Integrating independent learning with the curriculum

Author: Ciel Language Support Network


This handbook is one of six CIEL handbooks dealing with good practice in the area of independent language learning. It introduces key concepts in learner autonomy and learner independence and a discussion of the benefits and challenges associated with independent learning. The handbook gives an overview of six elements crucial to the success of independent learning, these are then covered in more detail in the other handbooks. The final section of this handbook presents a paper relevant to independent learning by Gill Sturtridge, an international figure in the area of learner autonomy and in the design and use of self-access centres.

Table of contents

1 Definitions and approaches

1.1 A plethora of terms

There seems to be no common agreement over the use of terms in the area of learner autonomy and learner independence and this leads to inevitable confusion. Sometimes different terms are used to refer to a single concept and sometimes one term may be used to refer to differing concepts. This situation is not made easier by the fact that different terms may be used in different educational contexts. For example, independent learning, open learning and resource-based learning are common terms in higher education in the UK, whilst individualisation (reflecting recognition of a need to cater for individual differences) may be a more commonly used term in the secondary school sector (see note 1).
Figure 1

A number of writers in the field of applied linguistics (e.g. Broady and Kenning, 1996: 12; Pemberton et al, 1996: 2; Gardner and Miller, 1999: 5) have attempted to disentangle the maze of overlapping theoretical terms in order to move forward discussion of practice.

All agree that these terms have one element in common; they reflect a move towards learner-centred approaches which view learners as individuals with individual needs and rights. In an institutional context, this shift in emphasis(see note 2) necessarily affects the role of the classroom teacher (and the institution) who will need to take into account the entire learning experience of the student. No longer is it sufficient to presume that if teachers teach, learners learn.

1.2 Learner autonomy and learner independence

Learner autonomy is a key concept in this area. It is seen variously as 'the ability to take charge of one's own learning' (Holec, 1981:3), a situation in which the learner is solely responsible for all decisions (Dickinson, 1987: 11) and the learner's 'psychological relation to the process and content of learning' (Little, 1990:7). For others, learner autonomy is seen in more political terms as the freedom to control 'the content and processes of one's own learning' (Benson, 1997: 25). Benson (ibid.) usefully summarises the various definitions as:

1. situations in which learners study entirely on their own
2. a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning
3. an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education
4. the exercise of learners' responsibility for their own learning
5. the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning

The CIEL project takes the terms learner autonomy and learner independence to be virtually synonymous, both indicating a number of dimensions in which learners move away from dependence on the teacher and:

  • take responsibility for their own learning and learn to learn;
  • develop key transferable skills (e.g. study, time-management, IT, interpersonal skills etc.);
  • actively manage their learning; seeking out learning opportunities and using appropriate learning strategies;
  • involve themselves in an iterative process in which they set short and long term learning objectives, reflect on and evaluate progress.

Learner autonomy and learner independence are terms describing both the educational objective and the process by which it is achieved, although, the degree of independence may fluctuate over time and between skills (Gardner and Miller, 1999:7). Learners may become fairly independent of the teacher in some areas (e.g. listening) most of the time, but not in others (e.g. writing).

In line with Little (1995: 4), we see learner autonomy as a 'capacity' for independent action which is not confined to any one learning context. It is as likely to be seen in the classroom where the learner actively participates in activities, as in the self-access centre or in a street market in Lima using the target language.

1.3 Approaches to learning

"... it is usually well into a course before learners are in a position to make informed choices about what they want to learn and how they want to learn and it is not uncommon that learners are in such a position only at the end of the course".

(Nunan, 1996: 15)

Autonomy is clearly not something which learners achieve without having the opportunities to learn or be taught, neither is it an all or nothing concept. It is something which is achieved over time with practice, experience (see note 3) and support, and, possibly with some degree of maturity.

If we accept that autonomy is a major educational objective in language learning, the majority of terms associated with learner autonomy and learner independence can be seen as approaches to learning and teaching which encourage their development (see figure 1, page 4). They vary in focus (between terms and between writers) but have more similarities in common than not.

