Monday, April 14, 2008

Richard Pemberton - Self-Access

To start, Richard Pemberton gave some background about how he had come to the area of self access and autonomy, and how his ideas had developed. He then looked at the experiences of others, and from these extracted some guidelines or principles. Finally, he considered the place of self-access centres now, and the challenges for the future.
He is currently at Nottingham University, but “Richard’s Tale”, to use his Canterbury Tales metaphor, begins at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong in the early ‘90s. He admitted that in his own classroom teaching he was teacher-centred but was interested in self instruction and communicative teaching. How, he asked himself, was he to give space to the learner.
Leslie Dickinson’s (1987) book changed him, the thing he remembered most from the book being “give them a choice of materials”. He couldn’t see beyond that. It was important to individualise, but this did not answer the question, “where is this going?” In Hong Kong in the early ‘90s he got a lot of support and collaboration from HASALD.
The focus was initially on setting up and using SACs, as they were seen as the way to promote autonomy, rather than on promoting autonomy in other ways.
Richard was involved in setting up the SAC at HKUST in ’93. He showed us a plan of the centre and pointed out the small seminar room (since redesigned) which shows that there was less understanding of the need for space for speaking face to face.
A landmark was the ’94 conference “Taking Control”, where Riley, Esch, Little, Lai, Nunan, and Sinclair where present. Richard was struck by David Nunan’s belief that it is not necessary to have a SAC to lead students to autonomy. Also at the conference was Naoko Aoki, a leading light in the Learner Development SIG in Japan, and she also focussed on autonomy not SACs.
In the HKUST SAC Richard found that, though the students liked choice, a high degree of structure was needed. He had students doing projects within their taught courses, the rationale being that the students had to attend classes (though he recognised that there was a certain tension here!).
The SAC now has VELA (, an online database to help find materials for specific purposes. Teachers in SACs may be inexperienced and not know what to suggest to the students. With VELA students select what they want to do by choosing search criteria. VELA gives them an initial plan as a starting point, but it does not do everything for them as they will have to develop their plans as they go on.
(See “Independence” 42 for Richard’s article on how he started off in self-access.)
Richard then looked at “Tales” from SAC coordinators around the world:

Lucy Cooker (who set up the SALC at Kanda University of International Studies, Japan, opened 2001)
Richard highlighted the fact that the plan of her SAC showed that it has more provision of meeting rooms for students to interact, reflecting the increased awareness of the importance of group learning. Other features were the optional SALC-based modules, and the initial learning to learn provision before doing actual language content.

Humberto Cervera, Centro de Autoacceso at the Autonomous University of Yucatan, Mexico from 1993.
The centre functions as a practice centre where students are directed by teachers, and it has the same materials as used in classes. The institution’s aim was to promote individual styles and objectives, but in fact followed the curriculum.
(See “Independence” 43 for more on his Tale)

Janaina Cardoso, Manager, Senac Rio Language Centre, Brazil.
She questions the concept of self-access being necessarily linked to a physical space when these days the Internet is there and available 24 hours a day. She emphasises teacher development courses (Project Allwright, 2005).

Bruce Morrison, Head of English Language Centre, Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
He stresses autonomy-focussed counselling. He also rewards students, whereas Richard avoided this by putting his projects in class. Morrison also reasons that as the students want to be taught he should let them be taught, and in fact teaching goes on in the seminar rooms in his centre.

Anna Gorevanova, SOLC (Supported Open Learning Centre), British Council Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
She stresses personalised study plans, flexible schedules, counselling, friendly environment, face to face contact, and self-assessment.
(You can see the video of Anna’s IATEFL presentation of the SOLC online here:

Alex Ding, Team Leader in New Technologies and English for Academic Purposes and Coordinator of the Virtual Self-Access Centre at CELE, Nottingham University (
Alex is going to set up a SAC, but it will be limited to an area of 45 sq metres (i.e. 9 x 5 metres). He aims to compensate for this by having a virtual presence with online advising, links etc, and by encouraging collaborative autonomy.

Richard next looked at the principles for systems supporting learner autonomy which have emerged from the experiences of those running SACs. The first set was from Esch (1996), who emphasises qualities of: choice, flexibility, adaptability / modifiability, reflective / negotiability and shareability.

Lucy holds that SACs should not be compulsory, should involve students in their running, should be fun, and the SAC should be warm and welcoming so learners choose to be there. She sees learner training as crucial, and considers choice and flexibility to be integral, and she believes that use of the SAC should be voluntary and optional. (See “Independence” 43 for Lucy’s own article “Some Self-Access Principles”)
Lucy’s points to consider when setting up a centre are:
· Effective SALL is not dependent on the size of the centre
· A strong philosophy is more important than a large budget
· SALL is not a labour-saving system
· Not all materials are suitable for self-access
· Learning training is very likely to be important

Anna Gorevanova’s principles, and the key features of the SOLC, Tashkent, are:
· Customised packages, (i.e. counsellors help learners develop a personal study plan)
· Flexible schedules
· Learner support (counselling)
· Friendly / supportive learning environment
· Self-assessment and reflection

Richard next looked at key problems / challenges when setting up a SAC. For example, Alex Ding holds that the individuals involved in running a SAC need to have a philosophy, and need to make overt their own beliefs about autonomy. Without this there will inevitably be a conflicting approach and there will be battles between team members. He also maintains that the vision must be translated into a structure, and that the SAC needs to be incorporated into the teaching and learning of all tutors and students.

Richard then looked at problems / challenges encountered after set up, the reasons why a SAC may fail, using Humberto’s experiences:
· A culture accustomed to teacher centred and test driven mode of learning
· The lack of previous consultation with the teaching staff and with the students
· Insufficient systemic and ongoing teacher training and development for both the staff and the learners in all the areas of concern in the centre
· Ineffective means of informing possible users about the systems
· Incompatible attitudes of some staff and learners towards the principles of self-access language learning
· An inflexible system controlling the registration and progress of the students

And from Lucy’s experience:
· Allocating time for SALL
· Getting teaching staff and university management “on-board”
· Recruiting learning advisors
· Implementing an effective labelling and database system – no standardisation
· Finding appropriate materials
· Dealing with copyright issues
· Assessing and evaluating learners’ work and the learning experience

Richard then considered the future of SACs. He mentioned an article in Clarity’s newsletter, Loud and Clear, 24, entitled “The Slow Death of the Self-Access Centre”
(available online at and he quoted Barbara Sinclair, who wrote that the field of SALL is “littered with the corpses of heroic individuals who have fought to convince their institutions that it is important to develop greater independence” (Sinclair, 2006).
He maintains, though, that SACs do still have a place and are worth the trouble of setting up and running because there is still a need for face to face advice and collaboration. Furthermore, not all can afford the technology whch SACs can make available or cannot afford the higher quality of technology needed, for example, to make video conferencing effective.

He sees challenges that still need to be met, for example, why are SACs still for the committed minority? And, why are institutional managers still not convinced of the need for SACs?

DICKINSON, L. (1987). Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

ESCH, E. (1996). “Promoting learner autonomy; criteria for the selection of appropriate methods”. In R. PEMBERTON, E. S. L. LI, W. W. F. OR, and H. D. PIERSON (eds.). Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press

SINCLAIR, B. (2006). “Self-access language learning: conceptualisations, practice and future directions”. In: D. DIXON, H. BABA, P. COZENS, and M. THOMAS (eds.). Independent Learning Schemes: A Practical Approach. Dubai: TESOL Arabia Publications

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