Theoretical Background to this Site

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This page is a literature review and discussion about Independent Language Learning theories and their application to the Internet, with reference to the CILL site.



Independent Language Learning
Independent Learning Philosophy
Cognitive Models
Independent Learning Skills for Life
Independent Language Learners
Ranges and Stages of Autonomy
Learner’s Goals and Needs
Learner Training, Development, Deconditioning and Orientation
Learners’ Attitude Towards Independent Learning
Learner Styles
Learning in Groups or Alone
Learner Culture
Learners’ Self-assessment of their Work
Motivational Aspects of Computers
Teachers and Independent Language Learning
The Role of Teachers in Independent Language Learning Centres
Teacher Support Groups
Computer Assisted Language Learning Theory
Criteria and Conditions for a Computer-supported Language
Learning Environment
CALL Tools for Independent Learning
Conclusions and Recommendations

List of Figures:

Figure 1. Sheerin’s (1997: 57) model of activities involved in independent learning.
Figure 2. Nunan’s (1997: 195) model ‘Autonomy: levels of implementation.’
Figure 3. A comparison of Sheerin’s (1997: 57) model of ‘Activities involved in independent learning’ (on the left) with her (1997: 59) ‘Attitudinal statements on independent learning’.

For feedback and comments about this page, contact the author: Andy Morrall.

1. Introduction

The Internet is such a new development that little has been written on it in the literature of Independent Language Learning. There is no existing survey linking the use of the Internet as a resource for language teaching and learning with the principles of Independent Language Learning. At present, Internet sites put on-line by independent, autonomous and self-access language learning centres vary considerably in the amount and type of information they provide for their various types of users. The usefulness of computer software, including the Internet, for promoting autonomous language learning is questioned by Benson & Voller (1997:10) when they say it is, "an example of a technology which claims to promote autonomy simply by offering the possibility of self-study. Such claims are dubious, however, because of the limited range of options and roles offered to the learner." It is hoped that the results of the evaluation of the CILL site will go some way towards refuting this assertion.

The applicability of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) to Computer-assisted Language Learning (CALL) is highlighted by Chapelle (1997: 19) in a paper tellingly entitled ‘CALL in the Year 2000: Still in Search of Research Paradigms?’. She suggests that, although previous CALL research has drawn heavily on research in other fields such as human-computer interaction and psychology, SLA theory should play a more prominent role in CALL research. This study examines Independent Language Learning research, a part of SLA theory, and its relationship to language learning on the Internet, a part of CALL. Chapelle concludes by highlighting the need for research and evaluation of CALL, saying that "With SLA research as a basis for investigation of CALL, the paradigm search of the next decade can be a quest for methods that complement our fundamental understanding of the language experience learners engage in through CALL activities." It is hoped that the evaluation by learners in this study complements our understanding of this small part of the above language learning experience.

In the light of Benson & Vollers’s criticism and Chapelle’s suggestion for further research, the aim of this investigation is to suggest a principled design for the Internet site of the Centre for Independent Language Learning (CILL) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU).

The need for this investigation was highlighted by the author’s realisation, when given the task of upgrading and maintaining the existing CILL Internet site, that there was a gap in the literature on independent language learning and CALL in this area.


2. Survey

The aim of this survey is two-fold, firstly to set the research question in the context of previous work in the field, and secondly to demonstrate the pedagogical background to individual elements of the CILL Internet site.

Specifically, the survey looks at previous work in the fields of independent language learning, the learner in independent language learning, the teacher in independent language learning, and how work on independent language learning relates to Computer-assisted Language Learning.

2.1 Independent Language Learning

This section looks at definitions of independent language learning, independent learning philosophy, cognitive models, and independent learning skills for life.

2.1.1 Definitions

Independent Learning is defined by Jeffries (1990) as:

"Learning in which an individual or group of learners study on their own, possibly for a part of parts of a course, without direct intervention from a tutor. This can involve learners in taking greater responsibility for what they learn, how they learn, and when they learn. It can also lead to learners being more involved in their own assessment. Independent learning is likely to be most effective when at least some support is available." (Jeffries: 1990)

Contrasting independent learning with other terms used to describe related ideas such as autonomous learning and self-directed learning can be problematic.

Pemberton (1997: 2 - 3), in the introduction to his book, discusses the wide range of terms used in the language field. Holec, he says, sees autonomy as, "an ability or a capacity that needs to be acquired" rather than a process, and self-directed learning as, "learning that may take place when autonomy is being or has been acquired". Dickinson , he says, disagrees, defining ‘self-direction’ as the potential, and ‘autonomy’ as the action of carrying out the responsibility for learning. Little, he says, disagrees with this definition of autonomy, saying that it is an ideal state, and as such rarely realised. Others, he says, point out the autonomy is not a "steady state" because it can vary with time and task.

The confusion about definitions has been addressed by Benson and Voller (1997: 13) who say:

Monolithic definitions of autonomy and independence have proved elusive, and it is perhaps more productive to speak of the different versions of the concepts which correspond to different perspectives and circumstances. Accepted means of implementing autonomy and independence through self-access and self-directed learning have also proved open to question, and again it may be more productive to think of a range of possibilities for implementation.