Some of them (self-directed learning, self-instruction, self-paced learning, directed study, supported self-study, distance learning,) see learning as mainly taking place outside the formal classroom. Others stress the need to consider the individual needs of the learner (individualisation, flexible learning) or the need to provide a learning environment with which the learner can engage (resource-based learning, self-access learning(see note 4)). Some terms, such as open learning (see note 5) and independent learning are not absolutes and can be seen as a continuum going - in the case of the former - from open to closed or - in the case of the latter - from teacher independent to teacher dependent.

1.4 Independent learning in UK higher education

In the specific case of UK higher education, the CIEL project takes independent learning as an approach to learning which, in the context of widening access and acquiring skills for life-long learning, values and promotes the development of learner autonomy or learner independence.

It also refers to that element of the learning process which normally takes place beyond the formal classroom or lecture theatre. This is not to say that independent learning is just seen as an adjunct or replacement for formal teaching but rather as an integral part of the whole learning and teaching process; an opportunity for learners to extend their learning and develop self-management skills. There is often a particular focus on the use of new technologies.

Independent learning may well complement a formally taught on-site programme or a distance learning course. Directed independent learning suggests that there is no classroom input to a programme of study but that individual learning support and advice is close at hand.

Independent learning does not imply that learners always learn on their own, since social autonomy ('the ability to function effectively as a co-operative member of a group'; Broady and Kenning, 1996: 16) should be seen as an important element of autonomy. Current sociocognitive views of language learning not only see the acquisition of knowledge as a personally constructed view of the world (Little, 1995: 18) but also stress the value of collaborative learning (Warschauer, 1998).

1.5 Independent language learning

If language learning which takes place outside the formal environment of the classroom is to be successful, there also needs to be some form of learner support and training and sufficient provision of independent learning materials and learning opportunities.

Learning can be maximised in a well-provided Language Centre or Open Learning Centre often with a focus on the use of new technologies. However, it is important to consider the type of independent learning activities which are carried out in the Centre and their relationship with the language curriculum:

  • It is important to distinguish between setting independent learning tasks and activities which encourage reflection and encourage the learner to plan or manage their learning in some way and those which do not. There needs to be balance in provision. Directed learning, in the form of routine exercises (often set and marked by an already overloaded teacher), will provide learning opportunities but it is not really any different to 'homework' in concept.
  • In the experience of the CIEL project, independent language learning is most successful when it is integrated firmly into the language curriculum and is not just a bolt-on addition to classroom work. This is because learner independence has to be acquired over time (see 1.3 above) and with practice.

2 Benefits and challenges

2.1 Reasons for promoting independent language learning

How can we enable the learner to function independently when the teacher is no longer there?

... as well as a basic communicative competence in the foreign language we must give learners the skills to study by themselves, experience in independent learning, strategies for adding to their repertoire, knowledge of tools like dictionaries and reference grammars that they can use for themselves and, above all, the confidence to go on working on their own?
                                                                       Brian Page (1992)

At a time when pressures of decreasing classroom contact hours, large classes, worries about falling standards and catering for non-traditional learners concern every language practitioner, independent learning has a lot to offer. There are at least four distinct benefits:

1 It adds flexibility

  • It fits in with moves to open and distance learning:- learning anything; any how, at any time, from any place and increasingly at any age;
  • Learners can work at their own pace, according to individual needs, interests and learning styles - it can be very motivating;
  • Access to appropriate supporting resources is especially important for learners with disabilities or specific learning needs.

2 It leads to learner autonomy

  • Learners learn to learn;
  • They focus on the process of learning as well as the product;
  • Learners develop appropriate learning strategies.

3 It extends and enhances classroom learning

  • It reinforces what is learnt in the classroom;
  • It provides a good practice environment;
  • It provides life-like or authentic communication activities, through group work, simulations and use of authentic materials.

