Managing independent language learning: management and policy considerations

Author: Ciel Language Support Network


This handbook discusses the management of independent language learning. It focusses on key issues in planning a self access centre; how best to manage change; and strategies to implement policy. Several relevant case studies are contained within the appendices.

Table of contents


If independent language learning is to be successful in an HE context it is likely that there will be in place:

I. an institutional, faculty and departmental commitment to teaching and learning issues with appropriate strategies in place;
II. taught language programmes which encourage and value its development;
III. enthusiastic and imaginative staff who have developed a learner-centred approach to teaching;
IV. appropriate learning materials and resources which cater for a variety of learning needs and interests;
V. strong support and advisory systems for both teachers and learners;
VI. learners who are developing the appropriate skills, strategies and insight to take charge and manage their own learning.

Success in these six areas will often come down to well-thought through and successfully implemented management and policy systems.

This handbook does not offer a management training module for managers of self-access centres or language departments nor does it offer a set of independent and open learning policies which can be applied to any context. It will, however, attempt to raise a number of issues in these areas and to provide a focus for discussion which can lead to appropriate solutions for the context.

A focus on the self-access language centre

Much independent language learning will take place within a self-access language centre, or whatever name it has been given locally, and its staff are likely to have an active role in the management, development and promotion of independent language learning. It is for this reason that much of this handbook will discuss management and policy from this perspective (see especially section 2) but it is recognised that each institutional context is likely to be different and that organisational and staffing practices will vary.

In some institutions, Language Centres, Open Learning Centres or Learning Resources Centres are physical locations managed either by library or language teaching staff. In others, Language Centres are a focus for teaching non-specialist linguists but not the provision of resources. In some institutions, learning resources are managed both individually by language departments and centrally by libraries or self-access centres - the two (or three, or four or five...) do not always work closely together to pool their expertise, resources and needs.

This handbook is intended to be of interest to all involved in some way in the management and implementation of independent language learning wherever they are based.

Importance of dialogue

In the experience of CIEL, the most successful teaching and learning outcomes and the most vibrant and active independent learning centres are to be found in institutions where dialogue between all units or departments involved with language learning and provision of resources are engaged in on-going discussion and planning. Successful management and policy decisions are likely to ensue.

1 Management of independent language learning

1.1 General management practice

Good management within any organisation is key to its long term success and achievement of its objectives. Gardner and Miller (1999) in a chapter on the management of self-access language facilities suggest that guidance for those involved in the organisation of independent language learning facilities comes from the large body of literature in general management practice (commercial management and public administration) and, more specifically, educational management. However, little to date has focussed on the specific area of languages and independent learning except perhaps in the management of libraries.

Gardner and Miller introduce the general concept of the manager who is seen as either administrator ('concerned with implementing defined procedures' and mostly 'involved with maintaining the status quo') or leader ('constantly looking for ways of moving forward'). There is no reason why the two roles should not be present in some form within the same post. In higher education as elsewhere, it is often the job title (e.g. manager, (academic or executive) director, principal, co-ordinator, head or chair) and/or salary scale (e.g. academic, academically related or administrative) which gives an indication of the externally imposed view of the status and role of the post.

1.2 Styles of management

White et al. (1991: 23-25) in a useful book for manager practitioners in the area of English as a Foreign Language, highlight the different "theories" and views of management held by managers and the culture in which they operate. These vary from those emphasising control to the more democratic viewpoints emphasising participation by a team. They report on two extreme belief systems on the nature of work and management: Theory X and Theory Y.

Theory X managers believe that:

  1. "Work is inherently distasteful to most people.
  2. Most people are not ambitious, have little desire for responsibility and prefer to be directed.
  3. Most people have little capacity for creativity in solving problems.
  4. Motivation occurs only at the physiological and security levels" (i.e. at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs which proposes that higher order needs - love, esteem and self-actualisation - will normally follow once these are satisfied, see White et al, p.10).
  5. "Most people must be closely controlled and often coerced to achieve organisational objectives".

