Establishing…”: Self-Access Learning Then, Now and Into the Future

David Gardner, The University of Hong Kong

Lindsay Miller, City University of Hong Kong 

Gardner, D., & Miller, L. (2021). After “Establishing…”: Self-Access Learning then, now and into the future. Relay Journal, 4(2), 55-65.

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This paper is a reflection looking back on the evolution of self-access language learning from the publication of Establishing Self-Access: From Theory to Practice (Gardner & Miller, 1999) until now, and then looking forward to consider its future. Our reflection is based on our personal involvement in the field, on our understanding of developments which have been related to us by colleagues and on the ongoing discussions in the ever-expanding literature. Our coverage is influenced by our own working experiences as teachers and academics in Hong Kong and as visitors to sites of self-access learning throughout the region and beyond. The paper starts with a review of self-access learning as it was implemented around the beginning of the millennium and the background to that approach. It then presents a reflection on changes that occurred in the following decades and finishes with a consideration of the place of self-access learning (if any) in the future.

Keywords: self-access language learning, evolution, learning beyond the classroom

This paper emerged from a presentation at a conference hosted by Kanda University of International Studies in June 2021 which had an intriguing theme, that is, to take the “opportunity to look back at the field of self-access in general and reflect on the journey and the landmarks so far” which will “naturally bring us to conversations about the future of self-access” (Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education, 2021). Responding to this challenge, we present here a reflection on one of our key moments in self-access, then reflect on the ensuing journey and think about the future. The key moment was the publication of our book Establishing Self-Access: From Theory to Practice (Gardner & Miller, 1999). This was important for us as it allowed us to bring together a number of areas we had previously been working on and to think more deeply about the theoretical background and the practicalities of implementing self-access learning in diverse contexts. That book has remained important for us through the years, as it has generated so many fruitful conversations with colleagues. The fact that the book has remained in print to this day suggests it still has ongoing relevance despite the considerable changes in approaches to the promotion of self-access learning, which we will discuss below. We have chosen our own catalytic moment as a starting point because it influenced our thinking. Of necessity, the reflection we share here will be based on our personal involvement with self-access learning, on our understanding of developments which have been related to us by colleagues and on ongoing discussions in the ever-expanding literature in the field. Our coverage is by no means exhaustive and is influenced by our own working experiences as academics in Hong Kong and as visitors to sites of self-access learning throughout the region and beyond. Perhaps a bonus is that between us, our reflection is based on many years of our own experience with self-access learning as teachers, teacher trainers, researchers and learners.

This paper begins with a brief review of the relatively simple world of self-access at the turn of the millennium (when our book was published): what stimulated its emergence, what it was used for, how it was implemented, and most importantly, what its specific goals were. The paper then moves on to a discussion of the increasing complexity of self-access as it developed across the following two decades. Finally, we consider what the future holds for self-access learning.

Self-Access Learning at the Turn of the Millennium

The background

Self-access learning is most commonly considered to be an approach to fostering autonomy in learning (Gardner & Miller, 1999; Sheerin, 1991) and is particularly useful in contexts where independent learning has not previously been a regular part of learners’ lives. It provides learning materials but also resources, support and training to enable learners to become more autonomous in their learning, typically by encouraging them to plan their learning, experiment with strategies, evaluate their progress and reflect on their learning experiences. Self-access learning can thus be considered as a stepping stone (or perhaps more accurately, as a series of stepping stones) between teacher-directed learning and learner autonomy (Gardner & Miller, 1999; Miller & Wu, 2018). The concept of autonomy as an important aspect of learning is not new (see, for example, Bagheri, 2018; Kashindi, 2020; Krissanapong, 1997 for evidence of its importance in the ancient worlds). However, it became an important aspect of a global expansion of education from the 1970s onwards, sitting alongside other new concepts such as informal learning outside of classroom contexts (Illich, 1971), communicative language learning (Littlewood, 1981), learner individualisation (Geddes & Sturtridge, 1982) and learner-centredness (Nunan, 1988). Learner autonomy was defined as learners’ “ability to take charge of their own learning” (Holec, 1981, p. 3) and after further refinement by Holec (1985), Little (1991) and Benson (2007), is now accepted widely as “the capacity to take control of one’s own learning” (Benson, 2011b, p. 58).

