Learning Space Design and Usage in Self-Access Language Learning: Report on the Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) Conference, 2021

By Haruka Sasai and Xiao Sun, Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan

Haruka Sasai     Xiao Sun

Introduction

On Saturday, October 23, 2021, the annual conference of The Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation allowed presenters and participants to take part safely regardless of where they live. JASAL is an organization that disseminates practical knowledge about self-access learning and offers professional development or support relevant to those topics. Self-access language learning centers are popular in most of the world, including Asia, Europe, and Oceania (and exist in North America as well), and have many commonalities with the language resource centers that can be found in many institutions in the United States.

The following consists of a report of a visual plenary talk presented by John Augeri and some other sessions presented at JASAL 2021. Augeri is a researcher who has been conducting an international comparative study of innovative learning spaces and advises strategies and assessment for learning spaces. Though there were many productive sessions at the conference, we chose these particular sessions to review because each session helps educators and learners adapt to the current situation and explore different perspectives for autonomous learning and the varied concepts of learning spaces. In addition, what we can find in this report are various concrete examples for language learning with technology such as online intercultural interactions and learning with virtual reality (VR). All of the reviewed presentations were given in English with the exception of the presentation by Kawasaki. These sessions reminded instructors that there are still things we can improve and there are affordances for learners that derive from adjustments and innovations. There is no doubt that each presentation will expand our horizons of ideas about learning spaces and will intrigue us with how we will be able to benefit from incorporating technology in the academic environment.

Plenary: Post-pandemic Perspectives on Learning Spaces: Challenges, Opportunities, and Stakes

John Augeri, Île-de-France Digital University, France

Augeri’s inspiring plenary talk showed us how learning spaces have been shifting during the pandemic and how we need to reconceptualize or reconsider the possible transformation of learning spaces. Augeri explored three dimensions. Firstly, he described how the changing situation dramatically impacts students’ mental health. Secondly, his presentation explored the transformation of the physical environment with IT systems. Augeri is convinced that IT systems provide students with mobility and the challenges that emerge in the process of transition. Thirdly, Augeri listed some critical values added in higher education, such as mindset shifting among faculty, and presented a great opportunity to think about the sustainability of hybrid learning (mixing face-to-face and online) for the middle- and long-term. Augeri believes that in the post-pandemic era, control of the spatiality and the temporality of the pedagogical act, a global redefinition of the learning territory, and a global re-conception of the university are worth exploring. Augeri also showed us formal learning spaces such as active learning classrooms and collaborative lecture theaters as well as informal learning spaces such as learning commons and learning centers. He introduced three different learning space models: decentralized, centralized, and mixed. In a decentralized model, only one type of learning space is set in each area, but there are multiple areas divided according to the type of learning spaces. In a centralized model, different types of learning spaces are set in one area. In a mixed model, different types of learning spaces can be set in the same area, and there are several such areas to achieve a mixed effect. Through his introduction, we learned how to set up an effective learning space. Finally, Augeri predicted that in the post-pandemic era, there will be a transition to hybrid learning in the middle-term. “The pandemic wasn’t the transformation itself, but rather a middle and long-term transformation trigger.” His talk was eye-opening and would be beneficial to help educators to generate and cultivate existing ideas about the integration of technology into the academic environment in the context of its contribution to learning.

Reflection on Running a Student Community Online During the Pandemic

Yukari Imai, Miya Daidoji, and Shiori Takasaki, Wayo Women’s University, Japan

Imai, Daidoji, and Takasaki are students at Wayo Women’s University and have been running a weekly student community called “Meet Up with Friends” since April 2021. Their intention in setting up this group meeting was to provide first-year students with meaningful social interactions under unusual circumstances, and they hoped that it would be a comfortable and reliable place for first-year students to count on and manage their life on campus. The presentation consisted of three sections. The first referred to activities that they have been offering. Those activities relate to general practical knowledge such as sending email in English. The second section put more focus on how organizers make plans, stay organized, and manage their overwhelming schedules on campus. The last section comprised the way of letting first-year students know about this community and their feedback after attending it. Imai, Daidoji, and Takasaki have been putting their thoughts into this meetup in order to make it more beneficial and enjoyable. They are planning to hold a Christmas party or to have a guest speaker related to participants’ future professions.

Reflections on Teletandem Learning Experience

Ami Fujimura, Sakura Mitsuta, Kina Yokoyama, and Kie Yamamoto, Wayo Women’s University, Japan

Fujiwara, Mitsuta, Yokoyama, and Yamamoto presented outcomes of intercultural interactions that were conducted via teletandem. In this project, students at Wayo Women’s University had the opportunity to communicate with students at DePaul University in Chicago, USA. The presenters described how each student got involved in and made progress through this project. According to their presentation, the students participated because of their lack of confidence and proficiency in English. It seemed that the majority of them struggled with making the conversations flow, understanding what their partner was talking about, and keeping up with the speech speed. However, what participants in Wayo Women’s University would all agree with was that they have boosted their confidence, have become motivated to and reflective in learning English, and each individual has acquired a self-regulating system. Japanese students also noticed that their positive attitudes toward the partners created active interactions and that they benefited from sufficient preparations for in-depth conversation, becoming resilient and committed. The presenters concluded that they were able to learn from each other in terms of not only language acquisition, but also communicating with their partners.