Therefore this study will utilise sources that refer to independence, autonomy and self-directed learning where they can inform the design and development of the CILL web site.

2.1.2 Independent Learning Philosophy

The philosophy of independent learning rose to prominence with new views of the role of education. Holec (1981: 1) describes a change since the 1960’s from a view of man as a ‘product of his society’ to man as a ‘producer of his society’, and the role of adult education as having the objectives of equal opportunities, responsible autonomy, personal fulfilment and the democratisation of education. He defines autonomy as "the ability to take charge of one’s own learning." Holec (1981 :3)

The CILL Internet site aims to give learners this ability at different levels, for example by explaining the advantages of independent learning , or by providing them with tools to make them less reliant on a teacher, for example e-mail and text conferencing for communication with native speakers of the language they are learning, so that they are not reliant on the teacher as their only source of authentic second-language (L2) communication.

Thus the learner can become a ‘producer of his society’ by becoming part of and contributing to the society that is formed by users of the Internet.

Sheerin (1997: 56) describes a general belief among educators (e.g. Nunan: 1997, Pemberton et al.: 1997, Littlewood: 1981, Ur: 1988 ) that "learning is more effective when learners are active in the learning process, assuming responsibility for their learning and participating in the decisions that affect it."

One of the aims of the CILL Internet site is to promote these ideals for example by helping learners become more active in the learning process through their participation in syllabus design to evaluation process. Learners can use the advice on planning their work, the learner pathways, the lists of materials for common learner needs, on-line learning materials, and the information on self-assessment of their work.

Learners are encouraged to assume responsibility for their own learning by taking part in the above process, and also by being responsible for the frequency, duration and pace of their studies. The CILL Internet site is on-line and available to learners 24 hours a day.

Learners can participate in the decisions that affect their learning both by making decisions about how and what to study by themselves, and by communicating with CILL staff by e-mail for advice and about resources. CILL has an e-mail address, , and an advice service for learners, in which a CILL tutor will reply to learner enquiries with 48 hours.

2.1.3 Cognitive Models

Cognitive views of learning and philosophical views of independent language learning can be linked to each other and inform the design of the CILL Internet site as they can form a theoretical basis for autonomous language learning on the Internet.

Cognitive models of human learning can be related to the navigation system of the Internet and this relationship can be utilised in independent language learning. The hyperlink navigational system of the Internet takes advantage of the cognitive processes of connection, accretion, articulation and solidification described by Eklund (1995). Briefly, in ‘connection’ weak cognitive links are created between new and old knowledge. This is an introductory stage, and can be seen in links to new information that give a brief description of the information that can be found by following the link. In ‘accretion’ the knowledge is expanded and many new links are created. This is the input of new material, and happens on the CILL site when a user accesses new materials. In ‘articulation’ many links are strengthened while some are deleted. On the CILL site this might happen, for example as a user decides which learning strategies to use for a task, and which to ignore. The final stage is ‘solidification’, when links are strengthened. On the CILL site this may happen as users re-visit this information on learning strategies and put the strategies into practice.

These mental links are reflected in the hyperlinks used for navigation on the Internet, which allow learners to investigate a topic in a depth that gives the learner "the freedom to exercise judgement about what is to be learned and at what pace" Eklund (1995). The four stages are reflected in the information about how to learn English on the Internet. Eklund also suggests a list of Frequently-asked Questions (a FAQ) and the four-stage learning process is reflected in the learner pathways.

Benson (1997: 22 - 24) loosely links different approaches to language learning to various versions of learner autonomy, and some features of the CILL site reflect these links.

He links positivist approaches to language learning to technical versions of learner autonomy. Positivism suggests that learning may happen in two situations. Firstly it may be the transmission of knowledge from one individual to another. This may be a face-to-face interaction, or one that is computer-mediated. Secondly, it may be the discovery of new knowledge by hypothesis testing. This may also occur on the Internet, for example the CILL Internet site has links to help the students ‘meet’ e-mail pen-pals. The hypothesis testing takes place when these pen-pals engage in authentic communication and test whether the English they have produced is understood by their interlocutor.

Technical versions of autonomy mainly seek to prepare the learner for learning after their formal education has finished. The CILL Internet site prepares the learners by equipping learners with such technical skills, for example by giving information on learner strategies and learner training. An example of the positivist / technical link is that learners can be trained to formulate hypotheses about English, and then test them. For example learners can formulate a hypothesis about the standard greetings and signing off formalities are done in e-mail messages, and then test them by communicating with their e-mail pen-pals. They could also formulate a hypothesis about grammar, and then test it by searching through an Internet grammar source or by using the Internet’s search engines as concordancers. Hypotheses can also be tested less autonomously by e-mailing a tutor.

Benson also links constructivist approaches to language learning with psychological versions of autonomy. In constructivist theory "each learner constructs his or her own version of the target language." The CILL Internet site encourages the development of learners idiolect and the development of the learner’s interlanguage through access to on-line input materials and access to opportunities to practise the skills and knowledge learned through authentic communication, for example through on-line discussions in which interaction and the negotiation of meaning are emphasised.