4 It encourages and develops key transferable skills

  • It promotes life skills including self-management and time management;
  • It improves the skill of independent research and study;
  • Access to new technologies increase general computer literacy skills, and gives practice in use of specialist language tools such as translation packages, electronic dictionaries etc.;
  • Collaborative work (e.g. team work or tandem learning) leads to the development of communication and interpersonal skills.

Experience of independent learning will also prepare the language learner to carry on learning when a course of study has ceased or when support structures are no longer in place. The traditional period of residence abroad, for example, provides a difficult challenge for any learner if they are going to make the best of the learning environment - both in terms of their language competence and their general coping strategies.

The experience of independent learning and the development of key transferable skills will all lead to greater employability.

Many of the comments from respondents in the CIEL independent learning survey carried out in Spring, 2000 reflect agreement with the benefits outlined above. Here, we give a flavour of some of the support for independent learning (see note 6):

'Language learning needs to be an integral, accredited part of the higher education curriculum, perceived as a serious challenging academic activity, NOT an add-on, or the equivalent of evening classes or linguaphone! Within that framework students need to appreciate that learning language requires personal commitment which they must undertake, That is true independence.'

'Students become more self-motivated and their enthusiasm is greater - especially where "chore" grammar exercise work is made more "fun" via technological problem-solving...'

'- saves valuable contact time for teaching/group activities - more student-centred activities - reinforcement time'

'- access to authentic materials on internet may increase motivation - will widen students' horizons...'

'Gives students greater control and responsibility for their own development. Allows for different learning styles, can increase motivation. Allows decreasing contact time to be used more effectively.'

'Increased awareness of personal learning methods/skills = TRANSFERABLE SKILL'

'Learner autonomy is an essential goal in education. Some excellent opportunities (at intermediate and higher levels) via web-based learning environments. Tandem dimension most exciting.'

'It can be used to enhance traditional methods and provide variety.'

'Releases staff time for creation of materials, time to create further classes and increase numbers (funding), with added motivation for the students to achieve by their own efforts.'

'We try to encourage independent learning through directed tasks which require independent work to complete (not a contradiction - the "direction" from teachers is towards independent learning.'

'Treating each student as an individual. Motivating through stimulating multi-media materials. Perceived by students as being "current".'

'When enhancing the teaching, it acts as reinforcement and consolidation.'

'Increased motivation, more exposure to language and culture, more student selectivity of materials, transferable skills, lifelong learning, etc....'

2.2 Why now?

A number of strands seem to be converging at the current time to promote the value of independent language learning. They can be summarised as follows:

  • Current language learning theories focus on the social aspect of learning and place teachers in a facilitating role;
  • Learner-centred pedagogies see knowledge acquisition as a process (not just as an end in itself) and stress the importance of key learning skills and strategies;
  • It is one solution to large classes and reduced teacher contact time;
  • The flexibility of independent learning methodologies coincides with a political agenda to promote lifelong learning and widen access to non-traditional learners;
  • Technological advancements - the multimedia computer, high-speed networks and interactive digital TV - provide a rich learning and teaching environment;
  • Financial constraints have led to the management viewpoint that technological and self-access solutions are financially advantageous (see note 7) .

2.3 Challenges faced when implementing independent learning

We may recognise that a move to integrate independent learning into our teaching programmes is a viable and desirable objective but there remain a number of key challenges and threats:

  • The design and delivery of a traditional curriculum may have to be adapted with resulting resourcing and quality assurance (QA) implications;
  • Time, money and expertise are needed to prepare independent learning materials and support the learner;
  • The cost and space implications of setting up and maintaining an up to date self-access centre are not inconsiderable;
  • Some students are not happy with student-centred approaches; especially older learners and those from teacher-directed cultures;
  • The majority of students do not see independent learning as a genuine alternative to classroom teaching (see note 8);
  • Plagiarism or evidence that learners have submitted their own work is an issue if independent learning is assessed;
  • Intrinsic motivation may not be enough to encourage learners to prioritise independent learning activities. An element of formative and summative assessment (see note 9)is generally seen as a solution but this has more time and resourcing implications;

In addition, many practitioners feel threatened by:

  • changing roles - moving from teacher to learning manager, counsellor or even learning resource or consultant;
  • pressures to use new methodologies when individuals do not feel fully competent to deliver them;
  • a move to greater use of IT when individuals do not feel that they have been given sufficient training or opportunity to be competent users themselves;
  • student, departmental and institutional expectations to change to a teaching style they are not comfortable with.

