Harnessing the Potential of Technology to Support Self-Directed Language Learning in Online Learning Settings––Online Symposium Review.

Hatice Celebi, University of Massachusetts Amherst, College of Education, Language, Literacy & Culture

Celebi, H. (2021). Harnessing the potential of technology to support self-directed language learning in online learning settings––Online symposium review. Relay Journal, 4(1), 46-50. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/040107

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Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden) and the Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education at Kanda University of International Studies (Chiba, Japan) held a joint online symposium on October 15, 2020. It was an open event for those interested in the design and use of technology and self-directed, autonomous language learning in online settings. Examining 15 of the event’s internationally focused presentations, this article aims to provide an overview of the symposium by summarizing the main themes in research and practice relating to technology and self-directed learning. The article will conclude with a commentary on the takeaways and issues for further reflection. 

Keywords: self-directed language learning, technology, online learning setting

Overview of the symposium

KTH (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan) Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden) and the Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education (RILAE) at Kanda University of International Studies (Chiba, Japan) held a joint online symposium on October 15, 2020. Among the factors that might have brought these two institutions to organize this collaborative event are their common goals of stimulating, cultivating, and nurturing autonomy, self-determination, and independence. KTH Institute of Technology is acknowledged as one of Europe’s leading technical and engineering universities. It emphasizes the fostering of interdisciplinary research and collaboration between academia and the public and private sectors in order to develop sustainable solutions to humanity’s challenges, such as climate change and future energy needs. Established in April 2017 as part of the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC) of Kanda University of International Studies, the RILAE focuses on promoting research, professional development, and best practices in developing lifelong autonomous learning. 

The content of the symposium’s presentations was in close alignment with the institutions’ mutual goals and reflected a joint effort that was truly global in its contributions and scope. The online event was attended by 180 participants from around the world, as shown in Figure 1 below. 

Figure 1.
Locations of Symposium Attendees Source: Eventbrite Attendee Information

The symposium invited the participants to engage in an open dialog on how to foster the design and use of technology for enhanced, meaningful, and self-directed language learning. The symposium addressed the current needs of educators in an array of different fields, with particular consideration given to the educational challenges that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. The event took place over a single day, from 10:30am to 7:00pm (CET), with a 90-minute break between 1:30 and 3:00pm. There were four presentations in the morning session (Session 1) and five in the afternoon (Session 2), with one hour allocated to the keynote speakers, half an hour to the presenters, and three interactive poster sessions. All of the presentations were video recorded and are available at the following link (https://kuis.kandagaigo.ac.jp/rilae/events/symposium2020/symposium-2020-schedule/), which serves as a great resource for those who may want to (re-)watch the sessions and reflect on self-directed learning and online learning environments. 

Summary of the presentations

The morning session started with the opening remarks of Olga Viberg and Jo Mynard. Olga Viberg is an assistant professor in media technology with a specialization in technology-enhanced learning at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. Jo Mynard is a professor in the English department and director of both the SALC and RILAE at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan. 

Regine Hampel was the keynote speaker in Session 1, with a talk entitled “Disruptive Technologies and Language Learner Identity in the Digital Age”. Hampel argued that the materiality of the online medium has changed the nature of learning and has had a major impact on language learner identity construction (Hampel, 2019). In her talk, Hampel maintained that the concepts of time, space, and body are being reconceptualized in online learning environments in ways that see time become a flexible notion, learning shifts from place to space, and the body undergoes processes of disembodiment and re-embodiment, as learners adopt new personas in virtual worlds. Given the implications of this reconceptualization, it appears essential to consider themes such as digital literacy, cyber security, and the skills required for autonomous learning, including time management, self-motivation, intercultural competence and training, and support for both learners and teachers. Hampel’s keynote address was followed by sessions that shed light on the shifts in education by examining how social media platforms and students’ digital literacies could be used in educational contexts presented by Leier and Gruber. Peeters’ presentation detailed how two salient themes that emerged in his research were “awareness” and what self-regulated learning means to students. Synchronous and asynchronous language advising was reported to be crucial for motivational processes, through the implementation of strategies that emphasize effort, hope, and power while building relationships by Karaaslan & Güven-Yalçın.   

