Carol J. Everhard, Formerly School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
This article is a response to the review article written by Gardner and Miller (2021) in relation to the state of the art in self-access at the time of the publication of their book (Gardner & Miller, 1999) and the progress and development of self-access since then. By way of response, this article examines and embellishes on some of the themes they explore in relation to the past, present and future of self-access learning and suggests some other possible themes worthy of note and consideration. This author concludes, as do they, that self-access as we currently know it and in forms still to be defined will remain with us for quite some time to come.
Keywords: self-access, self-access centres (SACs), self-access language learning (SALL)
It was with particular interest and enthusiasm that I learned of Gardner and Miller’s (2021) contribution to Relay Journal, and I was even more enthusiastic when I read of the approach they intended to take, i.e., 1) providing an overview of self-access at the time of publication of their classic monograph, in 1999; 2) taking a look at the ‘here and now’ of self-access; and finally, 3) offering considerations concerning the future of self-access. It is not for me to question their opinions and perspectives, as clearly these emerge from the people and professionals that they were and have become. What I would like to do, however, based on my own knowledge and experience in the field, is to comment on some aspects of the ‘big picture’ they set out to create and to highlight some of these aspects with my own brushstrokes.
The School of English Undergraduate Course on Self-Access Language Learning
The first point I would like to make is that the book Establishing Self-Access: From Theory to Practice (Gardner & Miller, 1999) is a book with which I am very familiar indeed, but not as a guide to setting up self-access facilities, as that was something I had accomplished on a modest scale in the context of the Teaching Centre of the then-British Council Thessaloniki, in Greece, some 10 years before the book was published. My intimacy with the book stems from its use as a coursebook on a 3rd-year undergraduate applied linguistics course that I was offering as an optional required course in the School of English (SOE) at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki during a 7-year period from 2004 to 2010. It was the only book on the market that came close to the course contents I needed, and thus it was adopted, and happily so.
The course I organized had a large practical component, forming 40% of the course grade, in which learners could, ultimately, due to logistic and circumstantial needs within the department, choose from among three roles, which were: 1) Self-Access Centre (SAC) Managers/Organisers, enabling them to actually work in the small departmental Resource Centre (see Everhard, 2017); 2) Self-Access (SA)/Self-Access Language Learning (SALL) Mentors, where they could team up with my 1st-year students from our departmental Language Mastery course and find solutions to these students’ learning difficulties, language learning difficulties and/or general course difficulties, through self-access (see Everhard, 2015a; 2017); or 3) they could choose the option of being Self-Access Materials Creators/Designers and contribute useful items to the limited space of the Resource Centre shelves or computers (see Everhard, 2017).
The course became quite popular, and each student on the course had their own personal copy of the Gardner and Miller book to study and keep. The course had a duration of one semester each year, constituting a period of 10–12 weeks, for 3 hours per week. For one of these hours, we focused on project work, or we used the faculty computer lab to visit sites of interest in the support of language learner autonomy (such as ALMS of the University of Helsinki) or self-access in language learning (many university sites in the UK, Hong Kong and elsewhere). A lengthy supplementary reading list was available, and a vast array of materials relevant to self-access and its organization, including photos of particular facilities, were placed on the online learning platform Blackboard, subscribed to and hosted by our university. Students sometimes made a close study of particular self-access facilities through their websites and presented their benefits to the rest of the class. We also went on a class visit to the self-access facility (now defunct) in the neighbouring institution of the University of Macedonia, in Thessaloniki. I did everything within my power to get the students engaged and involved.
My Views About ‘Establishing Self-Access: From Theory to Practice’
What characterizes the writing of Gardner and Miller’s (2021) review is its humility and modesty. The authors seem almost surprised that their book, published in 1999, has remained in print and circulation so many years later. It is of no surprise to me, as the topics covered in the book are still very much of relevance today, giving this monograph a rich and timeless quality. The book, I believe, formed a good starting point for student EFL teachers with little or no idea about autonomy and/or self-access. The bibliography is and was very thorough for those who wanted to explore further, and the case studies on offer have inspired teachers employed in many different types of educational institutions.