Finally, career structures in HE are only just beginning to make time and effort invested in innovative learning/teaching practices (as opposed to following a recognised research route) a viable career choice.

Comments from respondents in the CIEL independent learning survey carried out in Spring, 2000 also indicate concerns as to the implications of independent learning. As with the perceived benefits (page 11), we give a flavour of some of the comments on the challenges involved (see note 10):

'How to integrate independent learning within the classroom. We must resist the temptation to cut back on face-to-face tuition in favour of independent learning in a resource centre.'

'Keeping pace with the need for better hardware! (This has been a real problem: many computers are "heritage" models; and the cost of replacement is daunting).'

'Induction and monitoring must be carefully carried out - assessment may be problematic.'

'Weaker students may prefer more structured/supported environment'

'Can be a misnomer. Usually needs more support (but of a different kind) from tutors.'

'Most students won't do this unless work is assessed.'

'Relating ILL to work done as a class, gauging effectiveness, motivating weaker students.'

'Getting students to accept the responsibility - ensuring that students are doing it.'

'Heavy demand on staff time at developmental stage. Needs close monitoring and support if students not to feel abandoned. Induction for all will be a major challenge.'

'Investment of staff time is far greater than often appreciated by institutional management.'

'Monitoring/marking/assessment /TIME, capacity of physical environment to cope with additional demands, increased need for guidance/advice and resource implications of this.'

'Materials to suit students' needs. Staff being computer literate enough to guide/advise students on computer use/CD roms.'

'Can deteriorate (without appropriate resources) into a poor replacement for teaching.'

'Getting students to follow through independent learning opportunities rather than sticking to the more clearly "teacher-led" elements of work.'

'Staff time in terms of learner training and support is key. Changes to teaching methodologies and the curriculum are slow but imperative.'

'Students don't always know where they are going wrong! Some tutor contact needs to be built into independent learning.'

'DANGERS - a trend not based on pedagogical considerations - led by accountants...'

3 Implementing successful independent language learning: CIEL's 6 key areas

In the experience of the CIEL project, it is important to address a number of key elements if independent learning (or any other educational objective) is to be successfully introduced and embedded. The criteria for the implementation of change here can be grouped in six overlapping areas: policy making, management, staff development, learner training, learning resources and curriculum design. Most of these issues will be dealt with in more depth in separate handbooks.

3.1 Policy making (handbook 2)

If it does not already exist, it is important to consider the development of a policy statement which addresses the role of independent study/open learning and the provision and use of learning resources:

  • at institutional level
  • at departmental/inter-departmental level
  • and within the language resources centre.

Without a policy framework which addresses implementation and resourcing issues, it will be difficult to implement independent learning in a coherent way and to attract institutional or departmental commitment.

3.2 Management (handbook 2)

Management of independent learning is likely to be complex if a number of departments are involved in the delivery of language teaching and the provision of language learning resources (see note 11). In many cases, the library may be the location for the language learning resources. It is difficult to plan an integrated curriculum when there may be few points of contact between departments, so it is crucial that where there is more than one unit:

  • There is appropriate co-ordination at some formal level, possibly through a Language Centre Board, or equivalent, on which all language providers/using faculties or departments are represented.
  • Teaching staff from the language departments are involved in the design, use and purchase of independent learning materials - without this there will be no sense of ownership and consequently no encouragement of learners to make use of the resources available.

Other management issues involve strategies for the management of change, staffing, evaluation procedures and practicalities such as access and location, centre design and layout, maintenance, cataloguing, copyright and presentation and storage.

3.3 Staff development and support (handbook 5)

Both our national questionnaire surveys and the personal reports we have received at workshops reveal a growing interest in, and need for, professional updating in the area of independent learning. There is particular interest in (and personal fear of) the increased use of technology for language learning.

