Assessing the Potential Role of Technology in Promoting Self-Directed Language Learning: A Collaborative Project Between Japan and Sweden

Olga Viberg, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
Jarmo Laaksolahti, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
Jo Mynard, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan
Anna Mavroudi, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

Viberg, O., Laaksolahti, J., Mynard, J., & Mavroudi, A. (2018). Assessing the potential role of technology in promoting self-directed language learning: A collaborative project between Japan and Sweden. Relay Journal, 1(2), 346-359.

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This report begins with a summary of ways in which technology has been used to attempt to increase learning opportunities and support for self-directed learners at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) with limited success. A collaboration between KUIS and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden has highlighted the need for a more thorough needs analysis and evaluation of the learning environment before any technological designs are implemented. In addition, such implementation should be done in collaboration with the end users. The second part of the paper provides preliminary results related to an initial needs analysis conducted with end users at KUIS that will form the basis of ongoing collaboration with the aim of creating a platform and/or series of tools that will enhance self-directed language learning.

Keywords: self-directed learning, technology-enriched environments, learning design


In this report, the authors give a brief account of a collaborative project involving Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Japan and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden. The overall aims of the project are to enhance ways in which technology is harnessed for effective self-directed language learning. The initial stages of the project will focus on exploring opportunities for KUIS students of English to engage in technology-enhanced self-directed English study in the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC) using digital tools designed by colleagues and students at KTH. In order to develop such tools that would fulfill students’ learning needs, first a needs analysis and some piloting are necessary. The collaboration has already proven to be a fruitful one with each institution bringing particular expertise to the project; KUIS has a strong background in self-directed language learning and with supporting learners outside the classroom. KTH has proven expertise in designing and utilising technology to enhance learning. What has emerged already is that interventions using technology at KUIS have largely discounted input from the learners themselves. This collaboration is an opportunity to approach the challenge from a different perspective with input from international researchers. This report will briefly summarise the initial stages of the project.

The first part of this report supplies some background to the project by providing a summary of how technology has been used to facilitate self-directed learning at KUIS in the past ten years. In the second part of the paper, the KTH team gives a short account of some of the considerations for incorporating technology into learning design. Finally, the authors give a brief summary of some of the results of an initial needs analysis conducted at KUIS intended to guide the next steps in developing technological learning tools with the potential to enhance self-directed learning.

Part 1. Supported Self-Directed Learning (SDL) at Kanda University of International Studies

The Self-Access Learning center (SALC) at KUIS has offered a curriculum to promote self-directed learning (SDL) since its inception in 2001. This curriculum introduces learners to the concept of learner autonomy, teaches them practical ways in which they can become more effective self-directed learners, and provides guidance and support as learners create their own personalised language learning curriculum. The curriculum is currently offered in the form of a credit-bearing class (one class period a week) or a self-directed module done outside of class also for credit. The curriculum is entirely optional and supplemental to the required language courses that all students of English take. For further details of the evolution of the SALC curriculum, see Stevenson and Mynard (2017). For details about curriculum design, see Thornton (2013) and Lammons (2014).

The role of technology in SDL at KUIS

Although we value the role that technology can play in enhancing students’ SDL opportunities, the current SALC team lacks the technical expertise to take advantage of the available opportunities. The modules and courses have mainly been paper-based. For the most part, students write reflections and plans by hand and receive hand-written feedback and comments from their learning advisors on their weekly self-directed work. Some limited trials with different technologies have taken place which will be summarised in this section. What has become clear thanks to the collaboration so far with KTH is that the various interventions lacked a systematic needs analysis stage. In addition, the interventions were applied without sufficient consultation with the end users. The experimental nature of the interventions have been instrumental in providing valuable feedback, but future applications will not be considered without a thorough needs analysis.

Technology for facilitating SDL that has be trialled in the SALC

Social network environments (SNE) and course management systems. Experiments with SNEs such as Moodle (, Edmodo ( and Ning ( provided insights into how SALC module takers access course documents and engage in online communication using SNE tools. In a classroom scenario, SNEs promoted reflection (Mynard, 2011) and indicated evidences of social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Rourke, 2001; Mynard, 2017), but when used independently by students, there has been limited uptake of communication functions, and students prefer to communicate with learning advisors in hand written form (Mynard & Nakata, 2012). This could have been because some of the trials were too premature for our student body at the time of introduction.

