Resource-based learning

Author: Edith Esch


The entry covers what Resource-Based learning - or RBL - refers to, the history of RBL and the issues raised by RBL in relation to conceptions of the transmission of knowledge in Higher Education.

Table of contents

1. Definition of RBL

The design of any teaching method - and of language teaching methods in particular - will include views on the role of teachers, of learners and of materials (Richards & Rodgers 1986). Resource-based learning is a view which gives prominence to the role of resources in the teaching and learning process. It is concerned with

  1. the principles which guide the selection and the organisation of the content of learning materials
  2. the use of such materials, which includes
    • the nature of the activities which learners will be carrying out
    • whether students will be working individually or in groups
    • the nature of the support students can get
    • the ways in which learning will be assessed
  3. technical and professional issues, which include
    • the design and production of materials and the appropriate use of the various media
    • classification issues for cataloguing or retrieval systems

RBL therefore conceptualises learning as a process which foregrounds the importance of the resources available to learners and in so doing presupposes that the interaction between the learner(s) and the resources (which may include human resources) is the main structuring device of the learning situation. This raises the issue of the pedagogical relationship between the learner and teacher and of the nature of the teacher's role in particular.

RBL is thus highly dependent upon views of knowledge and of learning on the one hand - which, in the domain of language learning, presupposes views of the nature of language and of second language acquisition - and, on the other hand, upon views of the ways technology can be used effectively to support learning and teaching in the HE sector.

2. Background

The recent history of RBL in relation to modern language teaching in HE and FE (Noble 1980) is the history of a practice which was the response of these sectors to the possibilities offered by technology to resolve problems of resourcing created by the expansion of higher education into a mass educational system generally and more open and distance-learning systems in particular.

One can characterise this history as an incremental and linear adaptation to technical changes and describe it as a succession of cycles which last about thirty years. Typically, technological 'solutions' developed outside the educational world are experimented upon by a handful of enthusiasts and branded as revolutionary panaceas until their actual educational benefits and specific characteristics become known. There follows a period of reconfiguration of the relation between the teaching professions, the students and the resources. As innovations are integrated into the learning environment and become part of the learning culture, they are used in a way which had never been planned. The 'solution' has finally found the problem it can resolve. A typical example is that of the language laboratory, which was an extension of the tape-recorder and which led to much enthusiasm in the 60s (Froehlich 1999). The benefits of the flexibility afforded by individual cassette machines as sources of rich language input quickly made apparent the limits of the costly and heavy hardware (Green 1996:218).

3. RBL and ICT in language learning today

But many see the current revival of the term RBL in the context of internet on-line resources and virtual learning communities as the reflection of much more fundamental changes (Crystal 2001, Crook 2001 & 2002, Hawisher & Selfe 2000). In their view, RBL would show the extent to which information technology transforms western societies' conception of knowledge and of its transmission. As information technology determines an increasing number of transactions in everyday life, RBL in HE contributes to the development of basic information literacy skills and can be construed as a practical response to the need to provide for mass language education and lifelong language learning for increasing numbers. It provides a mediating situation characterised by the fact that students are actively engaged in seeking information from a range of resources to resolve problems either individually or in collaboration with other students. As a consequence, RBL is motivating, it encourages self-regulation and it can be argued that it supports a democratic view of language learning by harnessing new technologies for the purpose of the effective dissemination of knowledge, rather than maintaining knowledge in the hands of the happy few.

Readers of this entry in the Good Practice Guide may think of their own reader behaviour. They will probably agree that they would not have thought of seeking information concerning a term such as 'resource-based learning' on a web-site ten years ago. It is a recent practice which, added to the concept of 'reference guide' helps one cope with the sheer amount of information now distributed worldwide on networks and in databases. But as a professional user, if it is quick and convenient to consult a web-site for a definition, it is at least as important to know that the content is valid and that the Guide represents views generally acknowledged in the educational world. In the end, one's ability to find the reference depends on one's access to the information that the site exists and to the way the provider mediates this information. But one's knowledge of the topic depends on the way one engages with the information it contains and is able critically to address the information content of the Guide on the subject. This leads to the key issue of the provision of information in HE and of the difference between making information available to students and supporting students' acquisition of knowledge.