Although, generic staff development sessions at institutional level seem to provide a useful first introduction to issues, most practitioners indicate that subject specific meetings are most useful. Feedback questionnaires from CIEL workshops (see note 12)indicate that the opportunity to meet others and hear how other institutions operate is greatly appreciated. If participation at these events is considered helpful, it is important that institutions fund maximum staff participation at relevant events.

3.4 Learner training and support (handbook 5)

Learners are not always keen to take up the challenge of learner independence (see section 1.3) and will need to be helped (or pushed) to acquire skills and confidence. In-class training or discussion of specific skills and strategies (e.g. language learning strategies, study skills, team-work), self-assessment) may be useful. They will need induction sessions and on-going support as they become familiar with language learning materials, equipment and the resources centre.

A designated language advisor will be able to provide on-going support and training and will be able to develop study guides and training materials. The role of the advisor is likely to be especially appreciated by non-traditional learners, learners with specific needs or disabilities and those working at a distance.

3.5 Learning resources (handbook 3)

Independent learning can cater for individual needs and interests but a wide range of resources located in a pleasant working environment (either actual or virtual) is crucial if learners are to derive maximum benefit. Increasingly, new technology solutions will provide a source of up to date multimedia resources and language tools but it is important to provide a range of materials (reference, language practice activities, authentic texts, newspapers, course books etc.) in a mix of media. Few students, it seems, will actually read at length on a computer screen. Most will prefer to print something out for reading later.

Finding good self-access resources is not easy since few suitable commercial materials are available. Developing in-house materials is time-consuming and resource intensive. Since most institutions are in the same position, teaching very similar courses across the country to learners with very similar needs, we would benefit a great deal from pooling our efforts. This could be done most efficiently between a small number of institutions in a region who are geographically close enough for key staff to be able to meet on occasions.

The Subject Centre will also have a role in seeking to identify and provide an online searchable database of resources.

3.6 Curriculum design (handbook 4: assessment)

In our experience, the design of the curriculum is crucial to the successful implementation or otherwise of independent learning. The other key factors identified (policy making, management, staff development, learner training, learning resources) can be optimally in place but without a curriculum which values the development of independent learning and makes time and space for it in the academic timetable, there is likely to be limited success.

Considerations of how to embed independent learning in the curriculum will include:

  • the curriculum focus (e.g. topic, task, functional, grammar-based, mixed syllabus);
  • the delivery - ratio of teacher contact time to independent learning time, face to face or at a distance, degree of 'openness';
  • the content - type of classroom/independent learning activities and tasks;
  • the role of the teacher - how directive and how far allowing learners to lead;
  • the role of the learner - how involved in the planning and learning process, involvement in group work, tandem learning, peer teaching;
  • testing, self-assessment and evaluation;
  • progression;
  • needs analysis;
  • quality assurance.

The most crucial element, however, is the degree of integration of independent learning with the language curriculum. If the links are not in place, only the most dedicated of learners will prioritise independent learning in order to take charge of their own future.

We have not included a handbook on the language curriculum in this series since every learning and teaching context will have its own priorities. We hope that the discussions and case studies we have included throughout will stimulate ideas and develop good practice in the general provision of independent learning and its integration with the language curriculum.

4 Notes from Cassandra: Why universities might fail to meet their students' needs.

Gill Sturtridge, University of Reading

Although Gill was always very upbeat about the role of independent language learning, she sounds a note of caution about its future in this paper she gave at a CIEL workshop on supporting independent learning just before her death in Spring 2000. We print the notes she left behind as a tribute to her dedication over the years. She embellished the notes with examples in her own inimitable style so we apologise for not reporting these in more detail.


Seven points are raised as to how universities may fail to meet the learning needs of the 21st century students. The warnings consider how the management structure of universities world-wide can impede rather than facilitate development and what those involved in learner development or open learning provision have to contribute.