Benson describes psychological versions of autonomy as emphasising the learner’s personality, attitudes and behaviour, which allow the learner to take control of his or her own learning. The CILL Internet site allows learners to investigate their own personalities by analysing their learning styles, to analyse and perhaps modify their attitudes towards learning without a teacher, and to modify their behaviour by learning the behaviour of a more independent language learner (see below).

Finally, Benson links political versions of learner autonomy with critical philosophies of learning. He suggests that political versions of learner autonomy suggest that learners should have control over both their own learning and the institutional context of that learning. He hypothesises that as the degree of a learner’s autonomy grows, he or she becomes more critically aware of the social context of learning the target language. Thus a learner may become more aware of the social choices that can be made, for example which variety of English he or she wishes to learn. The Internet provides access to different varieties of English, for example, British, American, and Australian varieties. The CILL Internet site provides links to both British English and American English dictionaries, even though the institutional context of HKPU is that its official variety of English is British English.

Versions of autonomy with a political aspect sometimes also raise the issue of whether autonomy / independence is a Western ideal (Farmer & Sweeney 1994, Naoko 1995, Benson 1995, Esch 1996, Tang 1996) and whether it is cultural imperialism to force it on learners from more collectivist societies. This is discussed in the Frequently-asked Questions (FAQ) section of the CILL Internet site and below in the section on learners.

2.1.4 Independent Learning Skills for Life

In an early booklet by Cornwell and Cronk (1979) on independent learning in higher education, the authors argue that "if higher education has only a single aim then surely it would be to create independent learners." "We in education must ensure that the ability to learn in an autonomous and self-directed way should now be an essential component in the vocational survival kit of all our graduates." Cornwell and Cronk (1979: 1). The CILL Internet site aims to facilitate the vocational survival of HKPU graduates in three ways. Firstly, by providing explanations of the usefulness of independent learning skills, secondly by giving learners the opportunity to develop those skills, and thirdly by providing useful tools for exercising those skills;e.g. links to on-line dictionaries. Even after the learners graduate they can still access the CILL site and use its facilities, so the training and facilities can be used throughout the learners' postgraduate careers, which is not the case with self-access centres and libraries, which are normally only available to students while they are enrolled at an institution.

2.2 Independent Language Learners

This section, on independent language learning theories about independent language learners, addresses the ranges and stages of autonomy; learner’s goals and needs; learner training development, deconditioning and orientation; learners’ attitude towards independent language learning; learner styles; learning in groups or alone, learner culture; learners’ self-assessment of their work and the motivational aspects of computers.

2.2.1 Ranges and Stages of Autonomy

There is general agreement in the literature that learners may be at different stages of becoming independent or autonomous learners ( Farmer & Sweeney: 1994; Sheerin: 1997; Nunan: 1997). In their paper on self-access in the Hong Kong context, Farmer & Sweeney (1994: 139) say that, "autonomy is not an absolute but a relative term, and the degree of autonomy may vary from one context to another". There is also an educational environment context, and Farmer & Sweeney(1994: 138) highlight the cultural aspect that among Hong Kong students there is a perception that, "no teacher equals no learning." which may pre-dispose Hong Kong learners to a low level of independence. The CILL Internet site tries to modify this perception among its users by explaining about independent learning.

This range in degrees of autonomy is analysed by Sheerin (1997: 57), who gives a model of activities involved in independent learning that illustrates the range of factors from dependence to independence (see Figure 1).





¬ Analyse one’s own strengths / weaknesses, language needs ®




¬ Set achievable targets and overall objectives ®




¬ Plan a programme of work to achieve the objectives set ®




¬ Exercise choice, select materials and activities ®




¬ Work without supervision ®




¬ Evaluate one’s progress ®








¬ Analyse one’s own strengths / weaknesses, language needs ®




¬ Set achievable targets and overall objectives ®




¬ Plan a programme of work to achieve the objectives set ®




¬ Exercise choice, select materials and activities ®




¬ Work without supervision ®




¬ Evaluate one’s progress ®


Figure 1: Sheerin’s (1997: 57) model of activities involved in independent learning.

The CILL Internet site helps the learners to develop the disposition and ability to do all these activities in the following ways.

It allows learners to analyse their own strengths / weaknesses and language needs by providing an explanation and a framework for them to analyse these, and by providing links to various test sites, and authentic communication situations such as e-mail pen pals, so that learners can test their language abilities.

The CILL Internet site helps the learners to set achievable targets and overall objectives by giving an explanation of the planning process, and providing learning pathways.

It helps the learners to plan a programme of work to achieve the objectives set through access to lists of materials in CILL useful for common learner requests such as report writing, by providing learning pathways, and by providing a copy of a page from the CILL learner diary which takes learners through a planning to evaluation process for one learning session.

Learners are encouraged to exercise choice, and select materials and activities from the links, pathways and materials lists by the multitude of choices of materials they can choose. Criteria for these choices are explained in the explanation of the planning process.

Work without supervision is encouraged , but the site provides e-mail connections to advice from tutors because it is recognised that there is a range to the degree of learners’ autonomy.

Self-evaluation of learners’ progress is explained and aided by the page from the CILL learner diary, but for less independent learners e-mail advice and tutor evaluation is available.

Farmer and Sweeney (1994: 139) also see autonomy as a developmental process involving learner training, "helping students to develop the confidence and motivation to believe that they can use these materials more independently, and that they can learn without a teacher." The CILL Internet site also shows learners how to use materials independently, for example with an example book chapter and details of how to use it.