4. RBL and approaches to learning

The recent history of RBL clearly demonstrates the close relationship between educational technology and dichotomous views of what constitutes academic learning: does learning consist of imparting a body of given knowledge, or else of leading students to actively engage in the learning process and in the construction of that knowledge. In practice, these two conflicting ways of considering the nature of the task of Universities determine entirely the way RBL is considered.

1. In the one case, RBL is perceived as an opportunity to promote a view of learning as an active and shared process. Currently, as demonstrated at the CILT/Subject Centre Conference Setting the Agenda in Manchester (June 2002), the possibilities offered by the Internet make it possible for learners to watch how language is used, to carry out exercises, to interact with native speakers in a variety of configurations and to participate in simulations as well as to have access to explanations and feed-back. Given motivation, students can effectively construct their own learning programme rather than be instructed. 'Construct' here means that students develop their knowledge of language and of its use through reflection on and articulation of their experience of learning in a multiplicity of contexts mediated by technology, i.e. what Laurillard (1993:25) refers to as 'second-order experience of the world'.

2. In total contrast, if knowledge is conceptualised as given, and teaching as imparting knowledge, RBL raises the issue of control and authority. Under this view, RBL is conceptualised as an 'aid' to face-to-face teaching - and it is cheap once the initial investment is made. RBL is welcomed in so far as it can disseminate knowledge from a single source to many, and do so repeatedly. It this way, it serves the needs of a learning society, but the stress is constantly put on the fact that RBL cannot replace face-to-face teaching and that the learning content needs to be controlled. D. McQuail, in an article published over thirty years ago, summed up this view in respect of the use of television:

The traditional form of University lecture, without questions and without direct follow-up by the teacher, seems to lend itself better to the transition to the televised presentation [... One] must await a situation where the use of television poses a challenge to the existing pattern of teaching before assessing the permanent effects of these innovations (1970:188-89).

5. Current issues and RBL

Learning materials

This fundamental distinction between views of what constitutes learning - and specifically language learning - in HE affects not only the organisation of RBL systems but the way the design of learning materials is conceptualised. What differentiates language learning materials from each other is the extent to which the authors of the materials are present as source of knowledge. At one end of the spectrum, the authors take on the role of hidden teachers and make use of the medium of instruction to impose a structured learning path upon the learner. Many computer-assisted-language-learning programmes available on the Internet reproduce the step-by-step linear programmes of the 60s, boredom included, and similarly many learning 'packs' are very inflexible in structure. At the other end of the spectrum, the interactivity of the medium is exploited to allow learners to choose their own learning path and to build up their own resources either individually or collectively while providing them with supportive structures (Esch & Zähner 2000, Zähner et al. 2000).


Another important aspect of the dichotomy is reflected in the way the individualisation of learning is viewed. Flexibility is one of the core aspects of RBL but it is interpreted in different ways depending on the view one takes. Under one view, the main advantage of RBL is that it allows individual learners to progress at their own speed but on a specified path (Dickinson, 1987). The danger is that individualisation of learning tends to become confused with isolation of learners. Under the other view, individualisation is associated with the attempt to support students' preferred learning strategies. It can be achieved through the provision of non-linear programmes and through computer-mediated communication activities under the control of the learners. In this way the flexibility resides in the range of possibilities made available to the learner. A balanced approach to the pedagogical issues of managing individualised language learning in the context of self-access centres is provided in Gardner & Miller (1999).

Learning and feedback

A third area where the opposition can be felt is in the nature of the activities and of the feedback proposed to students learning using RBL. Under one view, the socio-cultural nature of knowledge is given prominence. The negotiated and socially mediated nature of learning is greatly enhanced by progress in networking technologies. This makes it possible for students to engage in peer-group interaction and, crucially for languages, to communicate with native speakers of the language they are learning (Little & Brammerts 1996, Appel 1999) as well as to communicate with their tutors to obtain information and/or self-correct their own production - at least in writing. In so doing, RBL becomes a training ground for other-initiated self-regulation and supports the development of transferable skills such as team working and time-management. Generic teaching issues on the relation between the quality of learning and RBL have been explored (Cresswell 1998) but it is an under-researched area in language learning, although Lantolf and Appel's work (1994) on self-regulation indicate it is a very promising domain. The other view tends to favour an individualistic and mentalistic approach to task construction in line with the precepts of cognitive psychology such as an emphasis upon modelling activities and games where learners engage in joint interaction to achieve a goal.