'Good morning. This morning I want to look at issues of autonomy in a wider context than the provision for language learning. What I'm going to say is based on a belief that learning through self-access or open learning is both desirable and inevitable. In language learning we are leaders in this field and we have a lot to offer.

Cassandra was the unhappy girl who had the gift of prophecy and walked the streets of the doomed city of Troy giving warnings that nobody believed. In a sense we are all Cassandras in that we have a little knowledge and experience in the field of providing learning materials and helping students to learn better and yet often this knowledge is ignored or not consulted.

In the UK and throughout the world we have what is called "wider participation"; the larger intake of students means that instead of taking the top 10% of the population we are taking the top 30% so the student coming to tertiary level study needs more support. This we all know. We also know that universities are concerned about this and are taking action as we see from the discussion of 'Transferable skills'.

Alas and woe. If an understanding of what is needed does not reach the planners then all may be in vain and they may fail to meet the needs of the students of the future. I believe that the whole concept of self-access and open learning provision has not been grasped.

Here are seven reasons why:

Warning 1. The danger from: The Hierarchical Structure of Universities will Hinder Development

Universities world-wide are based on models that were originally European; they have a centralised power based in the Rector or Vice Chancellor and a supporting senate and departments of study. And the model is repeated. This means there are layers of authority and those at the top tend to be a) older and b) distant from teaching c) more concerned with running an organisation than the effects of running the organisation. Though they are eager to incorporate new ideas they are too far from the teaching situation to be able to assess the value of those new ideas. Money will be wasted.

Warning 2. The danger from: Old Bufferism is a Danger to Progress

Old buffers are those in positions of power who at their best are misinterpreting new ideas and developments and at their worst are trying to maintain the status quo of their departments. Professor Bloggs believes that the future lies in IT, he uses the terminology and is happy to support any scheme that provides hardware He uses his own PC effectively and is therefore convinced that enough PC labs and smart desks in lecture rooms will answer all the needs. Software and learner training are not issues for him.

Professor Snodgrass is more dangerous as old buffers go. His aim is to maintain the status quo. Perhaps in Physics he won't accept students whose maths is weak and therefore the numbers dwindle instead of trying to supply that extra maths support which might bring in good potential physics students. In terms of language departments or schools he is faced with falling numbers of enrolments; the course his department provided were good. Second to none in the study of Goethe why has the world changed? Suddenly there are students who are beginner French and German and he and his colleagues must teach them or lose their jobs. Professor Snodgrass may be using funds for language teaching improvement but not really doing so.

Warning 3. The danger from: Lack of Communication

We could further define this as a lack of awareness of the need for communication which can mean wrong decisions are made.

We are all linked within universities to our web sites and e-mails but there remains a horrific ignorance of what is going on. It is difficult to track down who has common interests with our work in self-access provision and better learning. I will give an example of 2 British Universities over the provision of Study Skills for British students. There is government funding now and posts can be set up. In these two cases the Universities concerned have thriving EFL pre-sessional and in-sessional support to help with writing in particular but also with all study skills. In both cases the posts were put in the Psychology department where the appointees knew nothing about study skills but who could duplicate the Counselling service when it came to prevention of suicide. This is a lack of awareness of resources within their own organisation.

Warning 4. The danger from: The Ways Funds are Used.

Money is limited which can be regarded as a danger too. However, the dangers related to funding itself come in many forms. Let us consider some here firstly the allocation of the budget. In small departments or schools in many universities, fewer in the UK perhaps than there were, there persists the notion that you must spend every penny and more of your budget or you will be allocated less money in the following year. This was often the case with self-access centres. This does not encourage sensible purchasing policies, and forces the planner to work within a one-year plan. Secondly, in Self-Access Centres there is rarely a petty cash fund available. This can be limiting as there is often a need to buy directly, or, from a particular shop which the University does not allow (e.g.: non specialist books shops)

(Here, Gill gives an example of a self-access centre in Indonesia which had beautifully carpeted walls on which it was impossible to fix any posters. As the Centre was not able to use funding in any imaginative way, it is Gill who buys the velcro from the local market in order to hang up the posters efficiently.)

