Learner Autonomy with Technology: What do language learners need to be successful

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Learner Autonomy with Technology: What do language learners need to be successful?

Deborah Healey

English Language Institute, Oregon State University


This paper looks at some of the considerations in planning and successfully implementing self-directed learning with technology. It grew out of work at the English Language Institute's Learning Center, a four-room suite with computers, tapes, videos, books, writing and pronunciation assistants, and speaking groups. We developed a three-hour per week course called "Individualized Directed Learning" (IDL) as a way of encouraging learners to become more autonomous by setting and working on goals with a teacher as facilitator. My dissertation research was set in that facility and based on case studies coming out of the IDL course. In addition, I have been working on a project over the past few years to improve our self-study pronunciation/oral communication options. Visiting faculty at Oregon State University (OSU), scholars, and fully-admitted students often seek pronunciation help, but do not want to take a full-term course. We have been trying to find ways to make self-study more effective - or at least help learners stick with it enough to show some benefit.
Another area that has influenced this paper has been grant-funded work with five nearby school districts. Oregon schools are seeing dramatic growth in the number of ESL students without an equivalent growth in ESOL-certified teachers. As a result, we have been helping K-8 mainstream classroom teachers be better able to serve ESL students in their classes. Autonomous learning for this group has very different possibilities and constraints from that for adult learners in university and intensive English program settings.
A definition of autonomy in language learning as it is used here would follow Dickinson's (1987) in referring to the instructional framework: the degree of independence the learner is given in setting language learning goals, the path to the goal, the pace of learning, and the measurement of success. The terms "self-direction" and "independent learning" will be used to refer to learner attitudes. In looking at autonomy, the self-access setting can offer learners choices in time, location, and pace of learning; the path through the material to be chosen; and the topics of interest. Technology can play a role in all of these.

Independent learning

Language teachers, like other teachers today, see independent learning as a goal. It is part of Rubin's definition of the "good" language learner: one who sets his or her own direction and takes responsibility for his or her own learning. Certain metacognitive skills are necessary for independent learning, including awareness of learning styles and the ability to track one's own progress. Both children and adults can be encouraged to be independent learners, but their needs as language learners are often different. ESL children in the US, for example, often need extensive first language development as well as second language skill-building to be fully literate in both languages. If these children are from stigmatized groups, they may be isolated in regular classes and more isolated by being plugged into self-study for language development (or babysitting, as the case may be).
Language learners, both adults and children, have certain cultural expectations about teacher and student roles. For many learners, the teacher has the duty to impart knowledge to them, and their duty as learners is to memorize it. This attitude is clearly not conducive to self-direction. Oxford (1990) notes, "Just teaching new strategies to students will accomplish very little less students begin to want greater responsibility for their own learning" (p. 10; italics in original). On the other hand, studies in Japan (Usuki, 2001) and Hong Kong (Chan, 2001) indicate that some students realize that they could take better advantage of resources by being more independent. If we want to encourage independent learning, we will need to give learners good reasons for moving in that direction.
Technology's role in fostering autonomy has been vaunted over the years, with a number of claims made in favor of technology-enhanced language learning. Those claims include that technology, especially multimedia, supports different learning styles; that computers and the Internet provide a wealth of resources to independent learners; and that certain software packages can offer a complete curriculum for language learning. These claims need to be put into the context of learner needs to see how fully they match.

Learner needs

Learners have a number of needs for effective language learning, including linguistic, metacognitive, and psychological and social. In the linguistic area, people must have language data and an opportunity for practice in order to acquire or learn language. Sequencing instruction, offering language data at Krashen's i+1 level of comprehensibility, providing rules for deductive learners, and sheltering practice all enhance learning. On the metacognitive level, learners do well by knowing their learning styles, understanding their path through the material to be learned, and having a way to see and assess their own progress toward learning goals.