Purpose-built SALC apps. In 2014 an external company was hired to create an app version of the paper-based module the “Module App” and also a general introduction to the SALC the “SALC App”. The Module App replicated the materials as an iPad app and several iterations were piloted over a one-year period (see Lammons et al., 2015 for an overview). In 2015, a larger trial took place and all students taking modules and courses for one semester were encouraged to use the app (and most did so). Mynard and Yamamoto (2018) evaluated the app by drawing on user perceptions and found that there were some benefits. These benefits included easy access to materials, and some tools that enhanced aspects of SDL such as allowing for visualisation of overall learning progress. However, the app itself was limited in terms of usability, i.e., it was difficult for learning advisors to access the learners’ work and comment, also it had limitations such as no communication functions and no portfolio function. Learning advisors recommended that the management system be improved for easier usability and communication with learners. In addition, they requested greater control over content creation and the ability to make regular updates to the materials. Furthermore, learning analytics, which are reported to improve learning practice by enhancing the ways in which we support learners and learning processes (Viberg, Hatakka, Bälter, & Mavroudi, 2018), should be considered to be incorporated into any future learning tool or platform.

Use of the app was discontinued the following year, but learning advisors and learners continue to experiment with potential replacements such as Moxtra (

Communication tools. In order to supplement the Module App and overcome some of the communication limitations, some learning advisors incorporated the use of Google+ ( into the classroom-based version of the curriculum. Other learning advisors use tools such as LINE (, Facebook Messenger (, or email for the same purpose. Mynard and Yamamoto (2018) discovered that some student users valued the ease of communication that Google+ afforded them. They were able to connect with their peers and learning advisors. They were also more easily able to document a portfolio of work, a valuable feature that the the Module App did not include. More recently, some learning advisors have begun experimenting with a free version of a commercial tool called Moxtra from 2016. Moxtra appears to incorporate many of the functions that users indicated that they needed to manage self-directed learning, such as easy communication, sharing of files, and being available on any device. In addition, learning advisors have control over the content. However, as with any commercial tool, there is always the risk that Moxtra will change or be discontinued depending on company revenue. In addition, it has no data recording functions, and no functions to include interactive activities or quizzes.

Summary of What we Have Learned From Previous Experiences

So, having briefly summarised some of the ways in which we have drawn upon technology in the past to attempt to facilitate SDL in the SALC at KUIS, it seems clear that we need to build on what we have learned and create a digital platform that may comprise of several tools that can facilitate not only student self-directed learning but also the ways in which we support our learners.

The next section will focus on design considerations and some findings from a needs analysis conducted by researchers at KTH.

Part 2. Considerations when Incorporating Technology into Learning Design

To be able to improve pedagogy and offer a high quality student experience, we need to consolidate our understanding of all the diverse aspects of learning design processes, tools and models (Bower & Vlachopoulos, 2018; Laurillard, 2012). Lately, it has been argued that technology-rich learning environments can provide learners with considerable opportunities and abilities to be self-directed in their learning (Rashid & Asghar, 2016). Still, despite a noticeable level of agreement about the influence present technology affordances could have on SDL, not much empirical evidence is available in relation to the impact of technology use on SDL (Rashid & Asghar, 2016). This can be attributed to a lack of technologies used in educational settings that are specifically developed for educational purposes. Furthermore, their integration into existing learning and teaching practices is a complex endeavour that often requires various organisational, informational, technical and pedagogical competencies. As presented in the first part of this paper, several digital tools to support for example communication between learning advisors and students at the SALC have been developed or adopted and used. However, experiences indicate that there are considerable problems in terms of their perceived usability and usefulness.

The starting point for the initial design work performed by KTH researchers was the unique learning environment provided by the SALC. It’s open space architecture, where learning activities are continuously going on throughout the building, allows students to easily engage in activities that fit their schedules and interests by simply being in the right place at the right time. While some spaces are reserved for certain kinds of activities, such as advising students or holding workshops, most of the spaces are easily adapted to changing requirements. Hence the space itself is an important factor that shapes the learning activities and students’ participation in them. This allows for reimagining how to structure learning activities more like a buffet rather than a set course, with a focus on providing a wealth of choices where each person takes their own path rather than a set sequence.