David Nunan (1997: 195) sets out a scheme proposing five levels for encouraging learner autonomy in relationship to use of learning materials (see Figure 2 below).


Learner Action





Learners are made aware of the pedagogical goals and content of the materials they are using. Learners identify strategy implications of pedagogical tasks and identify their own preferred learning styles / strategies.



Learners are involved in selecting their own goals from a range of alternatives on offer. Learners make choices among a range of options.



Learners are involved in modifying and adapting the goals and content of the learning program. Learners modify / adapt tasks.



Learners create their own goals and objectives. Learners create their own tasks.



Learners go beyond the classroom and make links between the content of classroom learning and the world beyond. Learners become teachers and researchers.

Figure 2. Nunan’s (1997: 195) model ‘Autonomy: levels of implementation.’

The CILL Internet site puts this range of independence into practice in the following ways.

In Nunan’s Level One: ‘Awareness’, learners are made aware of the pedagogical goals and content of the materials they are using. The CILL site has details with each link that explain the pedagogical goals that can be fulfilled by accessing that link, and what type of materials they will encounter.

The process whereby learners identify strategy implications of pedagogical tasks and identify their own preferred learning styles / strategies is facilitated by the sections on planning and learning styles and strategies.

In Level Two: ‘Involvement’, where learners are involved in selecting their own goals from a range of alternatives on offer, the site offers some example goals in its section explaining a page from the Learner Diary.

In Level Three: ‘Intervention’, learners are involved in modifying and adapting the goals and content of the learning program. The planning of learners’ work is an on-going process of modification and adaptation in the light of previous work as learners move through the process from planning to evaluation, and as the results of the evaluation feed back into planning further work. As Holec (1980: 33) says, "The learner does not define his needs a priori, but works them out empirically as he goes along." This can be seen in the self-assessment sections of the learner pathways.

In Level Four: ‘Creation’, learners create their own goals and objectives. They graduate from use or reliance on the learner pathways to being able to create their own goals and objectives. This is explained in the sections on planning. To this description might be added the capability suggested by Holec (1980: 32) that learners may find that they wish to omit suggested materials on the grounds that, "The knowledge to be acquired is defined by the learner (or group of learners) on the basis of his (or their) communicative aims alone, without reference to the complete range of competence of a native speaker."

In the last level, ‘Transcendence’, learners go beyond the classroom and make links between the content of classroom learning and the world beyond. The nature of the Internet is that it is part of the world beyond as well as sometimes being part of a classroom. Learners can use it to communicate authentically with people in the world beyond, for example by using text conferencing or by taking part in on-line discussions. Therefore, this property of the fifth level of Nunan’s typology is available to learners at all levels when they access the CILL Internet site.

2.2.2 Learner’s Goals and Needs

A learner’s goals in self-directed learning may be very different from that in a non-self-directed context such as a teacher-led class. They may also be different from goals set out in Nunan’s levels above, in that learners may not have the communicative need and therefore goal of reaching Level Five to "become teachers and researchers."

Holec (1980: 32-4) discusses learner needs, saying that in self-directed learning the learner has the choice of knowledge to be acquired, the level of competence aimed for, and the times, places, methodologies and learning techniques used. This is also true of learners using the CILL Internet site, as they can choose what knowledge they wish to acquire, from any material on the Internet if they desire and if they use the search engines provided. They can choose the level of competence they are aiming for by testing their competence in communicative situations such as e-mail, discussions and conferencing to see if it is adequate to their needs. They can choose the time they wish to study as the site is on-line all day. They can, within the limit of access to the Internet, choose the place in which they wish to study. They can choose the methodology and learning techniques they wish to use from either their experience of education or from the advice for students on planning their work.

2.2.3 Learner Training, Development, Deconditioning and Orientation

For the purposes of this study ‘orientation’ is defined as the process of familiarising learners with the facilities available in a self-access or independent learning centre; following Sheerin’s (1997: 60) distinction learner training is the development of learner’s procedural skills; e.g. keeping a learner diary and developing learner’s learning strategies; and learner development as the process of guiding the learner in the discovery of the principles of independent, autonomous, or self-directed learning. Deconditioning is seen as a part of the learner training process.

There is general agreement in the literature that learners need instruction about independent or autonomous learning (Holec 1980 & 1981; Brindley 1989; Miller: 1992; Benson & Voller 1997; Ryan 1997; Sheerin 1997; Sturtridge 1997). As Miller (1992: 43) points out about Self-access Centres (SACs), "Establishing a SAC does not automatically create independent learners." Learners need to know what is available in a self-access centre through orientation, and how to use the facilities through learner training and development.

The CILL Internet site provides orientation by an interactive map of the centre. Learners can click on active parts of this map to find out what is available and how to use it. For example they can click on a shelf of books to find out the titles available. The orientation blends into learner training as learners can access information about how to use those books to study. For less visually-oriented learners there is a list of available resources on the site’s page of contents.