Role of the teacher

Finally, one of the main consequences of RBL in the context of language learning is that it has forced a re-assessment of the social role of both teachers and learners. As RBL has become widespread, it has also become evident that the shift from teaching to learning which it presupposed had to be accompanied by a radical re-thinking of the function of teachers who were no longer the unique source of knowledge. Students needed to learn how to learn languages rather than be told what to learn. The issues associated with the development of advising for language learning in resource centres and on-line are covered by Mozzon-McPherson & Vismans (2001). They include the issue of the professional development of advisers and the development of courses leading to qualifications.

Further discussion of Advising (Mozzon-McPherson), will be found elsewhere in this Guide.


Appel, C. (1999). Tandem Language Learning by E-mail: Some Basic Principles and a Case Study. Dublin: Trinity College Dublin, CLCS occasional paper 54.

Cresswell, J. E. (1998). Back to the Future: Team-centered, Resource-based Learning as the Antecedent of Computer-based Learning. Alt-J, 6, 1:64-69.

Crook, C. (2001). The Social Character of Knowing and Learning: Implications of Cultural Psychology for Educational Technology. Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education 10, 1/2:19-36.

Crook, C. (2002). Deferring to Resources: Collaborations around Traditional vs Computer-based Notes. Journal of Computer-Assisted Learning 18:64-76.

Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dickinson, L. (1987). Self-Instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Esch, E. & Zähner C. (2000). The Contribution of ICT to Language Learning Environments or the Mystery of the Secret Agent. ReCALL 12, 1:5-18.

John Fielden Consultancy (1993). Supporting Expansion, Bristol: HEFCE.

Froehlich J. (1999). Language lab - Multimedia lab - Future Lab. In Hogan-Brun & U. Jung (eds), Media, Multimedia, Omnimedia, 149-55. Peter Lang, Frankfurt.

Gardner, D. & L. Miller(1999) Establishing Self-Access: From theory to practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Green, P. (1996). The Tape-recording Revolution. In E. Hawkins (ed.), 30 Years of Language Teaching, 211-22. London: CILT.

Hawisher, G. E. & C. L. Selfe (2000). Global Literacies and the World-Wide Web. London: Routledge.

Jackson, M. IMPEL2 - Survey on Resource-Based Learning. Available at:

Lantolf, J. & G. Appel (1994). Vygotskian Approaches to Second Language Research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching. London: Routledge.

Little, D. & H. Brammerts (1996). A Guide to Language Learning in Tandem via the Internet. Dublin: Trinity College Dublin, CLCS occasional paper 46.

McQuail, D. (1970). Television and Education. In J. D. Halloran (ed.), The Effects of Television, 181-218. London: Panther Books Ltd.

Mozzon-McPherson, M. & R. Vismans (2001). Beyond Language Teaching, Towards Language Advising. London: CILT.

Noble, P.(1980). Resource-based Learning in Post-Compulsory Education. London: Kogan Paul.

Richards, J. C. & T. S. Rodgers (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, L. C.(1971). Resources for Learning. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Zähner, C., A. Fauverge, & J. Wong (2000). Task-based Language Learning via Audiovisual Networks. In M. Warschauer & R. Kern (eds), Network-based Language Teaching: Concepts and Practice, 186-203. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related links

Those wishing to keep up-to-date of current publications in RBL should search for "resource-based learning" (note inverted commas) in the ZETOC database (the Electronic Table of Contents of Current Journals and Conference Proceedings held in the British Library). The ZETOC address can best be found using a search on Google at

Setting the Agenda: languages,linguistics and area studies in higher education: an international learning and teaching conference for staff in higher education, UMIST, Manchester , 24-26 June 2002. CILT , Subject Centre,UCML, SCHML & AULC.

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