Self-access language learning was, by the end of the 20th Century, well developed in some parts of the world. Its origins (in the modern world) lay in the University of Nancy, where it was developed at the CRAPEL led by Henri Holec and in various other “hot spots” around Europe. It spread relatively rapidly across a broader global area, often through the teaching of English as a foreign language. It has a well-established history in Australia, New Zealand and parts of North and South America, although it was not always known by the same terminology. Self-access became a focus in parts of Southeast Asia from the 1990s, with Hong Kong becoming a focal point, mostly due to a concentration of like-minded practitioners and availability of funding.

The implementation of self-access 

By the end of the 1990s, self-access was in use across a broad area (in terms of geography, ages of users and proficiency levels). Because (good) self-access practice always adapts to the needs of its users, it is not surprising that its implementations were diverse. However, the uses can be categorised into those which were implemented on a small scale, typically within a classroom, and those on a larger scale, typically a dedicated self-access centre. The latter seem to outweigh the former at this point in the history of self-access, although this perception might be influenced by the view created by published studies. However, this is not to say that studies of the latter are more important or more influential. The work of Leni Dam (1986, 1994, 1995, 1999) from this period relates largely to the in-class development of her learners’ autonomy but remains very influential to this day.

Much of the research, discussion and practice around self-access learning at this time related to matters of implementation such as developing specialised learning materials, management of resources, securing funding and reporting outcomes (see, for example, many of the contributions to the edited collections of: Benson & Toogood, 2002; Gardner & Miller, 1994; Morrison, 1999; Pemberton et al., 1996). However, there was also consideration of learning styles and strategies, developing skills such as reflection and planning and understanding what autonomy is. 

By 1999 there had been considerable practice with self-access learning, and a lot was being learned about how to make it productive. That made it the perfect time for Establishing Self-Access: From Theory to Practice (Gardner & Miller, 1999), which was an opportunity to collect together the existing research and the multitude of ideas for implementing self-access. Looking back now, the organisation of the book reflects the state of self-access at the time. It shows that self-access was largely (although not entirely) separated from regular language course activities. Self-access was something students did in addition to their courses and often something that they took away from the classroom or, more often, something that they went to a self-access centre to do. The book also shows that although authentic language materials and authentic language use were desirable, they were often limited, mostly because of a lack of access. Additionally, we can see from the literature of the time that while technology was already a part of self-access learning, its capability was somewhat restricted and confined to use within the physical environment within which the self-access learning was provided, consisting mostly of hard-wired audio-visual equipment and computer software residing on individual hard drives or, at best, local area networks. Many of these characteristics of self-access learning changed in the following decades. Today’s picture of self-access and how it is implemented is more diverse and distinctly more complicated.

The Evolution of Self-Access Learning Since the Turn of the Millennium

A number of features have contributed to the evolution of self-access learning since the beginning of the millennium. These focus around the integration of self-access learning into the curricula of taught courses, the exploitation of rapidly developing technology, the blurring of boundaries between self-access centres and other resources and a wider and more flexible view of where learning occurs.

The integration of self-access into taught curricula

In many cases, self-access learning was first introduced to students as a resource which was independent of their taught courses. They may have been invited to make use of a standalone self-access centre, asked to use a self-access corner in the classroom or they may have been given self-access work as a takeaway for completion outside of class. The links between self-access learning and taught courses were often not strong or clearly explained to learners. The majority of learners, who were mostly used to being externally guided in their learning, struggled to manage when left to make their own learning choices (see, for example, Farmer, 1994; Farmer & Sweeney, 1994; Jones, 1995; Tsang, 1999). This led to interest in and implementation of learner training, staff training (because at the time many teachers were also not familiar with self-access learning or how to promote it) and ultimately to a closer integration of self-access learning with taught courses. Once self-access became part of those courses, students saw it as a normal activity. There are some researched examples of the integration of self-access into taught courses (de Gregorio-Godeo, 2005; Gardner, 2007; Thompson & Atkinson, 2010) which identify increased learner confidence but also a clear need for training to become an autonomous learner and for monitoring to maintain motivation. 

The exploitation of technology

In some parts of the world, technology has always been an integral part of self-access learning provisions. In the early days, this often focused around audio and video recordings, and as the millennium progressed, computers became more important. There are examples of self-access functioning well with minimal technology (Miller, 1992, 1999) although they are in a minority in the literature. The use of technology may be influenced by cultural norms but is probably mostly determined by availability of funding. As the cost of technology has dropped and its use has become an educational goal, it has blossomed as a component of self-access learning. In more recent years, the development of language-learning applications, particularly for mobile phones, has further increased the uptake of technology. It is important to note that many of the latter developments are driven by financial gain. This is not necessarily a problem, as it takes the burden of development off educational funders, but should be kept in mind when assessing such applications for their contribution to learner autonomy.