As well as orientation to CILL students may need orientation to learner training on the Internet. As Mills (1996: 2) says about the World-wide Web (WWW), "the WWW is not a place to turn learners loose the first time without some orientation and guidance." CILL has workshops on "How to Use the Internet to Improve your English", there are explanations of what the links lead to so that learners can make informed choices of what links to follow, and there is a beginners’ guide to how to navigate around the Internet.

The need for deconditioning is highlighted by Holec (1981: 22), who says that autonomy has to be acquired, both by acquiring the "know-how" from learner training, and by a deconditioning process that moves him away from prejudices about his role in learning languages. These include, firstly, "to free himself from the notion that there is one ideal method", and secondly, "that teachers possess that method" which the CILL Internet site encourages by its information on learner styles and strategies. Thirdly the learner should be deconditioned from the idea "that his mother tongue is of no use to him for learning a second language", an idea which the CILL site discourages by, for example, information on reading skills suggesting prediction from first language accounts of the same story, and by providing bilingual dictionaries. Fourthly Holec recommends that the learner should get rid of the idea "that his experience as a learner of other subjects, other know-how, cannot be transferred, even partially", which the CILL site encourages by suggesting that learners keep records in their diaries of study strategies, including strategies that they already use. Fifthly he recommends that the learner break away from the idea that he is "incapable of making any valid assessment of his performance", which the CILL site manifests in its information on self-assessment.

Sturtridge (1997: 67) summarises the research on learner training by concluding that, "We now accept that few learners learn well by themselves without language awareness and learning awareness development programmes." In her analysis of the factors that lead to the failure of self-access centres she says that the worst kind of training consists purely of orientation, but "a successful centre will attempt to make learner development an ongoing cycle of action and reflection and to offer a development program that keeps pace with the learners as they work." (1997: 71).

The CILL Internet site encourages this cycle of action and reflection in the organisation of the learner diary page, and offers a development program in the ways described above in relation to Nunan’s model of ‘Autonomy: levels of implementation.’

The importance of learner development is emphasised by Benson & Voller (1997: 9) when they suggest that, "it appears that learners who are forced into self-instructional modes of learning without adequate support will tend to rely all the more on the directive elements of the materials that they use." Firstly CILL learners are not ‘forced’ into self-instructional modes of learning as use of the centre and its Internet site are voluntary, and secondly support is provided by a range of resources from the on-line materials about independent language learning to e-mail access to a tutor.

Ryan (1997: 218) combines the theory behind the learner training and development when he describes a course he taught in Japan which provides a model for structuring learner training. His three-part system consists firstly of a "consciousness-raising discussion of available resources" for independent study. The CILL Internet site provides this by describing how to use various resources such as on-line newspapers, and providing access to discussion forums.

The second part of Ryan’s system is to "present and practise techniques to exploit resources". This happens in CILL workshops, and the presentation happens in on-line in resources such as the Bangkok Post’s ‘Tips on Reading the Bangkok Post’, which is designed for non-native speaker learners, although, of course the practice has to be done by the learners themselves.

The final part of Ryan’s system is an "introduction to the theoretical constructs of language acquisition underlying the selection of resources and techniques." This stage is for learner development. It is the final section, when learners have already put the theories into practice, and hopefully seen that they work, rather than the first stage, when the learners might have difficulty understanding the theory because of their lack of experience to base it on. An example is the use of prediction for receptive skills. Learners can guess that English-language newspapers are a resource for developing reading skills. Then they could be presented with and practise the materials from the Bangkok Post. Finally they would have this experience to use as a basis for expanding the use of prediction from newspaper reading to other genres, and then to the other receptive skill, listening, for example while watching TV.

Learner training based on the learner strategies identified in Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991: 201-3) is also available on the CILL Internet site.

2.2.4 Learners’ Attitude towards Independent Learning

Sheerin (1997: 59) links her model of activities involved in independent learning (see Figure 1 above) with a suggestion for a framework for learners’ analysis of their disposition towards independent learning (see Figure 3 below).





  Put a tick beside which statement you agree most with, the one on the left (a), or the one on the right (b):




<- Analyse one’s own strengths / weaknesses, language needs ->



  (a) I think it’s the teacher’s job to correct all my mistakes. (b) It’s good for me to find out my own mistakes whenever possible.




<- Set achievable targets and overall objectives ->



  (a) I want my teacher to tell me what to do to learn better English. (b) I want to find out for myself what I have to do to learn better English.




<- Plan a programme of work to achieve the objectives set  ->



  (a) My teacher should tell me what exercises to (b) I want to choose for myself what exercises to



<- Exercise choice, select materials and activities ->


  do and what books to read, etc. do and what books to read, etc.




<- Work without supervision ->




  I don’t think it’s useful to do speaking activities in pairs or groups if the teacher isn’t listening to my group all the time. I think speaking activities in pairs or groups are useful, even when the teacher isn’t listening to my group.


<- Evaluate one’s progress  ->

    The teacher should give us lots of tests and show us how well we have learned. Tests can’t tell you everything. You know yourself if you’ve been learning well.

Figure 3. A comparison of Sheerin’s (1997: 57) model of ‘Activities involved in independent learning’ (on the left) with her (1997: 59) ‘Attitudinal statements on independent learning’.

2.2.5 Learner Styles

The first and second points that Holec (1981: 22) makes on deconditioning; that a learner needs "to free himself from the notion that there is one ideal method", and, "that teachers possess that method" also highlight a need for the learners to be aware of how they prefer to learn, ie. their learner style.