Theory Y managers believe that:

  1. "Work is as natural as play...
  2. Control of one's own work activities is often indispensable in achieving organisational gains.
  3. The capacity for creativity in solving organisational problems is widely distributed in the population.
  4. Motivation occurs at the social, ego and self-actualisation levels as well as at the physiological and security levels" (see 4 above).
  5. "People can be self-directed and creative at work if properly led".

White et al. go on to relate this dichotomy to the smaller-scale management of teaching and learning inside or outside the classroom. Ironically, they suggest, the theory X teacher may resent being treated in the same way by a theory X manager. However, the dominant management culture is likely to influence that within the classroom and self-access centre, and vice versa.

Moving on from White et al, Gardner and Miller (p.70) summarise models of management seen commonly in educational contexts and the particular management emphasis and process which is the result. These are given in the table below.

Model Emphasis Process
1. Formal The power of the manager (authority of position) Hierarchical structure characterised by a top-down approach
2. Democratic The importance of people's skills (authority of expertise) Concensus rather than conflict. This is achieved by collegiality and committees.
3. Political Interest groups rather than the larger organisation Acknowledges conflict and expects some ambiguity of goals. Decisions emerge from bargaining and negotiations
4. Subjective Individual goals (not organisational goals) Allows personal interpretation by individuals of how the organisation functions
5. Ambiguity Uncertainty and unpredictability. Organisational goals are unclear and ambiguous Decision-making is unplanned. There is fragmentation of the organisation.

The reader is invited to consider whether they or their managers:

  • are primarily administrators or leaders;
  • are primarily believers in Theory X or Theory Y.

The reader is also invited to consider which model of management and relating emphasis and process is most similar to their own context.

2 Management of a self-access centre

If independent language learning is to be integrated successfully with the language curriculum, the self-access centre or open-access centre, wherever it is based within the institution is likely to play a vital role. This section focusses on managing independent language learning from the perspective of the centre, wherever the materials and resources are located and whatever the centre might be called.

The case-study in Appendix 2 gives an interesting insight into planning within a particular context.

Many of the issues raised below are also raised elsewhere in this and other handbooks but often from a slightly different perspective.

2.1 Key issues

"Self-access can never be an exercise in the abdication of responsibility - providing a haphazard, if comprehensive, pile of resources and letting the learner get on with it."

(McCafferty, date and source unknown)

There are a number of issues to be thought through when planning a self-access centre. None can be considered in isolation and many will need to be revisited as the centre develops. The main areas to consider include:

i. The learners
ii. Theories of learning
iii. The curriculum
iv. The resources
v. The facilities and location
vi. Monitoring and assessment
vii. Individual needs, interests and expectations
viii. Learner/staff support
ix. The staff
x. Management structure
xi. Policymaking
xii. Finances
xiii. Continuing the impetus...

The following sub-sections look at these issues in more detail.

2.1.1 The learners

Planning and running a well-used language learning facility will necessitate building a good profile of the potential and actual users together with an analysis of their likely needs.

It will be necessary to know which department or departments the learners are likely to come from if appropriate materials are to be provided. Are they specialist linguists who are following language degree programmes or, non-specialists who are studying languages for specific purposes (LSP) (e.g. Spanish for Social Scientist or German for Engineeers)? If they are following an Institution Wide Language Programme they may or may not be studying a language for credit.

Full and part-time students may have different needs; part-time and mature students often have problems with access to materials if they cannot be borrowed or if opening hours are not sufficiently spread throughout the week. They may or may not need additional support.

Home students may well have different needs to overseas students and those with special needs may well require a carefully though out and accessible learning environment (see Accessibility handbook).

Additional thought will need to be given to whether learners are registered on courses or are 'drop-in' learners from across the university or the local community and business sector. The learning materials for the latter may need to include additional teaching support. If there is a sufficient number of income-generating commercial clients the environment and resources may well have to be upgraded.

A significant question will relate to the range of language levels that the centre will have to cater for.

2.1.2 Theories of learning

To some extent, the success of developments in independent language learning is likely to depend on the model of teaching and learning held by teacher and learner. The view that learning is a process rather than just the acquisition of a set body of knowledge will prioritise the development of appropriate learning skills and strategies and value independent learning objectives.

Encouragement of learner independence is also key, as is the valuing of transferable or key skills.