In this respect, the learning environment at the SALC resembles a makerspace, a type of creative space focusing on technology, popularized by the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement that has found its way into academic settings. The Makerspace Movement (Papavlasopoulou, Giannakos, & Jaccheri, 2017) is seen as a vehicle that will allow educational institutions to be part of a return to constructivist education. Embracing such an approach promises to teach students to be innovative, creative, independent, and technology literate by gaining hands-on experience of working with new technologies in an environment that fosters social and self-regulated learning.

In a makerspace, students learn from each other as well as from teachers, and at the same time, are deeply involved in formulating their own learning goals. Despite a difference in subject matter, the learning environment in the SALC shares the same ideals of learner autonomy, choice, social learning, and self-regulation embodied by a makerspace. In such an environment the issue of technology support for learning shifts from monolithic “one-system-to-fit-them-all” type of solutions to distributed ensembles of solutions tailored to support, and benefit from, the types of activities ongoing in a certain place.

Therefore, in our design process and further research, we adopt the ‘ensemble view’ of technology (see Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001). This view suggests that we cannot consider technology to be either a dependent or an independent variable; it is seen to be interwoven into the use situations (various practices that support students’ SDL), and thus it is called the “embedded system” (Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001, p. 126).

User Research and Needs Analysis

Analysis, the first phase of the typical instructional design process, is often downplayed in e-learning projects (Mavroudi & Hadzilacos, 2013). Spending too little time on analysis is a mistake commonly made not only by inexperienced, but also by expert instructional designers (Mavroudi & Hadzilacos, 2013). Analysis involves the elicitation of learning needs, goals as well as barriers and the development of a learning system to meet needs and goals and eliminate barriers. Arguably, an effective needs analysis involves the engagement of the end users (e.g. students, teachers, local educational policymakers, administrators) in the creation of such a system. Consequently, user-design research and needs analysis are closely intertwined in Technology Enhanced Learning. Carr-Chellman and Savoy (2004) exemplify this connection with an analogy between the architect and the instructional designer: the architect works closely within the boundaries of what the end users want, need, and hope for their new home while lending her expertise to the project; similarly, the instructional designer conducts a needs analysis by defining needs, goals and problems and creating a solution to it. The difference with the architect analogy is that typically the instructional designer negotiates the solution with the administrators and eventually the solution is imposed on the end users, i.e., the learners and/or the teachers. User-design research entails actively involving the end users in the decision-making process i.e., in the design of the learning solution. Carr-Chellman and Savoy (2004) thus argue that “user design, when applied to instructional design, represents a dramatic shift in power dynamics” compared to a traditional needs analysis and the latter tends to fail because it ignores “savvy users who realize that they are being, in large part, controlled by the negotiated agenda of the designer and the administrator” (p. 702).

Methods for Data Collection

In order to facilitate students’ SDL and to develop an effective digital technology-supported learning environment for this purpose, we need to understand the actual needs of students, teachers and learning advisors.

To approach the design process with the purpose to better support language students’ self-directed learning, we have adopted the Double Diamond model[1] developed by the British Design Council. The model presents the design process that consists of four phases: i) discover (insight into the problem), ii) define (the area to focus upon), iii) develop (potential solution) and iv) deliver (solutions that work). The KTH team’s work has so far been focused mostly on the first two phases, as they are central to the potential solutions and crucial to the solutions that will work at the end. The discovery phase focuses on the user research and needs analysis, which is briefly presented in the next section.

For the purpose of understanding the language learners’ needs and preferences, in close collaboration with the SALC, the KTH team conducted a needs analysis with 106 students who have taken at least one of the SALC SDL modules or courses during the spring semester of 2018. With respect to the students’ use of technology in the SALC, the questionnaire included six questions touching upon several aspects: i) using it as a means to communicate with a learning advisor, ii) the tools that the students use for this communication, iii) how the students feel about this type of communication and why, iv) the use of technology to manage self-directed/self-study work, and finally v) how comfortable the students are in using technology for learning. The questions were answered anonymously.

