Monday, October 29, 2007

About this blog

This blog has had over 1300 hits since the 8th October! A big thank you to all the contributors. It isn’t too late if you would like to write a summary or some reflections of your presentation, the conference or of a session you attended. If you are interested in contributing, please e-mail me (

If you are attending a learner-autonomy related event in the future and would like to volunteer to keep a blog in order to share your experience with others, do get in touch. The IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG can help you host your blog and link it to our website:

Monday, October 22, 2007

The cost of borrowing: Autonomy and its intellectual debts

Alex critically examines the intellectual borrowings in two papers on autonomy (Cultural alternatives and autonomy / Alastair Pennycook in Benson and Voller 1997 book and a book chapter written by Naoko Aoki). In essence, he argued that we should be cautious in borrowing terms and theories from other academic disciplines so that our arguments will not be undermined by our indiscrete borrowings. In general, I think that our field does need to examine critically what we have borrowed from other fields. So Alex's paper serves a timely reminder. I also admire his courage in presenting his critique on two famous researchers' writings in this conference. and I am also sure that the researchers under his critical scrutiny have different views. I wonder such critique will be much more meaningfully presented in a colloqium or a form of debate, where the authors under scrutiny may respond and argue with the presenter. Such collegial discussions will certainly benefit the audience.

Autonomy and Affect in Distance Language Learning

This is a very impressionistic summary of Stella Hurd's presentation. In her presentation, she talks about affective factors, including motivation and anxiety in distant language learners' language learning process. Maybe I am quite ignorant of the whole research area, but somehow I often feel that distance language learning has evolved into a sub-area of inquiry distinct from other sub-areas of inquiry in autonomy research, i.e. self-access center. I found that Stella's research has important pedagogical and research implications. In particular, when she talked about distance learners using cognitive and metacognitive strategies to reduce their anxiety and enhance their learning motivation, I started questioning the traditional catergorization of learning strategies with the researcher. In the traditional theorization of learning strategy, affective strategies are used by learners to deal with affective factors in the learning process. Such findings also inform our advice to our language learners, who want to deal with their motivation and anxiety problems in the learning process. Maybe, advising them on the use of affective strategies may not be sufficient.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Klaus Schweinhorst's keynote

I feel very fortunate to have attended Klaus Schwienhorst’s presentation, “Coming to terms: Learner autonomy, the learner, and (computer-assisted) language learning environments.” I am still struck by how Klaus turned a typical sterile lecture hall with tiers of bolted down seats into a comfortable open and rich learning environment. He set the tone of his presentation literally with the music of Miles Davis.

So at 9am there you are coffee and presentation print in hand, the most "presentation" you are hoping for is a pleasing PowerPoint background design choice, and instead you greeted in surround-sound by intricate delectable riffs of jazz. Wow. Welcome to the opportunity to reflect on how being autonomous in language learning is a lot like being a jazz musician; the greats know how to be interdependent, experiment, develop voice, be playful, subtle, reflective, and always interactive. I worked at this university for three years, and had never felt the atmosphere of this room, used for end of term exams, so changed.

Klaus asked several provocative questions in his presentation regarding CALL. For instance: Is the computer really a unique technology? If we say we need computer-assisted learning, what was the “unassisted language learning”? Many “assisted-learning” perspectives have existed in the past, what leads us to believe CALL won’t indeed be replaced soon by MALL (Mobile-Assisted Language Learning)? Does it matter?

Indeed the focus of Klaus’s questioning was on how CALL affordances could further, or work in tandem, but certainly not replace, the roles of the learner and teacher in learner autonomy. By going through how CALL projects can go wrong and right he showed how technology is used best when it is thoughtfully applied. CALL can afford a learning environment that has a variety of communication partners, authentic material, options for reflection, options for experimentation, and options for combining reflection, interaction, and experimentation. However, these affordances will be wasted if teachers do not carefully set up how technology will be used. From his ongoing work using in MOO Tandem projects (online language exchanges between L1 and L2 speakers) he described how he and a colleague reversed a situation where students were confused who their partners were or using mostly their L1 in language exchanges, to a robust learning environment where students started class knowing who their partners were and could use a tracker within the software to see how much of their L1 compared to their L2 they were using, and how complicated their sentences were. Klaus and his co-teacher at the time had not expected students to use the tracker software in the way that they had, explicating how CALL can be a tool that presents ways for both the teacher and learner to discover new ways to manage learning. An engagement with CALL though not always easy, can lead to unexpected innovation. Like Miles Davis, who regularly practiced with different and new musicians to keep his art fresh, learners and teachers can benefit greatly from integrating experimentation into their daily learning.