2.1.3 The curriculum

The nature of the relationship between self-access work and the curriculum is important. If independent language learning is not integrated or valued within the language curriculum, it may well be that it is not prioritised by the learner or valued by either language staff or language learner. To this end, it is important to raise the status of independent learning within the centre and the curriculum.

A further question relates to the main focus of the curriculum. A particular focus on topic-based materials focus, language skills, LSP or other specialised materials will dictate the need for relevant learning resources.

2.1.4 The resources

The design, purchase, preparation, maintenance and organisation of materials and equipment are important processes (see handbook 3 on resources), which, together with classification, cataloguing and retrieval, need to be planned and reviewed on a regular basis. Copyright implications are a complicating factor.

There needs to be a mix of media and materials which will cater for a wide variety of interests and needs. Use of new technologies as a delivery medium will change the face of the self-access centre and may well allow remote access to learning materials. Not all learners (and teachers) will want to use technology-based materials and may well resist moves away from traditional media (including the book) and classroom teaching.

2.1.5 The facilities and location

The design and layout of the facilities are likely to influence, and be influenced by, patterns of use. For example, if learners are to be encouraged to work collaboratively, there must be appropriate seminar/group working space (perhaps a large table) for the activity. Location is also important. If the centre is not near any other student facilities or is in an unattractive or inaccessible part of the building, learners will not favour working there.

Size is important as the centre must be big enough to cope with peak demands whilst not being seen as too empty to be inviting in off-peak hours. (See also handbook 3, section 5).

General appeal and comfort are vital if learners are to be enticed into a pleasant working environment.

Accessibility and security issues also relate to design and location. A centre must be designed to provide for learners and staff with disabilities. From the point of both security and accessibility, the centre should not be located in inaccessible places such as the basement or the top floor of a building. These locations may not even attract the fit and brave.

Opening times will need to reflect the particular needs of its users but may have to be tempered by the implications of staffing availability and additional costs (see Appendix 3).

2.1.6 Monitoring and assessment

Monitoring use of the centre is important at a number of different levels in order to evaluate effective take-up and patterns of use and facilitate planning. Useful data can help to justify activities and expenditure for management purposes, both within the centre and within the institution.

Numbers of users can be counted if there is a security or loan system in place. If not, an annual snapshot (monitoring entry and learning activities over one day or one week) will give some indication of trends.

It is important to evaluate the usefulness of the independent learning materials and facilities. This can be done through student questionnaires, class discussion, feedback forms attached to individual materials and learner diaries in which learners are asked to comment specifically. An opinion or suggestions box might also prove useful.

Learner diaries might also prove useful in encouraging reflection by the learner on the process and effectiveness of learning. Self-assessment forms can be attached to individual activities and could be discussed with the classroom teacher or learning advisor.

2.1.7 Individual needs, interests and expectations

Learners and teachers will come to the self-access centre with different experiences, expectations and needs. Overseas students, for example, may well come from very different educational backgrounds and may not initially feel comfortable in an independent learning context. One solution may be to hold classes in the self-access centre and to encourage learners to plan and implement an individual learning programme together with their classroom teacher.

Perceived needs of the user group will influence the range and design of materials and support services. Particular needs can be determined through an initial and regular needs survey and by regular monitoring (see 2.1.6 above).

2.1.8 Learner and staff support

Learner training and staff development will need to be thought through at the level of infrastructure: - in terms of appropriate staffing and support materials and in terms of training and induction (see handbook 5 for more detailed discussion of these areas).

A support and advisory service for learners may have budgetary and training implications (the FDTL SMILE project based at Hull have developed accredited training modules) if there are to be specialist advisors.

2.1.9 The staff

When accepted practices change, staff will not always be supportive (see section 3, below, on the management of change).

The roles within an effective and busy self-access centre are many and varied and may be carried out by one or many staff. Many self-access centre in the UK will rely on the enthusiastic and willing support of a few over-worked individuals.

Each centre will need administrative, clerical and technical staff, advisory and other support staff, an academic coordinator to co-ordinate developments and materials designers. There will also be a manager or director. The precise role of the latter may depend on whether the centre is also a teaching unit.