A good SAC is one where the staff and the teachers are always looking for new materials from a range of sources, for example buying videos or software from the web. But there is no way to refund the staff.

Obviously there must be a need for constraints and strict central auditing and constraints, but there is also need for flexibility.

Funding can be re-directed unknowably from good uses to weak projects. This may be for various reasons arising from warnings 1 to 3, including hierarchical systems and the desire to avoid change. Thus, they range from ignorance to conscious re-direction of funding.

In our field there was recently funding for new teaching initiatives to help improve language teaching. It is all too easy to put such funds into a new administrator for example; for the reason that that this is going to free teacher time and therefore improve teaching. A lot of funding is going into the promotion of transferable skills for British students. Transferable skills to refresh your memory are those "qualities while being outcomes of studying any given subject, also serve the graduate in other contexts".

I think we can define transferable skills as being those skills which are useful after University and help the graduate to find a job. In the 3 pages of the handbook I read there is a great deal about communication, but nothing about communication in any language other than English. In short there is not a mention of learning a foreign language. Communication is referred to widely, but there is only one mention of writing. (quote missing here) British students often express a desire to have study skills classes, and academic writing in particular, as do the international students.

New initiatives are in the hands of those old buffers and techno buffers who may not understand them or may not have a whole view.

Warning 5. The danger from: Division of " Learning and Teaching"

An article appeared in the Independent by Professor Smith of XXXX University where he pondered why "Education departments" and "teacher training" had never really been able to consolidate their right to recognition as a valid academic discipline.

I would like to suggest that there has been very little respect for "teaching" as such in the Universities. Being able to teach well and tutor well has always been regarded as a lesser skill than being a researcher. I think the new division between learning and teaching can be traced back to this. There is enthusiasm for open learning from the Old Buffers because there is no teacher present.

To illustrate this point I can describe an open learning centre set up by a University which consists entirely of PCs . Some were in a "noisy" room where two chairs were set by each booth to encourage learners to sit together and thus encourage teamwork There were no separate video or audio facilities. As the Open Learning Centre was going to open very shortly I asked about software hoping to get some good ideas. I was told that the committee hadn't discussed that yet. (The centre was opening in two months). They thought that they would perhaps leave it and see what the students did with the PCs. The concept of "learner development"!

There was a failure to realise that if somebody is not teaching then some "thing" is and that to learn there must be some sort of input / materials to learn from. Those materials therefore are taking the place of a live teacher to a greater or minimal degree. To bring students to the point of learning there must be some support. At a more directive level the materials must be well prepared to be the Teacher. You cannot take "teaching" out of the open-learning equation.

Warning 6. The danger from: Ignoring the Needs of the New Style Clients

I have referred to "wider participation" and there has been recognition from teachers that different approaches will be needed for this group both in teacher directed classes and in the Self Access Room. Approaches that are not condescending but which are supportive.

Warning 7: The danger from: Self-Obsession

That Self-Access Centres may look inward and ignore the teaching learning situation outside. I see these centres or others who are working towards a greater autonomy for learners, as the Ginger Groups. You have an essential role to play in making what you do known, showing the sort of activities that learners do, getting across the notion of Task and Strategies.

Warning 8: The danger from: The Lack of Understanding of Autonomy.

Very few outside our field regard it with interest and yet if you are going to invest large amounts of money into learner support and open learning systems then there should be a wider understanding of what learners will need.

What can be done?

You are the Ginger groups. Find others who think likewise. The answer lies within ourselves. We have a lot to offer. Get student support. Suggest to those in power that they visit your centre. Ensure they have something very short to read. Make short 1min videos of learners speaking. (Many have not met any students for sometime.)


I have dwelt upon the dangers of what might happen. Some institutions are avoiding those dangers already. Perhaps today we can find institutions which will avoid them all.


1.Similar differences exist with the use of the acronym C&IT (communications and information technologies) in higher education and ICT (information and communications technologies) in schools.