My own approach to self-access has always been that of dealing with the MESS—Materials, Equipment, Staffing and Space—and these four topics are well-covered in the 12 chapters provided. Indeed, the chapters on counselling (now more commonly known as advising) and the need for evaluation of facilities were, in many ways, prophetic. The tables and figures provided throughout the book give added clarity and help the reader to focus on the key points in each subject area, so there is little or no guesswork involved. The information provided by the authors on formulating questionnaires for self-access appraisal are not just useful, but I would say invaluable, and the points for discussion at the end of each chapter are also very useful and thought-provoking. I am not sure what changes (if any) the authors would now make to the book, but what I would personally like to see is a more philosophical/ pedagogical backdrop on which to base self-access learning. For example, of great importance is the idea that SALL: 1) encourages greater ownership of learning as well as of facilities (see Everhard, 2012); 2) can contribute to cooperative and community learning (Wenger, 1998), and 3) through the range and variety of resources available, both human and material, can enable learners to achieve greater ‘access to self’ (Everhard, 2012). Also, it is very much worth emphasizing that self-access is not in any way restricted by time, space or passing fads, nor can a facility in one institution, as I know from personal experience, simply be transferred lock, stock and barrel to another.
I have to be honest and say that my main disappointment with this book was not that it did not describe the state of the art of self-access at the time of publication, but the fact that the authors acknowledged that you could have self-access without the need for a state-of-the-art facility, but then proceeded to describe only well-endowed facilities, which some of us could do no more than dream of aspiring to. Having been involved in formal self-access organization twice (British Council, Thessaloniki and the School of English (SOE), Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), each time on a shoe-string budget, I would have liked at least one section of the book to be devoted to more quirky and low-budget forms of self-access, such as self-access in a portable box (which could be a shoe box or cereal packet), on a trolley, in a cupboard or bookcase, in the corner of a library or a computer lab or even in a converted kitchen (Hay, 1992)! I know reports of such facilities and struggles can be hard to come by, but some do exist (such as Mitchener, 1992; Papadima-Sophocleous, 2013) and should be acknowledged.
The Gardner and Miller Review
Concerning the ‘hot spots’ the authors mention, I would like to know which places they had in mind. I know that even within the British Council worldwide teaching operations, unless you happened to be a teaching centre director, it was very hard to find out what was being done in terms of self-access in other geographical locations (see Everhard, 2012 for a minimal listing). In some cases, this might have been due to matters of national or international security and politics (e.g., where English for military purposes was involved), but in others it probably had to do with finances and sharing of the pie, and for reasons of copyright, security and data protection, experimentation with systems and technologies tended to be kept under wraps. Equally well, competition between private enterprises in the UK and elsewhere could also have been conducive to secrecy, but some of these enterprises were particularly successful in implementing self-access, perhaps because they invested in personnel as much as in materials, equipment and space. I will return to this subject and share my discoveries about these enterprises shortly.
The authors surprised me by mentioning Leni Dam’s name, as she is not someone that one would immediately associate with self-access, and her work was part of a much larger movement working towards autonomy in Scandinavia. Again, with the exception perhaps of the Universities of Helsinki (Karlsson et al., 1997) and Jyväskylä (Kohonen et al., 2001), this was always a rather closed community, and it was difficult to find out about the work being done unless one was a guest at their regular meetings or had access to resulting publications. Dam’s work has been inspirational to many as a form of classroom practice which promotes learner autonomy, but it has to be admitted that what she achieved and how she achieved it has not proved particularly easy to emulate.
Another ‘hotbed’ of autonomy activity has been the Iberian Peninsula, with ongoing cooperation between Spanish and Portuguese academics involved in teacher training which aims to ensure that present and future teachers will promote autonomy in the language classroom and beyond (Fernandes & Vieira, 2014; Jiménez Raya et al., 2007); however, it is again a rather closed shop, and my understanding is that the exploitation of self-access does not appear to be one of their priorities.