2.1.10 Management structure

Section 1 has given an overview of general management issues. Effective management within the self-access centre will ensure that the roles highlighted in 2.1.9 above are carried out. The shape and relationship with existing structures will also be important. If the centre has autonomy in terms of management and budget (often received directly from central university funds) it will have to work hard to collaborate with other language departments to harmonise provision and ensure integration with taught programmes.

Line management within the centre will also need to be clear. There may be both administrative/clerical/technical and academic leadership strands.

2.1.11 Policymaking

Commitment to independent learning by all stakeholders will be more effective if agreed policies and strategies on self-access provision / independent learning are in place at institutional, faculty and departmental level.

Institutional policies may well determine the relationship between the Institution and the centre. This may have resourcing implications which will be important in terms of provision of staff, space and general funding.

2.1.12 Finances

The Centre may or may not be financially independent from the institution - many receive top-sliced funding allocations in order to provide a basic university service. A number of centres have successfully developed additional income streams and run the self-access centre and associated classes as a commercial activity. Some run fee-paying courses for other sectors of the university (e.g. in-sessional and pre-sessional courses for overseas students).

In planning any new developments, decisions will have to be made as to which are going to be cost-effective and which are going to bring about other kinds of benefit (e.g. attractive surroundings shown in the prospectus which encourage student recruitment to the institution).

2.1.13 Continuing the impetus...

Once the centre has been firmly established, a cycle of review and discussion will ensure that initial enthusiasm does not die away and that new developments can be introduced as appropriate.

3 Management of change

3.1 The general effects of change

As we move towards an information society largely fuelled by technological innovation, higher education is not immune to change. Fees, rising student numbers, quality assurance measures and a focus on widening participation and employability all have their influence on the delivery of teaching and the management of learning.

As in any organisation of any complexity, managers responding to change will need to consider the stakeholders and ask

  • Who will be affected by any changes;
  • What role these individuals will play;
  • Where do the interests of these individuals lie

Plant (1995: p.24) suggests mapping change in more detail by looking at the following categories in relation to any proposals:

  • The winners - who are they?
  • The information - who holds it?
  • The power - who holds it?
  • The losers - who are they?

It would be possible to link specific names and groups to any of these categories in any one context and thus might prove an interesting and useful exercise. Mapping the generic categories in 3.2 below might also prove useful.

3.2 Integrating independent language learning: the stakeholders

In the specific context of a move to greater integration of independent language learning with the language curriculum, the stakeholders involved are likely to be many and varied across the institution. They include:

i. the students who stand to gain from the development of skills and strategies which lead to language competence, greater employability and a range of personal and interpersonal skills. These students will also benefit from greater exposure to the language and more language practice than they would have with just limited classroom contact time. As fee-payers, students (and parents) now feel that they have a considerable stake in their own education;

ii. the teaching staff of the language departments/language centre may feel that they have the most at stake in moves to a greater promotion of independent language learning. Teachers may have a knowledge-based view of learning and see their role as imparting that knowledge. A focus on the learning process and the learner rather than that of the teacher may be seen as a threat to the status of the academic. A move from the role of teacher to that of facilitator or advisor may further enhance the feeling of threat as will the threat of reduced teaching hours. Some will welcome a reduction in teaching as an opportunity to develop further teaching materials or carry out research. Others will see it as a threat to their livelihood.

iii. the support staff, such as librarians, learning advisors and student support staff are likely to see an increase in student use of their services when independent language learning is successfully integrated. This is likely to lead to job security, increase in professional status and more financial resources made available to their departments.

iv. the managers at departmental and institutional level have the most to gain and lose in current contexts. The need to provide a cost-effective education whilst assuring quality and maintaining high academic standards and student satisfaction is urgent and any changes need to be well planned and supported. The dangers are that decisions are made from purely financial rather than pedagogical motives and are not driven by balanced policies.

3.3 Implementation of change

The most successful changes are usually brought about through consensus and ownership. The successful integration of independent language learning may well result from a ground swell initiated by enthusiasts who have won over their colleagues through persuasion and example. However, departmental consensus will be harder to obtain when the push for change comes from middle or senior management. In these situations it will be up the manager implementing the proposals to follow a route which will encourage and develop support. In some cases this difficult job may well be passed to a new-comer or "new broom".