Miller (1992: Appendix 10b) provides an example scored activity on paper for learners to analyse their learning style as either analytic, relaxed, or a mixture. He then provides feedback on the learner’s score, with advice about modifying the style if it is extreme.

Ellis & Sinclair (1989: 6 - 9) have a learner self-administered diagnostic test that is recommended on the CILL pages.

2.2.6 Learning in Groups or Alone

When using the Internet learners may assume that it is normal to work alone. This impression might be reinforced by the idea of ‘independent’ language learning. However, language learning is about learning to communicate with others. Little (1996: 203) puts this in theoretical perspective when he says, "that autonomy (as the freedom to learn) combines with dependence (as biological imperative to interact) to generate communicative processes". Thus working alone might not be the best way to learn autonomously, and also may not suit the learners’ style or preferred strategies. It may also not be conducive to deep learning according to Tang (1996: 196). Benson (1995: 9) highlights the importance of collaboration when he says that, "Whether technologies in self-access inhibit or promote autonomy may therefore be, in part, a question of whether they are used collaboratively or not."

Therefore the CILL site contains information on learning strategies that explain the advantages of working in groups in some situations. Even though the learners may be sitting at different computers in different locations, they can still work in groups by using the CILL site’s conferencing facilities. The advantages of group work must, however, be qualified, and thus also explained are disadvantages of working in groups, such as the example given by Egbert (1996: 17) when members of a group use the principle of division of labour to do sub-tasks, and a group member only becomes proficient in those sub-tasks, not in the whole task.

2.2.7 Learner Culture

As mentioned above, independence and autonomy are sometimes seen in political versions of autonomy as Western ideals that may not be appropriate for the Hong Kong Chinese context. However, there are strong arguments against this, based on sayings of ancient and modern Chinese scholars. Pierson (1996: 49) quotes Chu Hsi (1130 - 1200 A.D.), who states, "If you are in doubt, think it out for yourself. Do not depend on others for explanations. Suppose there was no-one you could ask, should you stop learning? If you could get rid of the habit of being dependent on others, you will make your advancement in your study." He also quotes the President of Shanghai University and a report of the State-Administered Examinations for Self-Learners in China supporting independent learning. The section on Frequently-asked Questions of the CILL Internet site seeks to persuade its users that independent learning is applicable in the East, even though the present movement originated in Western education systems (Holec 1981: 1).

Gardner and Miller (1997) surveyed 541 self-access centre users in Hong Kong. Their results "indicated clearly that they believed Chinese learners had no difficulty with self-access learning and that it was an effective methodology for Chinese learners." (Gardner & Miller 1997: 44) For details, see the table below.

Table 2.1: Users’ Perceptions of the Appropriateness of Self-access language Learning for Chinese Learners (Gardner & Miller 1997: 44)



Strongly Agree



Strongly Disagree

Don’t Know


Chinese learners find self-access learning easy







Chinese learners see self-access as a Western method of education







Self-access is an effective method of learning for Chinese students







Chinese students like self-access learning






Gardner and Miller point out that the high proportion (over 20%) of "Don’t Know" answers in Questions C26 and C29 make these results unreliable. The 20% figure is also nearly reached in Question C28. This high percentage may be because these questions are asking the students to comment on the opinions of all Chinese students, which students will not know, rather than asking for individual opinions. However, the high percentage of students agreeing or strongly agreeing to Question C28 suggests that self-access language learning may be appropriate for the Hong Kong Chinese context.

2.2.8 Learners’ Self-assessment of their Work

The ability to take charge of one’s learning includes the ability to assess that learning, both to evaluate it’s effectiveness, and as a guide to further study. As Holec (1980: 33) says, "The learner does not define his needs a priori, but works them out empirically as he goes along."

The effectiveness of self-assessment is detailed by Nunan (1996: 21), who states that, "Autonomy is enhanced when learners are encouraged to self-monitor and self-assess."

Brindley (1989: 60) says that self-assessment has five purposes. Firstly, learners have greater responsibility for assessment of their proficiency and progress; secondly it lets them diagnose their strong and weak areas; thirdly it lets them compare their present level with the level they wish to obtain; fourthly it helps them become more motivated; and lastly it helps them to develop their own criteria for monitoring their progress.

However, Brindley (1989: 61) also points out that there are objections to self-assessment. "The idea that learners can be reliable judges of their own performance is by no means universally accepted." Therefore self-assessment is a skill, that has to be learned. Brindley (1989: 83) divides this learning into technical training, and psychological training. Technical training is to help the students judge their own performance, and consists of self-monitoring of language use, development of criteria, definition of objectives, and knowledge about language learning. The CILL Internet site discusses these in its section on self-assessment, and in the section on the learner diary. The psychological training involves changing the learner’s view of his role in the language learning process to one where they see assessment as the responsibility of the learner .