Technology is usually attractive to learners. In some locations, like Hong Kong, self-access centres could not function without technology, as it is an expectation of learners and teachers. Our own view is that technology is a useful tool for self-access learning because it provides a range of learning opportunities, but it needs to be incorporated in a way which promotes learner autonomy. Videos providing dubbing or subtitles in the learners’ native language may distract from independent language learning, although they are probably attractive for their entertainment value. Equally, computer-assisted learning programmes without the flexibility to choose specific learning goals and which work largely on a multiple-choice testing model are unlikely to promote much learner independence. Having said that, exciting developments in technology for language learning are always emerging (see, for example, Andujar, 2019; Chew, 2021; Fryer et al., 2020; Hafner & Miller, 2011; Miller & Wu, 2021; Zou & Thomas, 2019, among others). 

The blurring of boundaries

At the turn of the millennium, self-access learning typically occurred in specific locations with clearly defined boundaries, most commonly self-access centres. Those locations were managed and monitored. Educational professionals oversaw activities and selected learning materials. The integration of self-access into the taught curriculum and the increasing use of the Internet in self-access enhanced learning opportunities but also blurred those previously well-defined physical boundaries (Gardner, 2011). Consequently, self-access learning can now be applied to a wider range of authentic language situations. This is exciting because learners can now access opportunities to use their target language in contexts of their choice. This freedom provides relevance in terms of language varieties, genres and personal interest, which is likely to prove more motivational. However, there are also potential concerns that authentic language contexts might be overwhelming and demotivate learners. Equally, learners might unknowingly learn language which is not appropriate outside the context in which it is encountered or be exposed to linguistic inaccuracies from other learners trying to interact in the authentic language contexts. Finally, there are security risks associated with internet use which may result in technological or personal harm. None of these concerns are reasons to avoid the Internet for self-access learning, but they suggest that continued support is needed to help learners find the best resources, explore new ways of using technology and, especially in the case of young or vulnerable learners, to minimise the risks of using the Internet. Most importantly, with the blurring of the boundaries of self-access, technology has become an even more powerful tool for fostering the development of learner autonomy. 

The wider view of learning opportunities 

In recent years there has been an increasing interest in learning beyond the classroom (LBC), for which Benson (2011a) has proposed a very workable model, which has subsequently been expanded on by Chik (2014). This model takes a wide view of learning and learning opportunities. Self-access learning could be considered as one of the possible language settings of the model (as described by Benson, 2017). It fulfils, in its own way, Benson’s four key dimensions because it takes place beyond the classroom but can be linked to classroom learning (location), provides a wide range of settings (formality), includes opportunities for self-instruction and naturalistic learning (pedagogy) and guides learners towards taking control of their own learning (locus of control). It also fulfils Chik’s additional dimension (trajectory) because learners can maintain an ongoing and developmental engagement with self-access learning. Self-access can fulfil these dimensions physically or virtually (for some examples, see Gardner, forthcoming). The key to success is the involvement of pedagogical staff (for further discussion on the importance of well-trained self-access-oriented staff, see Gardner, 2017; Gardner & Miller, 2011, 2013a, 2013b, 2014).

The Future of Self-Access Learning

A lot of work has gone into the development of self-access learning as a tool for promoting learner autonomy. This started well before the key moment we chose to reflect on at the turn of the millennium and has continued with gusto ever since. We chose to reflect on what happened before and after the publication of our book in 1999 because it was a key moment for us, but there are many other significant moments, some of which are documented in this paper. Charting the development of self-access in this way shows above all its adaptability. Over the years we have visited many self-access centres around the world, and no two are the same. This is the strength of self-access learning; it adapts to its users. 

The future of self-access centres has been questioned. For example, see the discussion between Reinders (2012) and Mynard (2012). Self-access provisions have morphed. In Hong Kong, for example, all of the tertiary institutions had impressive physical self-access centres in the 1990s, but few have survived, having been replaced with massive online provisions. In other locations self-access centres thrive (Japan, Mexico, Taiwan and Thailand to name a few). Self-access has become mainstream in many curricula (even if it is known by a different name), and it has developed its online presence in a big way.

The key to a continued success for self-access learning lies in the people involved in it. Although the ultimate goal of self-access learning is to develop the learners’ learning autonomy, self-access acts as a set of stepping stones towards that goal. The people who establish the pathways, provide the guidance and maintain the systems are the ones who will determine the continuing success of self-access learning. 