Plant (1995: p.32) has suggested the following six principles for the successful implementation of change:

i. avoid over-organising

ii. communicate like never before

iii. work at gaining commitment

iv. provide help to face up to change

v. ensure early involvement

vi. turn perception of "threat" into opportunity

A similar approach was developed by Hawkins and Winter (1997) who developed the ACORN model:


Action can be initiated by an individual or a group of colleagues from within the department (bottom-up) or management (top-down).

The communication strategy must be carefully planned to ensure that all parties concerned with the proposed changes are informed and consulted in good time.

If the communication allows for input at all levels, a sense of ownership will ensure that all involved are working towards the successful implementation of the proposed changes.

Regular and on-going reflection and review will forestall major mistakes by identifying problems early.

Nurture of the changes will prevent new initiatives disappearing once the initial impetus of participants' enthusiasm and any pump-priming ceases.

4 From policy to strategy

4.1 Policy

If independent learning is to be embedded into the teaching and learning practices of an institution, appropriate policy statements will need to be drawn up and agreed at institutional and/or departmental level. If language provision is shared between departments, policy will need to be agreed at inter-departmental level and within the language resources centre. The discussion of the terms of the document is likely to encourage a degree of concensus and ownership amongst stakeholders that will ensure successful change.

A policy document will reflect the needs and wishes of the department or centre and is likely to take many forms. A copy of a typical document follows below. It is based on an actual departmental policy statement but all references have been removed.

If policies (answering the question WHAT is to be done) are to be implemented, strategy documents (answering the question HOW it is to be done) outlining key actions and deadlines should follow. It is likely that these will be built into departmental/centre planning and operating statements and thus indicate the value which should be given to them. An example of a developing strategy document is given in Appendix 1. Again, all references to the institution on which it is based have been removed.

4.2 Case study 1: an open and distance learning policy statement

The ODL policy forms the basis of the design of a coherent strategy for the implementation of ODL into teaching and learning programmes which will develop in students a range of transferable skills of value both while they are studying and when they enter the workplace. Examples of these skills are: addressing problems and problem solving; liaising and working with others; applying oneself towards the achievement of self-defined objectives; owning the task at hand.

By adhering to the policy of sharing good practice in key areas the department can arrive at an important position in the promotion of such operations at this and at other institutions.

The following headings have been specified as key development areas for ODL within the department. Issues which fall into these areas are given as subheadings.

Policy Making - Issues which the department as a whole will have to decide on:

Recognition of and consensus on the value of Open and Distance Learning (ODL)
Time and funding
Development of Open Access Centre (OAC)
Value of other non- OAC based approaches to ODL

Management of ODL resources including running of OAC:

Layout and environment of OAC
Student support/ staff support
Monitoring and evaluation
Link with curriculum
Organisation of materials

Staff development:

Teacher involvement
Awareness raising
Link with curriculum design
Materials evaluation
Materials development
Materials exploitation

Learner training - awareness raising in the following areas:

Value of ODL
Availability of materials
Organisation and layout of OAC
Use of facilities
Record keeping
Assessment/ link with curriculum

Development of learning strategies incorporating the above

Curriculum Design:

Integration of ODL into curriculum:

  • Modifying existing course modules to include ODL
  • Open learning modules
  • Totally independent learning

Use of environment
Tandem learning

All the above are dependent upon course and student background

Learning resources:

Materials purchase and evaluation
In house materials development
Copyright issues
IT or Non- IT?
OAC or Non- OAC?

This document is for consideration by AQD, individual language groups and course teams.

Appendix 1: Case study 2 - strategy document

Download Appendix 1 (rich text format, 133Kb)

Appendix 2: Case study 3 - designing your space/planning resources

Download Appendix 2 (rich text format, 58Kb)

Appendix 3: Case study 4 - identifying and assessing the information needs of overseas students on the pre-sessional course of English for academic purposes at the University of Southampton, July to September, 1999.

Download Appendix 3 (rich text format, 81Kb)


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