There is evidence that self-assessment in independent learning may work in the Hong Kong context, where it is a rare feature of the education system, and learners are therefore probably unfamiliar with it. The subjects of a study by Thomson (1996: 77 - 92) in Australia, in which 35 out of 98 learners were Chinese, and the majority of these were from Hong Kong, showed that the overall rating of attitude to the self-assessment project for these Chinese students was 3.0 out of 4, where 4 was the highest approval rating. However, Thomson (1996: 85) does mention that there are problems to overcome. The problems from her study were students conditioning by traditional school culture which did not promote student responsibility in assessment, the idea that assessment was the responsibility of the teacher, a desire for a high level of support and guidance from the teacher in self-assessment, few or inappropriate strategies for self-assessment, and lack of self-esteem, especially among female Chinese students in overall rating rather than criterion-referenced assessment.

2.2.9 Motivational Aspects of Computers

Pierson (1996: 58) suggests that "technology is a motivating accessory to autonomous learning". Levy (1997: 144) surveyed 100 ‘key practitioners’ of CALL, asking them for reasons for CALL being a valuable resource, and 26 replied that it is "motivating or enjoyable". Eighteen included autonomous learning, self-access or self-study use in their answers.

2.3 Teachers and Independent Language Learning

Independent Language Learning does not necessarily mean teacher-less learning. The teacher is a language learning resource for learners, and for many learners may be the preferred resource. Farmer and Sweeney (1994: 138) say that 84% of surveyed second-year students at HKPU perceive the need for some teacher guidance in a self-access context. Thus the availability of a teaching professional, whether he or she is called a ‘teacher’, ‘facilitator’, ‘counsellor’ or ‘tutor’, is important for users of the CILL Internet site, and is available by e-mail. However, the CILL site tries to answer many of the questions learners may have about CILL and Independent Language Learning in the list of Frequently-asked Questions and in the pages on learner training. This section looks at the role of teachers in independent language learning and how this can be applied to the CILL Internet site. It also looks at another benefit of independent language learning centres having Internet sites, which is the support independent language learning specialists get from them.

2.3.1 The Role of Teachers in Independent Language Learning Centres

Pierson (1996: 58) says it is a paradox that "the teacher, and only the teacher, leads the learner to freedom and autonomy." Holec (1981: 25 - 26) says that the most prevalent teaching situation "will be that of learners who are not yet autonomous but are involved in the process of acquiring the ability to assume responsibility for their learning." He sets out three types of information that the independent language teachers should provide for students. Firstly, information on various language competences used in authentic English communication to help the students set their objectives and evaluate their progress. Secondly, information on how to learn languages to help the students with their learning strategies. Thirdly, information on resources that students can use in their learning, such as CILL’s learning pathways.

2.3.2 Teacher Support Groups

Parker (1994: 4) comments on the isolation felt by teachers of specialisms, and one example of such a specialism could be independent language learning. Independent language learning specialists are few in number compared to classroom specialists, and are geographically widely spread out. Independent Language Learning Internet sites allow such specialists to keep in touch by providing e-mail and list addresses and disseminating new ideas such as the inter-university Virtual Language Learning Centre.

2.4 Computer Assisted Language Learning Theory

Little (1996: 203) sets out the reasons for using information systems such as an Internet site for promoting autonomy in language learning when he argues:

"that information systems and information technologies can promote the development of learner autonomy to the extent that they can stimulate, mediate, and extend the range and scope of the social and psychological interaction on which all learning depends."

Little (1996: 203)

The aims of this section is to show how CALL theory can inform the design and development of the CILL site. Theoretical considerations are discussed in the first section about criteria and conditions for a computer-supported language learning environment and practical implications are discussed in the second section on CALL tools for independent learning.

2.4.1 Criteria and Conditions for a Computer-supported Language Learning Environment

Esch (1996) and Egbert (1996) both put forward frameworks for criteria and conditions for a computer-supported language learning environment, but with different focuses.

Esch (1996:35) raises the issue of whether technology promotes autonomy, or whether it replaces teacher control with " the slavery or control exercised over learners by technological means." She puts forward the view that if technology of any type can help the development of autonomous learners, it should be used to the full. She then sets out five criteria for evaluating whether technology creates a supportive environment for learner autonomy. The CILL site fulfils all these criteria, as shown below.

Esch’s first criterion is "Choice, or the provision of genuine alternatives." (1996: 39)

Examples of choices she gives are, firstly that learners can choose to work alone, with help or in classes. CILL site users can work alone, with the help of other users or a tutor by e-mail or conferencing, or in ‘virtual classes’ with both other users and a tutor conferencing together. Secondly, that learners decide when and how often to come, which is true of the CILL site. Thirdly that learners can come on their own or with a friend, which is true in two ways with the CILL site, as they can work with a friend beside them at their computer, or with a friend using another computer in another place. Fourthly, that they can choose which language to study, which is true of the CILL site because it has links for the four languages taught by HKPU’s English Department: English, French, German and Japanese. Fifthly, Esch says that learners should be able to choose which medium to use. The CILL site is on one medium, computers, but tells its learners how to use other mediums such as film, books and newspapers. Choice Six is the choice whether to use authentic or exercise-for-language-learning-type materials. Links to both types, and explanations of why and how to use them are on the site. The seventh choice is what activities to carry out. CILL site users do not have to follow any path through the materials suggested on the site. Finally, Esch suggests that learners should be given a choice of formal or informal; summative or formative evaluation. CILL site users can opt for formal assessment, for example by e-mailing a piece of written work to a tutor for assessment, although it is CILL policy that marked assignments for any HKPU course will not be proof-read by CILL tutors. They can ask for informal assessment, for example by recording their pronunciation and e-mailing it as an attached file to a tutor for assessment. For formative assessment users can, for example, identify their prior learning in the introductory sections of materials, identify areas of weakness through diagnostic activities such as grammar tests; failures in communication with other Internet users on e-mail; or get constructive feedback from CILL tutors on their e-mail writing. For summative assessment that measures and records learner’s attainment users can take a test such as re-taking a grammar test in an area that they had been weak in, or by submitting a piece of written work to a tutor for assessment after they have studied a genre or skill.