Indeed audience members corroborated Klaus’ research by telling of instances when CALL had disappointed them, but how they accepted the challenge to look more closely at how they were applying CALL to their pedagogy.

Klaus said in his presentation that learner autonomy may be most effective when combining reflection, interaction, and experimentation seamlessly. I do not know if other audience members had seen a presentation before like Klaus’, where the presenter so elegantly talked about lessons learned, asked questions, beyond being rhetorical, that were provocative, interacted well with the audience, and in the presentation materials themselves (music, PowerPoint, software screen shots, and a handout that was not a replica of the presentation) showed variety and innovation. I had not. Klaus’s presentation left me extremely hopeful for the future of CALL and teacher/learner autonomy. Certainly we are lucky to have him as our colleague.

Thank you to the conference conveners who wisely invited Klaus. I am looking forward to his upcoming book, Learner Autonomy and CALL Environments as well as reading more about the software he mentioned in his presentation and other projects. Thank you again!

-Christine Rosalia
New York University
Kanda University Peer Online Writing Centre

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Learners’ voices

Our (Debbie Corder's, Dave Murray's and Sergio Valdivia's) presentation was the result of a year of continuous electronic communications, using email, chat and wiki resources -actually, we met at the Conference for the first time. We ended up putting together what I sketch in the following introduction to our presentation. If interested in getting more details about it, please let us know (post a comment).

The Independent Learning Association
2007 Japan Conference

“Learners’ voices: critical reflection in portfolios from three
cultural/linguistic settings”

Sergio Valdivia, Debbie Corder, David Murray


AUTO-L, our Research Network discussion list, has given many of us the opportunity to communicate beyond our discussions and bring together individual projects such as this presentation. Our individual interests have found echo among other teachers so we will present to you, our common and different experiences from three different cultural and linguistic settings: New Zealand, Japan and Mexico.

Autonomy promotion

From the time, we all learned about 'autonomy' -and probably before, without being conscious of it, we all became promoters of it. We have probably changed our ways of teaching, visited self-access facilities more often or grew some interest in learning more about autonomy and attended conferences such as this.

In this quest, we have also been attentive to what our role as autonomy promoters is. Why? Because we feel we are (partly) responsible for making(?), facilitating(?) or just letting(?) students become 'more' autonomous -I personally believe, we are autonomous learners, at some point, from birth. This concern has made us move in different directions. Sometimes, coinciding with others, other times taking an opposite direction. But at the end of the day, do we feel we are doing a good job? Probably, 'yes' ... probably, 'no'.

What do we normally do in order to foster autonomy? One of the things we have learned from our readings, is to raise consciousness in students of the learning process, they go through. In a Constructivistic view of learning, being conscious of our learning process is an integral part of it. Also, we have learned from Cognitive psychology that a 'proper' thinking process does enhance our learning, too.


So, now, the buzz word is Reflection -invite your students to reflect upon their learning. Take advantage of metacognition, introspection and retrospection. Not only good planning is necessary but an evaluation of what has worked and what hasn't. Cognitive psychology has given us a green light to intervene (invade?) private mental processes with the aim of 'enhancing' them by making them explicit and public. Contructivist psychology has also given us another green light in becoming observers of the process, learners go through and in being witnesses of how every learner finds his/her own ways and how this experience (struggle?) will eventually transform into something meaningful and significant for them.

So our focus is on Reflection. But what should we understand by reflecting upon our learning? In a constructivist learning relationship, teachers require students to take responsibility for making their own meaning, rather than accepting prefabricated meanings of information or instruction. It is therefore seen as substantially different from a relationship where teachers as experts transfer knowledge to students. Attributes of constructivism are said to include student initiative, higher-level thinking, social discourse between students and teachers, and the use of raw data, primary sources, interactive materials to encourage multiples perspectives on an issue (Brookes & Brooks, 1993).