An example of scaffolding for Japanese students in a university engineering faculty to learn English autonomously [地方大学工学部の日本人学生のための自律的な英語学習に向けた足場かけの一例]

Noriko Kawasaki, Miyazaki University, Japan

Kawasaki offered a valuable opportunity for students who have fewer opportunities to immerse themselves in communicative activities in English, especially in universities where there is no language faculty such as Miyazaki University. This university has a community to promote English interaction among students who come back from study abroad and those who are planning to go or have interest in English; but the participation has been limited due to the pandemic. Thus, with the cooperation of a neighboring junior high school, this university held a communicative English online session where Japanese university students mediated between international students at Miyazaki University and junior high school students. The international students presented a number of slides about their backgrounds and cultures while the Japanese students served as interpreters. Then there were discussions in which the junior high school students asked the international students questions. The younger students were very impressed by how fast the international students talked and how spontaneously the Japanese university students had conversations with them. Their facility with the target language was due in large part to the fact that they had worked extremely hard and had practiced extensively. In addition, there were conversations and pre-planning in advance between the international students and Japanese university students in order to determine how much the international students were going to present and what the Japanese university students needed in order to process and deliver for the younger students. Kawasaki reported that this session motivated the Japanese university students and was definitely successful in terms of intense language exposure and as an opportunity for them to apply their English knowledge in a practical situation, which led them ultimately to autonomous learning.

Designing Physical Language Learning Spaces for the Digital Age: Developments in the USA

Felix Kronenberg, Michigan State University, USA

Kronenberg’s presentation focused primarily on how to design a practical and efficient language learning space with more scientific approaches. According to Kronenberg, the current language learning space should be a values-and mission-driven design. In the post-pandemic era, we should consider what is the purpose of creating a language learning space in the first place. He said that in the past, most of the language learning spaces were language laboratories. But with the change of learners’ learning missions, these language learning spaces with computers are no longer universally necessary, and the number of learners using them has decreased. Therefore, the aspects of flexibility, resilience, and sustainability of the language learning space are becoming more and more important. Removing computers, employing a flexible seat layout, and allowing different types of uses for the spaces, all need to be taken into account in order to meet the changing needs of learners. Apart from learning, students can hold more diverse activities here to enrich their lives, such as yoga classes, social activities, and parties to inspire a sense of ownership to the learning spaces. Moreover, no matter what kind of students they are, they can use the learning spaces together and freely. At the same time, Kronenberg also mentioned that participatory design processes should also be valued. In the process of designing the learning space, more people need to participate, not only designers and experts, but also students, staff, and faculty. They can put forward their own suggestions, which would make the design more complete. As for technology, he believes that technology is no longer necessary for language learning spaces. Although many people bring technology into the current learning space, in his opinion, windows are much better than large screens. Therefore, the design of language space is no longer just about technology but may turn attention to non-technological places such as outdoor learning spaces.

Supporting Collaborative Hybrid SALC Events Under COVID-19 

Aki Tanaka and Chihiro Hayashi, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Tanaka and Hayashi showed us how they used technology to hold a collaborative hybrid activity, “Wafuku Day and Tanabata Festival,” in their self-access learning center (SALC) during the pandemic. First, Tanaka introduced a problem encountered in holding an activity in their SALC, that is, that there were few students participating. Because it was held online and the time conflicted with many online courses, more students could not be enticed to participate. In order to enable more students to participate, they decided to hold a collaborative hybrid event on campus and online at the same time. The event was divided into three modalities: face-to-face workshop, exhibition, and online workshop. The whole process of preparation was completed online and lasted for more than a month. According to Tanaka and Hayashi, most student organizers expressed great enthusiasm for holding this hybrid event and also expressed their great willingness to participate in the preparation of similar activities again. Hayashi said that these student organizers believed that although there were many restrictions during the pandemic, they learned a lot as organizers of the event and made many friends. They were allowed to use various languages in the process, which improved the utilization rate of English compared to learning independently in the SALC and also improved their English level to some extent.

Exploring Virtual Reality Applications for Self-Access Language Learning

Shawn Andersson, Ritsumeikan University, Japan

Although various online learning applications can help language learners to self-access, normal online learning applications often make many learners feel tired and lose interest in learning. To address in part this learner fatigue, Andersson introduced some virtual reality (VR) applications and showed how to use them. VR language learning applications can create immersive environments, specifically developed to offer users contextual presence for language learning. To achieve an immersive experience, VR applications need to be used with various tools, such as 3D glasses or controllers. Andersson said that in the past few years, more and more educators and researchers have begun to apply VR technology in the field of language learning and teaching. Because of the immersion of VR technology, it can provide learners with an authentic context. One of the important parts of language learning is this authentic context, especially for self-access language learning. VR applications can greatly improve learners’ participation and interaction, motivate students, and lead to a higher level of interest in learning, compared with conventional learning methods.

Conclusion

The JASAL conference showed us a large number of practical cases related to learning spaces and technology in self-access language learning. Through this conference, more people have gained a deeper understanding of learning spaces. Before the pandemic, how to design and how to use learning spaces was often discussed. Now, with the pandemic nearing the end of its second year, we have learned about the operation of learning spaces in different countries during this unusual time. The conference also provided inspiration for how to use learning spaces to improve language learning in the post-pandemic period. In addition to these, there were also other presentations on topics such as international exchange and communication in language spaces.

No matter what kind of conference is successfully held, it is inseparable from the hard work of the organizers. Therefore, on behalf of all participants, we would like to pay tribute to all the JASAL staff and thank them for their energy and time. Thanks to their efforts, JASAL has entered its 16th year, and we are looking forward to the JASAL 2022 conference at Akita International University next year.

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