For my contribution to the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival, whose theme is Learner Autonomy, I have chosen an article by Robert Godwin-Jones (2011): Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Language Learning in Language Learning & Technology vol. 15 number 3. October 2011. I have used Godwin-Jones’ own sub-headings to organise my review. Obviously this is only my interpretation of what Godwin-Jones has to say…
LEARNING TO LEARN
Godwin-Jones begins by highlighting the explosion of interest in learner autonomy that has taken place over the last ten years and the relationship between learner autonomy and developments in technology. He acknowledges, however, that learner autonomy, as a concept, substantially pre-dates the age of computing. Like the majority of articles, chapters and books published on the subject of learner autonomy, Godwin-Jones tips his hat to Holec’s work in the late 70’s and explains that learners plus “appropriate learning material” does not equal learner autonomy: necessary, too, are the skills, mindset and motivation that lead to successful independent study.
Godwin-Jones suggests that the development of effective strategies is insufficient without the willingness to reflect on and improve on these over time, as language learning progresses. He cites learner diaries as a traditional means of cultivating this type of metacognitive awareness and suggests that online writing tools such as blogs and electronic portfolios or online editors like Google Docs. He alludes also to the European Language Portfolio and LinguaFolio, and the role these could play in providing learners with “concrete evidence of achievement”.
THE TEACHER’S ROLE
In the second part of his article, Godwin-Jones moves on to consideration of the role of the teacher within learner autonomy. Within this section, he addresses the cultural aspect of learner autonomy, explaining that in a culture where learning is teacher-centred, both teachers and learners may find the role changes required unsettling. He also explores issues inherent in distance learning and learning management systems e.g. Moodle, in terms of learner autonomy, e.g. that the teacher is usually the sole decision-maker with regards to content presentation, organisation and expectation with regards to progress through a course.
A significant role for teachers as individuals, that he discusses, is that of enabler and motivator: teachers need to offer their learners advice regarding online tools and services. Teachers can also help by enabling learners to discover and evaluate tools themselves.
AUTONOMOUS, NOT ALONE
In the third part of his article, Godwin-Jones addresses the importance of a peer network in the development of learner autonomy. He dispels the myth of the autonomous learner as stuck alone in an ivory tower surrounded by materials and cites the prominence of the “social dimension” of learner autonomy within the literature. (Maintaining Control: Autonomy and Language Learning (2009) is offered as an example of this.). He quotes Edith Esch’s definition of autonomy, from her chapter in this volume, “autonomy as the capacity to exercise critical thinking about learning as a participant in a social milieu”.
He goes on to discuss computer mediated communication (CMC) tools such as Second life and tandem learning networks, explaining that teachers may provide initial guidance but ultimate success, in terms of utility, is dependent on the learners themselves. Allusion is also made to peer-scaffolding, in helping learners to become more confident and independent. Godwin-Jones also points out issues with CMC, such as exclusive focus on content at the expense of focus on language, while suggesting that a balance of focuses may be important in language development through CMC.
In this section, Godwin-Jones moves on to consider CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) and its role in promotion of learner autonomy, flagging up the issue of getting learners to take full advantage of what is available and the importance of metacognitive knowledge in enabling this. He also discusses tools that enable experimentation with concordancing and the potential effects of such tools on learning.
He also explores mobile devices e.g. tablets and the effect these have on language learning choices, wondering whether the development of these will mean a shift from favouring print materials to preferring multimedia options.
In this final section the idea of personal choice is discussed initially in relation to mobile devices and then in relation to examples of learner autonomy that hold a socio-political significance. Godwin-Jones also reminds us again of the effect of culture on learner autonomy, stressing that it will “look different in different cultures”, and the importance of adaptation to these differences by the teacher. He concludes by identifying further areas of potential interest for research (as he does throughout) and expressing “a hope that more emphasis on autonomous language learning results in empowering learners, not sacking teachers”.
Esch, E. (2009). Crash or clash? Autonomy 10 years on. In Pemberton, R., Toogood, S. & Barfield, A., (Eds.). Maintaining control: Autonomy and language learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
NB: A particularly useful element of this article is the inclusion of hyperlinks to the various tools discussed as well as a list of resources as an appendix.
My own reflections:
Immersed, as I currently am, in learner autonomy directed projects, both as a teacher and as a language learner (currently learning Italian) I have found it interesting to return to this article and re-read it, contrasting it with other articles and book chapters that I have read. He seems to present the influence of culture as a potential barrier to learner autonomy, though he does make up for this by identifying that learner autonomy “will look different in different cultures” and that teachers need to adapt to this, which is more in keeping with Smith (2003), who outlines a strong version of learner autonomy that doesn’t view learners as deficient, lacking certain behaviours associated with a ‘successful autonomous learner’ but rather focuses on helping them develop their own ways of being autonomous. I think this strong version of learner autonomy has a lot going for it.
Returning, to Godwin-Jones, I do appreciate the dedication of a section of the article to the teacher’s role within learner autonomy: I agree, based on my own (albeit limited) experience, that the teacher does play an important role in enabling autonomy. Learner autonomy does not only exist outside of the classroom: what happens in the classroom plays an important role in the promotion of it. Equally important, also discussed in this article, is the role of learners’ peers in development of autonomy.
Godwin-Jones makes a brief allusion to the importance of motivation in independent learning. In some ways it seems obvious that the two are linked. However, obvious though it may seem, it may still be very useful to consider theories of motivation (e.g. Dornyei, 2013) when considering how to scaffold the development of learner autonomy.
It was also interesting to read about the issues with distance learning, as I am currently doing a blended course so can empathise with the issues from a learner’s point of view.
All in all, it is a succinct article, freely available, offering a lot of ideas to experiment with.
Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Ed Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.