Also, learners are expected to work towards autonomy and self-regulated learning, and to achieve greater understanding of the processes of learning itself. They (learners) become the observers of their own behaviour and through reflection gauge their own progress, judge the extent to which their knowledge is effective action and gain the insight necessary to improve their own learning (Brown & Palincsar, 1989). Teachers are expected to develop knowledge of the different learning styles of their students, thus enabling them to personalize learning. Socio-constructivism is where students work together, supporting each other and learning from each other.

Kohonen also mentions that in sociocultural, socio-constructivist and experiential learning theories, the learner is seen as a person consisting of a self with a social identity and as a member of and participant in a society and a culture. He/she has access to knowledge, power and resources and has an identity and a variety of contextual social roles. And Philip Riley discusses the notion of individual identity in terms of a distinction between self and person. Self refers to individual, personal identity: what makes "me" as me, as opposed to all other individuals. Person, on the other hand, is a question of social identity: what makes this individual like other individuals in terms of shared characteristics, memberships and rights. But, the importance of this identity has become apparent in the use of the e-portfolio, Debbie will talk about this later.


A topic to discuss is still how to get students to reflect effectively. Some teachers and language advisors have used portfolios, questionnaires, check lists, interviews, group discussions, sound and video recordings, etc. All these have proved some usefulness in different settings but still, we are in a constant search for better tools. In our case, we all three have used portfolios of some sort which have proved effective. We believe in these tools as something that will raise consciousness when reflections turns back to a private practice.

So after all those guidelines of the importance of reflection in learning, we have to take some role (intervention?) in what seems to be our contribution to autonomy promotion. Our main rationale behind our acting is based on finding better ways of learning and by better, we mean more efficient in the classroom or in a self-access facility. We strongly believe that learning a foreign language needs this intervention - for better or for worse.

In making public what seems to be a private practice, we have taken simple-complex, guided-open, paper-electronic efforts to make learners' reflections not only public but analyzable, observable and discussable (metacognition). This metacognitive approach has proved valid in various senses as we will show you in the following three case studies of the use of learning portfolios in New Zealand, Japan and Mexico.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Virtual English Language Adviser (VELA) How it can be used

Sarah Toogood, HKUST Language Centre

I have often read about the VELA project, but it was really lovely to finally meet Sarah Toogood and hear about it firsthand. The purpose of Sarah’s presentation at this conference was to show the audience the current state of VELA.

VELA is a kind of database which helps students to build a learning plan by linking strategies with materials through “pathways”. It was originally developed as tool for advisers, but it was soon realized that it could also be used by the students. The students do not have to use VELA alone, they are encouraged to use it with their teachers, other learners and with advisers at the “Drop-in Centre” in the SAC. Students work through 6 steps:

Step 1: Identify a skill and interest area from the menu
Step 2: State the problem
Step 3: Clarify the cause of the problem
Step 4: VELA suggests ways to practise language and students discover what works for them. Users take a quiz at this point to make sure they understand about the three practice types (focused, transfer and general)
Step 5a: Strategies and materials – Focused practice (teach yourself something)
Step 5b: Strategies and materials – Transfer practice (make a conscious effort to use what you have learned)
Step 5c: Strategies and materials – General practice (expose yourself to the language)
Step 6: Personalise your plan. VELA gives users a copy of the choices in the form of a plan including materials choices, time allocation, progress checks and objectives. Learners review and modify the plan and show it to a friend, teacher or adviser.

Sarah uses metaphors to help students to understand the process, for example step 2 is likened to visiting the doctor – you have to share your symptoms or problems. The materials suggested in step 5 are like a recipe. Sarah used the example of making an omelet. Once you know how to make a basic omelet, you can adapt your recipe and become more creative.

Students and teachers at HKUST have been very positive about using VELA. One student commented “It [VELA] provides me with the chance to set a goal of learning and think about what I want to learn.” Another commented “I could choose any of the language focus in this project. It made the project more interesting to me… I tried some new methods to construct my learning plan.”

Sarah encouraged us to try VELA and to let her know how we get on.

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NEW Download the latest version of adviser guidelines for creating a VELA plan here (PDF).

Poster sessions

David McLoughlin and Gary Pathare discuss Sarah Osboe and Dave Bollen's poster

Delegates reading Tomoko Fujimura, Robert Hirschel and Sarah Osboe's poster

Andy Barfield, Henri Holec, Sarah Toogood and others have discussions about Ellen Head's posters