In addition, to better understand students’ needs, the KTH team made several participant observations of students’ interactions in the various physical places in the SALC, as well as having several informal conversations with the students in the out-of-class group learning spaces provided by the centre (e.g., the English Lounge, the Meeting Point, the Stage).

Furthermore, to get a deeper insight into the learning advisors’ work and their perceived needs and preferences, the KTH team conducted a focus group interview with 11 learning advisors in an open, semi-structured manner, as well as several less formal one-to-one discussions with learning advisors which took place in the SALC during a one-week period.

Further, to develop effective potential solutions that would facilitate students’ SDL, the KTH team organised three workshops, where the participants were working with the ideation processes[2], i.e., the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on the idea generation. The main idea of the ideation phase is to use creativity and innovation in order to develop solutions. At this ideation stage, the participants were asked to consider the following question: How might we re-imagine the learning ecosystem for today’s self-directed learner? To understand various stakeholders’ views, the workshops were offered to the students, teachers and learning advisors (in the SALC). The first workshop was held for separately for students (n=30) and teachers/learning advisors respectively (n=22), while the second workshop was held together with all groups (n=15). To approach the first phase (i.e., to discover) of the design process, the KTH team introduced the following design thinking methods to the workshops’ participants: Six Thinking Hats and Parallel Design. Both of them are brainstorming methods. Each workshop lasted between one and two hours. The participants’ oral group presentations while practicing the above-mentioned methods and generating new ideas during the workshops were audio recorded, transcribed and later used for the preliminary analysis. Also, the notes taken by the participants during their group discussions were collected and used for the initial analysis. When the data were collected, participants signed an informed consent for the data to be used for research purposes.

Finally, all the workshop participants were invited to the follow-up workshop in which the Design Fiction[3] method was used. This method focuses on how designers could envision futures. The central question for this workshop was the same as for the above-mentioned workshops, namely How might we re-imagine the learning ecosystem for today’s self-directed learner? In this workshop, a total of 15 learning advisors, language teachers and students participated. The participants’ oral presentations were audio recorded and their written presentations were later collected (with their permission) for further data analysis.

Part 3. Summary of Findings From an Initial Needs Analysis at KUIS

  1. Student Survey

In general, the student population at SALC is divided with respect how often they use technology to communicate with their learning advisors. Almost 60% of them seem to have a strong preference for using technological means for that purpose, and the remaining 40% do not, including one out of four students who almost never use technology for communicating with learning advisors (see Table 1).

Table 1. Responses to the Question “Do you use Technology to Communicate with a Learning Advisor”

Yes, at least once a week 35.64%
Yes, about once a week 21.78%
Yes, three times per month or less 15.84%
No / hardly ever 26.73%

When students that answered positively in the previous question were asked to elaborate on further by pinpointing some of the applications they use for communicating with their learning advisors, most of them (almost two out of three) answered that they use Moxtra, followed by email (almost half of them). When the same students were asked how they feel about communicating in this way with their learning advisors, almost 90% of them answered that they feel good about it or that they like it. Some of them used such adjectives as ‘useful’ and ‘handy’. The students’ answers, when they were asked why they feel this way revolve around the following terms: ‘easiness’, ‘immediacy’ and the ‘anywhere-anytime communication’. Examples of the answers include:

  • “You can communicate with them [i.e. the learning advisors] even when you are off campus.”
  • “You can ask questions anytime.”
  • “I felt it was handy as I could use it anytime, anywhere.”
  • “Easy to contact.”
  • “It’s easier to send messages than emails.”
  • “You don’t always get to meet in person even in an urgent case.”

The students were also asked about whether they currently use any technology to manage their self-directed work. The results indicate that 57% of them already use several technologies (e.g., ELLO, Ted, YouTube, Quizlet, Polyglots, Instagram) for this purpose. Also, they were asked about how comfortable they feel while using technology for learning and 55% of them responded that they felt “completely comfortable” and 38% – “mostly comfortable.” The rest expressed that they were “uncomfortable” to use it for their learning.