Psychological factors in language learning include engagement with the material, motivation for what can be a lengthy task, and self-validation in the learning process. The last of these is especially important for learners who may be from marginalized social groups, like many ESL children. Where the learner's first language and culture are respected, he or she is likely to be less afraid of losing self when learning a second language. Social factors are related. Learners need a sense of community with their fellow learners and of home community support in order to be receptive to learning.

What technology can provide

Technology offers a great deal on the linguistic side: huge amounts of data, including authentic text, graphics, audio, and video online. Software and online exercises can provide rules to begin with or as glosses for data. Focus on Grammar is one example of a program that has something for both deductive and inductive learners. A few major software packages, such as DynEd and ELLIS series, offer a structured path through their material and record-keeping.

Another area where computers are useful is in providing practice in various ways. While the practice is often repetitive, much more is possible. Variety and playfulness of language games improve the fun factor. Concordancers allow learners to explore language and develop their own hypotheses for how language works, based on large textbases. Technology provides tools for learners to create newsletters, web pages, and multimedia presentations, as well as to create online communities of interest.

What's missing

While productive practice is possible, repetition is easier to automate and so is far more prevalent in both software and online activities. A curricular path that links past with present information and helps learners self-assess is rarely found outside of software, and not frequently in software, either. Very little of what is available in off-the-shelf form develops learners' metacognitive skills, helping them understand how to learn and how to be reflective learners. Very importantly, ready-made technology solutions rarely provide any engagement with the local community. It is up to facilitators and teachers to make the links between what the learner is doing independently and what is going on in the classroom or the home.

Other drawbacks exist, as well. A concern frequently expressed in the hypertext literature is that learners can get lost when working through material with hypertext links. Given a wealth of choices, learners can feel overwhelmed and unable to decide what to do. Aimless clicking often results. Repetitive practice or a repetitive interface can be boring. A special risk for ESL children is that they will be plugged into a machine instead of a group in class. They can benefit from language software, certainly, but have other needs as well. Technology can provide too simple a solution.

Designer/facilitator role

Technology can do much more within an environment designed to enhance independent learning. Language learners don’t necessarily know how to learn efficiently on their own, so guidance has to come from somewhere. Where learners are also in language classes, independent work can be linked closely to course curriculum. Where learners are working on their own, they will need suggested paths through material as well as language data to work with. Facilitators serve an important role by helping learners assess where they are and understand where they need to go next, helping the learners organize their learning and be motivated to continue. It's easy to be passive, so learners may need help setting and accomplishing tasks that require production. Facilitators also help organize community, setting up groups, providing logistics for group projects, and making the links between independent study and classroom and home.

Next steps

Having looked at generalities, it is time to stop and scrutinize our own self-access facilities. Here are a few quick questions to determine how conducive our settings are to independent learning:

  1. What are the underlying assumptions about learners?

  2. What are their assumptions about learning? Do we need to help our learners see why they should engage in independent learning?

  3. How do learners know what to do when working in the self-access setting?

    • What material to use

    • What path to take

    • How to see progress on that path

  4. How can learners build community with each other? How are they connected to the local community?

  5. What training is provided for facilitators?


Creating a good autonomous learning environment is difficult. It takes thought and planning initially and an ongoing commitment to adjusting to learner needs. It is important to keep psychological and social factors in mind to be sure that individual learning is within a supportive community context. Technology provides a wealth of resources and potential, but is not a solution on its own.

Some Lightly Annotated Autonomy References

Web page for Learner Autonomy with Technology: www.onid.orst.edu/~healeyd/tesol2002/autonomy.html

ELI Learning Center: oregonstate.edu/dept/eli/learnctr.html

ELI K-8 teacher training project: oregonstate.edu/dept/eli/teacherprep.html

Benson, P. (1997) The semiotics of self-access language learning in the digital age. In V. Darleguy, et al. (eds.) Educational technology in language learning: Theoretical considerations and practical applications. Lyon, France: INSA (National Institute of Applied Sciences), pp. 70-78. Located at http://www.insa-lyon.fr/Departements/CDRL/semiotics.html. [April 7, 2002] A look at "self-access as sign rather than the self-access centre as signifier" - as an information system that uses technology.