2.A shift towards the prioritisation of learning is seen at governmental level where, for example, the UK 1990's HE initiatives, the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) and the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), have given way in the new century to the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN).

3.Nunan (1997: 195) presents a 5 level learning scheme for the development of learner autonomy in which learners move through: (1) awareness, (2) active involvement, (3) intervention, (4) creation and finally reach (5) transcendence in which they move beyond the formal learning context into the community to create their own learning opportunities.

4.Although the CIEL project sees 'self-access' as a neutral term which focuses on materials which can be used without the presence of a teacher, Gardner and Miller (1999: 8) see self-access language learning (SALL) as an approach - the 'integration of a number of elements which combine to provide a learning environment'.

5.A genuinely open learning environment will have to provide for learners to 'learn whatever they choose, for whatever reasons, whenever they choose, however they choose' (Lewis, 1986).

6.We have not expressly asked permission of all those whose comments we include here. We thank them for their support and hope that they forgive our very worthy intentions.

7.In our view, this is a false assumption given the lack of suitable commercially available materials and the time and expertise needed to develop either traditional or computer-based self-access materials in-house. Software developers commonly assume that it takes 20 working hours to prepare 1 hour's worth of learning materials. Unless the number of students using the materials is substantial, their development will not be a cost-effective alternative to face to face teaching. See also handbook 3: introduction and section 2.4.

8.A number of studies have been carried out at Southampton on the use of new technologies for self-access language learning. When interviewed, almost all students, (although they valued the possibilities offered by multimedia packages and the internet) said that they preferred the interactive possibilities of a real classroom.

9.Some institutions assess the language work done in independent learning time (the product of learning) whilst others assess the management of the activities (the learning process) through evidence of planning, achieving set objectives, reflection etc.

10.We have not expressly asked permission of all those whose comments we include here. We thank them for their support and hope that they forgive our very worthy intentions.

11.According to the Nuffield Enquiry Report (2000: 55) over half of all HE institutions organise language teaching across several departments with language centres and IWLP and EFL units often forming further units. The report suggests that these fragmented arrangements 'confuse students, inhibit planning, discourage effective co-operation and waste resources.'

12.The UK Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies will continue to run staff development workshops in these areas.


Benson, P. and P. VOLLER (eds) (1997). Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. London: Longman.

Broady, E. and M-M. Kenning (eds) (1996). Promoting Learner Autonomy in University Language Teaching. London: AFLS/CILT.

Brookes, A. and P. Grundy (eds) (1988) Individualization and Autonomy in Language Learning, Oxford: Modern English Publications in association with the British Council.

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

Ellis, G. and B. Sinclair (1989). Learning to Learn English: A course in learner training, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, D. and L. Miller (1999). Establishing Self-Access: from theory to practice. Cambridge Language Teaching Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gathercole, I. (ed.) (1990). Autonomy in Language Learning, London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning Oxford: Pergamon (first published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Lewis, R. (1987). The open school?. In Paine N. (1989) Open Learning in Transition. Kogan Page.

Little, D. (1991). Learner Autonomy 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems, Dublin: Authentik.

Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000). Languages: the next generation. London: The Nuffield Foundation.

Nunan D, (1996). Towards autonomous learning. In Pemberton et al (eds).

Page, B. (1992). Letting go, taking hold. London: CILT.

Pemberton, R. LI, E. Or, W. and H. Pierson (eds) (1996). Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Sheerin, S. (1989). Self-Access, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tudor, I. (1996). Learner-centredness as Language Education. Cambridge: CUP.

Warschauer, M. and D. Healey (1998). Computers and Language Learning: an overview. Language Teaching, 31, 57-71.

Related links

A further useful resource are the web pages 'Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning' maintained by Phil Benson at the English Centre of Hong Kong University. It contains useful links to resources, self-access centres and comprehensive bibliographies. It is available at:

There is a very active AUTONOMY email discussion group managed by Anita Wenden. It is available at

The CILT Research Forum Papers on Strategies in Language Learning. It is available at:

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
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