Notes on the Contributors

David Gardner is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied English Studies at the University of Hong Kong. He teaches English for Academic Purposes and Applied Linguistics. His research interests are in self-access learning and the learning experience in EMI institutions.

Lindsay Miller is an Associate Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. He teaches English for Academic Purposes and Applied Linguistics. His research interests are in: learner autonomy, listening, pedagogy, English for Specific Purposes, and qualitative research methods. 


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2 thoughts on “After “Establishing…”: Self-Access Learning Then, Now and Into the Future”

  1. Firstly, I enjoyed reading the paper and watching the conference online very much as ‘Establishing Self-Access: From theory to practice’ has been a milestone publication for many readers, including me. It was very engaging and informative. As a SALC co-ordinator in Mexico, I found it highly interesting to get your optimistic perspectives on the place of such facilities in the future. It was very refreshing. Not only does ‘After “Establishing…”: Self-Access Learning Then, Now and Into the Future’ contributes to summarizing the origin of the original publication, highlighting its importance through the years for many researchers and SAC actors, but it also draws attention to a series of evolving issues that actors and scholars should bear in mind now and in the next few years.

    Secondly, I noticed that some key aspects you included during the conference were not mentioned in the paper, which in my opinion, could be interesting for RELAY’s readers.

    The first aspect is related to the order of your list of considerations for the future place of self-access learning. In the conference, you start with the topic of blurring boundaries. This, to me, made a lot of sense since I believe that this is the starting point of the other aspects. It could be perhaps a good idea to start with this point in this article. Additionally, I would suggest mentioning the five dimensions of a course design and the way that this model connects students’ involvement in language learning, autonomy, and to a certain level, justify the use of SACs as part of the curricula. This would allow us to link this aspect to the second consideration: the integration of self-access into taught curricula, and in turn with the third element: the exploitation of technology (videos recorded in the Hafner & Miller project), and the last point, which is the end of physical space (that you mention in your conclusion).

    The second aspect concerns the fact that you mention, in the conference, a series of problematic issues and recommendations, which are less present in the paper. To my mind, readers who did not watch the video would appreciate reading about those words of caution (e.g., on technology dependence, being aware of the evolving needs of future SAC students, the significance of CALL).
    Also, what I really liked about the book (1999) was the case study section. I wondered if it could be useful for the reader to have some concrete examples for each aspect (blurring boundaries, integration of SAC into taught curricula, the exploitation of technology, and the end of physical space) and to examine cases that either successful or not integrated this consideration.

    Finally, I would like to reiterate the importance of your publication. The paper and its contribution are very clear, and I particularly appreciated the fact that you included recent studies in your paper and conference. For me, it indicates that SACs, which were, as you mention, a focal point when ‘Establishing Self-Access’ came out, and most importantly, their place in the self-directed learning process, which proves shows they are still a major academic topic.

  2. Dear Emily,
    Thank you for your kind comments about our paper and for your suggestions. We had talked for some time about reviewing the development of self-access learning as we have experienced it and this conference paper presented a perfect opportunity for such a reflection. We enjoyed the opportunity to move away from the more conventional academic mode and talk about how we saw things then and how we see them now and into the future. While we still linked our thoughts to the academic literature this approach necessitated a certain amount of personal reflection and speculation. Hopefully readers will understand this as you clearly have.

    Thanks for your comments about the order of presentation of the topics we cover. We spent a lot of time considering how best to link them together. You are right that we changed the order somewhat for the written paper but we feel this works better for the more extended argumentation possible in a written format. We also value your comment about the five dimensions of course design. We feel going into this in the current paper is beyond the topic we set out to cover and is somewhat adjacent to our reflection on how we saw self-access developing. However, it would make a good topic for a separate paper and we might consider doing that at some point. Having said that, we wonder whether this might also be something you are considering writing given that you have been researching and teaching about course design. It would be really good to see such a paper.

    Your second point about the words of caution is well taken. These are areas we do cover in the paper but perhaps in a more muted way than we did in the presentation. The presentation medium allows such speculation and extrapolation more than the written paper. However, you are right that these are important points that should be made available. For this reason we will propose in our revised paper to include a link to the presentation to allow readers the option to see those extended comments. We could also make clearer in the opening remarks of the written paper that it is not identical to the conference presentation so that readers know there may be other things of value in the presentation (just as there are additional points in the written paper that are not emphasised in the conference presentation).

    Your comments about the case studies section of our book are kind, so thank you. To include something similar in the paper would extend it considerably and go beyond our original intention in producing the paper. However, this is a great idea which we may follow up in a later paper.

    David and Lindsay

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