The afternoon session started with the second keynote address, which was delivered by Carrie Demmans Epp, an assistant professor in the Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta. Her work includes designing, deploying, and evaluating multimedia learning and digital tools such as augmented reality and virtual reality in education (see Akcayir & Demmans Epp, 2021). The focus of her talk was on the study of adaptive educational technologies, such as gamification, and the mechanisms used to provide feedback to learners within these environments. In her presentation, entitled “Using Analytics and Artificial Intelligence to Support Language Learner Decision Making”, Demmans Epp illustrated how the analytics collected as feedback while language learners engage with digital educational game activities could help learners understand their abilities and increase their autonomy, while also guiding them to find suitable learning materials and paths for improvement. During her talk, Demmans Epp provided a “behind the scenes” glimpse of how digital learning materials are developed and an interdisciplinary understanding of computerized, digital educational material design. Subsequent presentations by Saqr et al., Chong et al., and Al-saadi, mainly focused on how online platforms such as Facebook and MOOCs could be utilized by language learners for greater self-regulation in their language development by experimenting with different forms of writing, multimodal literacies, and context-specific innovative remote teaching methods.  

The following three presenters dealt with a mix of the “micro” and “macro” levels of teaching for autonomous learning. Meri-Yilan reported the insights gathered from her investigation of student-teacher interaction through writing online dialogue journals. Navarro and Lopez discussed language advising from the perspectives of both the advisors and the advisees, while Reyes problematized the orientations of self-access centers (SACs). The digital posters presented by Mynard et al. and Barnes and Esen drew our attention to how we can transform educational challenges into better learning, and provided case study examples. Mynard et al. explained how and why they designed an application for self-directed learning in their teaching context. Barnes and Esen showcased some interactive online learning modules that featured inspiring interaction types and purposes, including Socratic questioning methods. Overall, the symposium provided useful insights and represented a valuable opportunity for networking and resource building and a platform for future expertise exchange. 

Takeaways & Issues for further reflection

While engaging with the presentations, I found myself considering the multiple possible identities with which language learners are constantly experimenting on digital learning platforms (e.g., embodiment, re-embodiment). I asked myself if we are taking a sufficiently critical look at whether the ways we operate with educational notions such as engagement, interaction, motivation, and assessment are in consonance with the fluid enactments of digital learning environments. As an educator, I value seeing my students’ faces during distance education.  As such, I have been incorporating social and emotional teaching strategies to build relationships and a learning community so that my students feel comfortable with having their cameras on. After engaging with the notion of re-embodiment, I am questioning as to why having cameras on during distance education has an influence on my teaching values.  Are my values fixated on the conceptualizations of “(em)body(iment)” and in-person teaching in a classroom? Once more as I reflected, I have come to realize the paramount need to experiment with multimodal literacies on digital learning platforms. Recent resources such as “Creating Digital Literacy Spaces for Multilingual Writers” open up new perspectives on how we theorize about language learning and designing literacy spaces in technologically enhanced, multilingual learning settings.  

We have a limitless wealth of digital teaching resources and platforms at our disposal as we contend the challenges of language learning and teaching. At the same time, it is essential to offer technical and emotional support for language learners and teachers, as it is only reasonable to assume that the range of resources and platforms with which we are experimenting today will continue to expand. This symposium will no doubt be followed by many others focused on directing language learners towards self-regulated learning in multimodal, fluid learning environments.

Notes on the contributor

Hatice Celebi is currently working as a lecturer at The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Academic Language Programmes. She has worked on a range of different projects in the areas of language, literacy, and culture. Her research interests include language learning and teaching theories, as well as discourse and media studies. 


Akcayir, G. & Demmans Epp, C. (2021). Designing, Deploying, and Evaluating Virtual and Augmented Reality in Education. IGI Global

Bloch, J. (2021). Creating Digital Literacy Spaces for Multilingual Writers. Multilingual Matters.

Hampel, R. (2019). ‘The conceptualization of time, space, and the body in virtual sites and the impact on language learner identities’. In S. Bagga-Gupta, G. Messina Dahlberg, & Y. Lindberg (Eds.), Virtual sites as learning spaces (pp. 269–294). Palgrave Macmillan.

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