Benson, P. (2001). Autonomy and independence in language learning. Located at http://ec.hku.hk/autonomy/. [April 7, 2002] Site includes an online bibliography about autonomy in language learning (http://ec.hku.hk/autonomy/bibliog.html) and a list of self-access centers (http://ec.hku.hk/autonomy/centres.html)

Chan, V. (2001). Readiness for learner autonomy: What do our learners tell us? Teaching in Higher Education, 6 (4), 505-519. Retrieved April 6, 2002, from EBSCOhost database (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web: http://search.epnet.com. Results of a study at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Dickinson, L. (1987). Self-instruction in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, R. (2000). Learner managed learning: Managing to learn or learning to manage? International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19 (4), 312-321. Retrieved April 6, 2002, from EBSCOhost database (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web: http://search.epnet.com. A critical look at the current emphasis on autonomy.

Healey, D. (1999). Autonomy in language learning. In J. Egbert and E. Hanson-Smith (Eds.), CALL environments: Research, practice, and critical issues. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Healey, D. (1993). Learner choices in self-directed second-language learning. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services.

IATEFL. Learner Independence SIG home page. Located at http://www.iatefl.org/lisig/default.htm. [April 7, 2002] Not updated since 1999, apparently, but some good links.

Motteram, G. (1997). Learner autonomy and the Web. In V. Darleguy, et al. (eds.) Educational technology in language learning: Theoretical considerations and practical applications. Lyon, France: INSA (National Institute of Applied Sciences). Located at http://www.insa-lyon.fr/Departements/CDRL/learner.html [April 7, 2002]

Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Reinders, H.W. (2000). Fortress or bridge? A learners' perspective on learner autonomy and self-access language learning. MA thesis. Available by request from http://www.hayo.nl/ling/thesisrequest.htm. [April 7, 2002]

Rubin, J. (1979). What "the good language learner" can teach us. In J.B. Pride (Ed.), Sociolinguistic aspects of language learning and teaching (pp. 17-26). London: Oxford University Press.

Slaouti, D. (1997) Designing a technology-based learning/resource centre: Some thoughts and implications. In V. Darleguy, et al. (Eds.), Educational technology in language learning: Theoretical considerations and practical applications. Lyon, France: INSA (National Institute of Applied Sciences). Available at http://www.insa-lyon.fr/Departements/CDRL/designing.html. [April 7, 2002]

Svensson, M. (1997) L’adaptation des outils multimédia dans un contexte d’auto-apprentissage. [Adapting multimedia tools for a self-directed learning context] In V. Darleguy, et al. (Eds.), Educational technology in language learning: Theoretical considerations and practical applications. Lyon, France: INSA (National Institute of Applied Sciences). Available at http://www.insa-lyon.fr/Departements/CDRL/adaptation.html. [April 7, 2002] Theoretical background for multimedia use in self-directed learning.

Usuki, M. (2001). From the learners' perspectives: The needs for awareness-raising towards autonomy and roles of the teachers. ERIC document number ED455694. Retrieved April 6, 2002, from EBSCOhost database (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web: http://search.epnet.com. A study of Japanese learners (not including technology).

Young, A. & Y. Kerdiles (1997) 'Le projet "asalé": un usage de technologies éducatives nouvelles en milieu universitaire à l'aube de l'autonomie'. [The "ASALE" project: beginning learner autonomy using new educational technologies in a university setting] In V. Darleguy, et al. (Eds.), Educational technology in language learning: Theoretical considerations and practical applications. Lyon, France: INSA (National Institute of Applied Sciences). Available at http://www.insa-lyon.fr/Departements/CDRL/asale.html. [April 7, 2002] A study of video and concordancing tools in self-directed supplemental work for language learners.

Healey, 2002

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