The Then and Now of Self-Access
Before dealing further with the ‘here and now’ of self-access, I would like to discuss my experiences of the ‘then and now’ of self-access as clearly a lot has happened in self-access over the past 20 to 30 years. Thanks to a course on self-access organized by the British Council in 1991 and run by Bell Schools, I was able to visit many self-access facilities in the UK, particularly in the Cambridge and Saffron Walden areas. What I saw in Saffron Walden was beyond amazing, and the efforts of the teaching staff and teacher-training staff as well as library and administration staff were clearly driven by enthusiasm, a common sense of purpose and a strong belief in their enterprise and in what they were doing. Sadly, due to relocation of resources, this facility no longer exists.
I then completed a tour of my own, visiting more facilities in the London area and in and around the English south coast. I often wonder what happened to some of those facilities and the people who dedicated so much time and effort to creating and promoting them. What was very clear to me at the time was that self-access use and exploitation was very much constrained by the typical 9-to-5 British working day. During these times, most students were required to attend class, and when they had free time for extra study, in the evening and at weekends, these facilities were generally closed. It is possible that this may have contributed to the demise of these centres and to the re-assigning of space, funding and personnel to meet other needs. Widespread ownership of PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones, as well as ubiquitous access to the internet, have no doubt also played their part.
It was sad to hear from the authors that facilities in Hong Kong, which my students and I used to admire from afar, exist no more. More recently, the Covid pandemic and resulting restrictions on access to library and self-access facilities in many countries may have resulted in more (or less) self-access provision being made available online, as with teaching.
Thanks mainly to the activities and endeavours of IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) and its Learner Autonomy SIG (Special Interest Group), some interesting projects have come to my notice which did not set out as self-access projects, but which certainly seem to fall into that category. One worthy of mention is the ‘Holes in the Wall’ project of Sugata Mitra (2014). In it, we see young children lining up and grouping together to make use of a computer terminal and engaging with the material on offer, despite it being in a foreign language or at a level of complexity considered beyond their years and understanding. Such engagement occurs whether on a busy city street in India or in a remote village, so Mitra was able to convince himself and others that there was nothing coincidental about what occurred.
Indeed, under his guidance, a primary school teacher in the UK (Crawley, 2014) witnessed the same amazing results with her own class, through creating a Self-Organised Learning Environment (SOLE). Mitra advised her to reduce the number of computers available in her classroom so that students would be forced to cooperate, and he also advised her to set the students interesting questions and problems to solve. The students’ motivation and enthusiasm for learning as well as their rate of learning immediately peaked, and the cooperation between students was exceptional. The problem-solving involved progressing in many, sometimes quite complex subject areas simultaneously.
Little and Kirwan (2016) describe another project which is not concerned with self-access in the conventional sense, but nevertheless does involve ‘access’ to the cultural and linguistic heritage of ‘the self’ and of ‘others’ in a primary school classroom context in Dublin. What is encouraging about this project is that it capitalizes on the riches to be gleaned from modern-day multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic societies. By recognizing, highlighting and sharing differences and diversity (see Arnold, 2011, for a very interesting discussion of diversity), it encourages children not only to take an interest in such differences but to be proud of this diversity through sharing songs, poems, expressions and customs which have been passed down to them.
We might also include language cafés as a form of self-access. Sometimes these meetings to practice conversation in a particular language can be organized in any kind of available space, including self-access facilities, where there might be a lounge, or they may take place, as their name suggests, in an actual café or bar. The Blue Rain Café of Gao (2007) may have been among the first of its kind and is quite well-known. Unfortunately, because of their often informal and spontaneous nature and the fact that they are frequently set up by students themselves, there is not much documented evidence of their success.
Advising, affect and models of autonomy
As far as concerns the ‘here and now’ of self-access, I believe that more emphasis has to be given to the significant role played by advising and advisers in promoting learner autonomy and self-access learning (see accounts related to Kanda University of International Studies in Kato & Mynard, 2015; Ludwig & Mynard, 2019; Mynard & Carson, 2012), and also worthy of mention is the work of Tassinari at Freie Universität Berlin (see Tassinari, 2016, 2017), where not only staff advising, but student advising for SALL has been implemented. Advising and possibly also mentoring have been taken to a new level in many institutions and perhaps constitute one of the stepping stones which could or should have been identified by Gardner and Miller (2021) in their review.