Finally, when the students were asked to suggest improvements in their communication with the learning advisors, one out of four students responded that the current technological tools that they use are sufficient. A small number of them had specific suggestions such as using a communication app, e.g., LINE. Finally, some of them expressed their thoughts on several non-technological aspects of communication, such as the fact that clear instructions on how to use the technological tools of the SALC learning ecosystem are needed in general, as well as how they are expected to use it specifically in their communication with the learning advisors.

While the survey provided valuable insights into how students perceive existing use of technology at SALC we also wanted to explore what kind of technological solutions could be introduced into the space. Hence we conducted a series of hands-on workshops where students and staff engaged in design work to envision what those solutions might be.

  1. Workshops: Enhancing the SALC Physical Space with Technology: Taking it Outside of the iPad

During the workshops, which served to explore the problem space and solution space in parallel as is common in design, several interesting ideas were presented. These ideas will be summarised in this section. 

Teachers and learning advisors’ perspectives

To understand teachers and learning advisors’ perspectives on how we can re-imagine the learning ecosystem for today’s self-directed language learner, the KTH team offered a separate workshop (see the Methods section above). 22 teachers and learning advisors participated in it and tested the two different design thinking methods, Six Thinking Hats and Parallel Design, that encouraged them to think as designers.

Some examples of the suggested solutions include:

  1. Individual curriculum going online. A possible solution will be to develop a circular digital display where as everyone comes into the SALC, they submit their goals; everyone shares and connects with each other through this tool. The tool will have one central kind of display area that presents everyone’s progress and what they are doing, so that they connect and share ideas and see what others are doing and get ideas from that. So the overall idea as to turn this into a sort of shared connection space with other people.
  2. Interaction with people: Face-to-face hyperation tool. The interaction with other actual people was highlighted by the participants. The idea includes the use of the Virtual Reality (VR) simulator: a face-to-face hyperation tool that shows you how you enter a conversation; how you exit a conversation; what is appropriate discourse conversation etc. The idea of creating a VR platform for talking with other people will alleviate the stress of actually interacting with people one-to-one or face-to-face in a foreign language one is learning.

Students’ perspectives

The initial analysis of the students’ discussions and presentations during the workshops revealed that in terms of facilitating their self-regulated learning processes and also facilitating their second language acquisition, they would like to have various kinds of digital technology support for developing their conversation skills, collaborative skills, and presentations skills both in formal and informal learning settings. Among the technology discussed, students emphasized Augmented Reality (AR) and VR solutions for collaborative learning, as well as the use of smartphones, sensors and robots. The use of sensors, for example, was discussed in relation to the development of the students’ presentation skills by the two students groups. Several other groups suggested using different kinds of VR solutions at the Café space, which is an open space at the SALC where students socialise, and also at the English Lounge, which is the English-only interactive learning space, to facilitate the development of the communicative skills with not only with other students but also people around the world, both in formal and informal learning settings. Important to mention that several teams suggested various types of reward systems when interacting with the proposed design solutions. By being able to communicate with others, students highlighted the feeling of developing their confidence and overcoming the often mentioned problem of daring to speak (See Asta and Mynard (2018) for a summary of factors that contribute to KUIS students fear of speaking English). The use of innovative technology-supported solutions were often associated with the feelings of “happiness” and “excitement.”

The research and design work conducted so far has provided us with starting points for exploring how to instrument open learning spaces, such as makerspaces, in general and the SALC in particular. But to proceed we need to deepen our understanding of  perspectives and needs among students and staff. Hence, in the next step we aim to engage in various activities to help us accomplish that, including but not limited to semi-structured interviews, which would help us to better understand their views in regard to the already identified needs and possible technology supported solutions. 

Notes on the contributors

Olga Viberg is an assistant professor of Media Technology, in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), at KTH. Viberg’s research includes a focus on the design for learning and learning analytics in higher education, self-regulated learning and technology use, the application of mobile technology in language learning and the integration of formal and informal learning environments.

Jarmo Laaksolahti is a researcher and lecturer in teaching Interaction Design in several courses since 2013 (KTH).​ His research relates to Interaction Design, Internet of Things, and learning design and technology use in higher education. He completed his PhD in computer science.

Jo Mynard is a professor, director of the Self-Access Learning Center and Director of the Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education at Kanda University of International Studies. Her research is related to self-directed learning, learner autonomy, and the psychology of language learning.

Anna Mavroudi is a postdoctoral researcher in TEL in the department of Media Technology and Interaction Design at KTH. Her main interests involve teachers as designers of TEL, adaptive e-learning and innovative pedagogies in technology-rich environments.


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[2] Accessed 20180915

[3] Accessed 20180915

3 thoughts on “Assessing the Potential Role of Technology in Promoting Self-Directed Language Learning: A Collaborative Project Between Japan and Sweden”

  1. Thank you very much for sharing your exciting research project. The collaboration of the experts in the two fields, self-directed language learning and technology in education, is truly innovative and the idea sounds like something that transform language learning in many ways.

    I could relate, from my past experience, the importance of conducting a thorough needs analysis of end users before starting a technology enhanced learning project. It was interesting to learn about your design thinking approach to your data collection and I look forward to reading more about it in the future.

    Also, as a learning advisor working in the SALC, I really like your metaphor, describing the SALC as a buffet, not a course meal. As learners’ learning needs and interests differ, we cannot offer one particular set of learning resource, strategy, or space to facilitate their learning. Moreover, having students decide what they want is practice of learner autonomy, isn’t it?

    With that being said, there are some common learning difficulties that learners faces in self-directed learning, such as “daring to speak.” Will you be focusing on solving those issues possessed by majority of learners in the SALC? Or catering to different learning needs for individual learners? You may find ways to serve both;) I am intrigued to know how you will be narrowing your target/audience in the latter process.

  2. Dear Satoko!
    Many thanks for your comments. Yes, the field of technology-enhanced self-regulated learning has a great potential both in terms of development and also research, and we are looking forward to contribute to it! Of course, there are several challenges, and one of them relates to culture. As you have pointed out the problem of “daring to speak” is one of such cultural challenges and it pertains to learners both on a group level and at an individual level. Some earlier research work, which adapted sensor-based technology, has been conducted in this regard. However, technology and learning contexts are never stable; they evolve all the time! Thus more work on the topic is needed and we hope to contribute to it!

  3. Dear Olga, Jarmo, Jo and Anna,

    Thanks for your research report into technology and self-directed language learning. Given the diverse research backgrounds of the researchers from the two different countries, there’s a real sense in this initial needs analysis project of unfolding interdisciplinarity. It would be great to hear about how the project came about – linking Sweden and Japan.

    There are also links to sub-disciplines: on the technological side, the range of approaches represented in human-computer interface design and user-experience design; instructional design and learning design; on the language learning side there’s SD(L)L and language learner autonomy; second/foreign language learning; CALL. All of these disciplines seem to have their own takes on evaluation and needs analysis. From the language learning perspective, the following readings might provide some ‘cross-pollination’ on needs analysis, in their focus on analysis of the target situation, present situation, learning situation and teaching context:

    Basturkmen, H. (2013). Needs analysis and syllabus design for language for specific purposes. In C. Chapelle (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Oxford, Blackwell. DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0861

    Long, M. H. (2005a). Overview: A rationale for needs analysis and needs analysis research. In M. H. Long (Ed.), Second language needs analysis (pp. 1–18). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    Long, M. H. (2005b). Methodological issues in learner needs analysis. In M. H. Long (Ed.), Second language needs analysis (pp. 19–78). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    I particularly liked seeing how this project builds on other projects (especially the evaluation of the Module App and the related action research), involving systematic and innovative trial and error, in a cycle that is likely going to improve the student experience. I also liked the discussion of ‘space’, and look forward to seeing how you deal with this notion in your ongoing project.

    Given that this is a report on the initial stages of your collaboration, I wonder if you’ll need to develop a shared academic language that meets somewhere in between the different disciplines. When is the ‘student’ a ‘user’, or a ‘student-user’ (or a ‘language learner’, etc.)? What differences are there in design for ease of user experience of technology and learners’ experience of educational technologies?

    I look forward to seeing how your project progresses and to seeing how the learners shape their own incorporation of emerging technologies into their self-directed language learning.

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