In their book, Gardner and Miller (1999) rightly devote space to the attitudes and beliefs of teachers and learners. For the ‘here and now’ of self-access, however, I think they should highlight the importance of advising in getting colleagues and learners to divulge not only their beliefs and attitudes, but also their feelings and emotions. Affective factors in language learning have very much come to the fore in recent years (Arnold, 2011; Tassinari & Ciekinski, 2013; Valdivia et al., 2011) and clearly influence the motivation and degree of effort and commitment that learners are prepared to agree to, both in the classroom and beyond. Arnold (2011) suggests that a more humanistic approach to language teaching and language learning, which takes account of affect, enables teachers to be themselves. It allows them to develop both as professionals and as people, and in this kind of setting and climate, they are less likely to experience burn-out. This kind of climate would also be beneficial to advisors and advisees in a self-access setting, encouraging honesty about feelings and placing advisor and advisee on the same footing.
In terms of finding a model of autonomy or of self-access learning, the authors suggest Benson’s (2011) model of autonomy (extended by Chik, 2014), as befitting self-access. It should be noted that this same model has also been explored and extended by others, such as Oxford (2008) and Murase (2015). In addition, there are other possible pedagogical models, provided by Dam, Reinders and Jiménez Raya et al. (for a presentation of these, see Everhard, 2018), while two models created specifically for SALL are those of Cooker (see Cooker, 2015; Pemberton & Cooker, 2012) and Tassinari (2012, 2015). In my own research into autonomy, I have found it important to have a model of autonomy to which I could relate both theory and practice and in which autonomy can be viewed as a matter of degree (Everhard, 2015b, 2016, 2019), and self-access clearly has no problem fitting into the model I have used.
What the Future Holds
For those of us who can no longer be involved in the ‘here and now’ of self-access, let us hope that Gardner and Miller and many others who are still involved will continue to inform us of new directions and innovations in self-access learning. Recently, I was lucky enough to be allowed to attend a few of the presentations at the Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) 2021 Conference, which was held online on 23rd October, 2021. One of the talks I attended was given by Wongsarnpigoon, Bennett and Stevenson of Kanda University of International Studies and was concerned with the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to expand learning spaces, and another by Andersson of Osaka University was concerned with the use of virtual reality applications. Both of these talks reflected current directions in SA learning and were most informative. As we are all aware, there is no shortage of apps and resources which can be used on our mobile devices, and with on-demand and replay TV, as well as on-demand cinema, there is much we can do to progress with a language or any other field of study, without having to leave our homes. The possibilities for self-access seem almost infinite.
I agree with Gardner and Miller about the importance of safety and security on the Internet, but as well as hacking, invasion or harassment online, equally well we have to be aware of the everyday threat within our facilities of pilfering of materials and parts or pieces of equipment and even of large-scale burglary. In one fell swoop, you can suddenly find yourself without databases and materials and equipment which have been put together over a lengthy period of time with dedication and perseverance, or have what was a space with a pleasant ambience conducive to learning and cooperation left looking sad, violated and empty. Unfortunately, the lesson learned by the SOE when this occurred was that there is no way of creating back-up to compensate for the ravaging of the heart and soul of an operation. It is particularly sad when it is the efforts by students for students that are undone.
In that respect, I think it is also particularly important to lay emphasis on just how much the learners themselves can bring to the table and contribute to self-access, not only in the quality of the materials they can create, but in the surprisingly important roles they can assume (see Everhard, 2012, 2016). Indeed, the degree of students’ interest and commitment to self-access learning is catered to by JASAL, who regularly hold conferences and forums with students as the organisers and participants, which have proved very popular (see https://jasalorg.com/conferences/).
I agree with Gardner and Miller that self-access adapts to its users, but clearly, in the future, it will continue to morph and evolve and will not only adapt to its users, but will be adapted by and for its users. There’s something about SALL, which leaves me in no doubt that self-access, both as we know it and in forms still to be discovered, will remain with us for a very long time to come.
Notes on the Contributor
Carol J. Everhard holds a PhD from the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, School of English (SOE), Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where she taught and coordinated undergraduate courses in Language Mastery and in Self-access and Foreign Language Learning. She organized Self-access Language Learning (SALL) resources, first for the British Council in Thessaloniki and then for SOE. Her research interests include learner-centred assessment, peer mentoring, ethnography and self-access language learning.
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