Esch’s second criterion is flexibility, which she defines as the possibility of self-repair and changing of options. Users of the CILL site can, at any time, choose to stop doing an activity and change to another or quit.

Her third criterion is adaptability/modifiability. By adaptability she means the ability of the system; e.g. in its categorisation of materials, to be accessible to learners with varying needs. The hyperlinking system of the Internet facilitates this by allowing links from multiple places to point to the same resource. By modifiability Esch means the possibility of learners modifying existing materials. CILL site users can indirectly modify materials and the site itself by e-mailing webmasters about changes or additions they would like to make.

The fourth criterion she suggests is reflectivity/negotiability. She gives three examples of this. They are: a learning advisory service, learner-training courses and a help desk. The second is on the CILL site (see Appendix 13), although it is not in the form of a course, but as advice. The first and third are available by e-mailing a tutor.

Esch’s final criterion is shareability, which she defines as the ability to share activities and problems with others. She gives the example of The Chinese University’s ‘electronic pen friends’ as a way of doing this. The CILL site also gives its users the opportunity to make such pen-pals.

Egbert (1996: 3-4) also has some conditions for an ideal computer-supported language learning environment. She suggests four conditions for an ideal language learning environment that the CILL Internet site attempts to provide.

Firstly, she says that condition one should be, "Opportunities for learners to interact and negotiate meaning with an authentic audience." The CILL site provides these through opportunities to interact with e-mail pen-pals and discussion lists such as The Digital Education Network's On-Line Forums on the Internet.

The second condition is that learners should be, "involved in authentic tasks which promote exposure to and production of varied and creative language." The CILL site addresses this need in two ways. The first is by providing learners with opportunities for communication as detailed in the previous paragraph, and the second is by providing learners with tools for carrying out other authentic tasks such as academic writing for their university courses. For example there are links to dictionaries, grammar and pronunciation resources to help the learners with the production of language.

The final condition is "An atmosphere with ideal stress/anxiety level in a learner centred classroom." Although the CILL Internet site need not be accessed from a classroom, it could be regarded as a ‘virtual classroom’ in that there are opportunities for interaction with classmates and a various teachers using text conferencing and e-mail, there are resources for studying such as dictionaries and grammar resources, and resources for studying such as on-line lessons. It could be argued that a ‘virtual classroom’ has a lower stress/anxiety level than a real classroom because, as Levy (1997: 205) points out, the learner chooses when and how to interact, which may give the learner more control over the conditions that give rise to communicative stress.

2.4.2 CALL Tools for Independent Learning

Milton (1997: 246) describes the development of writing tools available for learners at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (UST). His premise is "that it is technically and pedagogically more effective to provide learners with writing tools than to present them with a computer program that models a human tutor." His tools are e-mail for ‘higher order’ writing skills; concordancers to use to see how expressions and structures are used in authentic situations; and on-line language resources such as dictionaries and thesauri. All these, and instructions on how to use them, are available from the CILL site (see Appendices 2, 15, & 16).

UST has a program integrated into the students’ word-processing program that includes five features, four of which are also available, although in a simpler form, from the CILL site. The other is not technically possible in HTML ( the Hyper-text Markup Language of the WWW).

Firstly there are style templates for various formats. The CILL site has a style template for report writing.

Secondly there are idea generation tools. The CILL site has both a mind-map template and details of the ‘journalistic questioning’ technique.

Thirdly, there are tools to help users organise text. This is integrated into the CILL site’s mind-map template, and there is also a tool for re-organising lists.

Finally there are referencing tools such as concordancers, dictionaries and grammar resources.


3. Findings

Four students were interviewed as part of a different investigation, and were asked whether they had used the CILL site. Two said that they had not, one could not tell the difference between the CILL site and the Internet as a whole, and the fourth did not find the site useful, although she only seems to have accessed one page:

Researcher: No. OK. Have you used the CILL Internet pages like this one with the yellow border and the white here?

Interviewee: See a little.

Researcher: Have you done the reading, writing, listening, speaking, or what did you do?

Interviewee: At that time I need to present and I found the speaking, speaking.

Researcher: OK. And was it useful?

Interviewee: It's not very useful because I don't know where the material I can find.

The interviews revealed a lack of use the learner training opportunities provided in CILL. For example, three out of four interviewees had never used the books from the Study Skills shelf and had never been to a workshop.


4. Discussion

The low number of recorded ‘hits’ on the CILL site (about 300 by the end of the first writing of this page) may have been due to the positioning of the hit counter. This was not put on the default home page because this page used to be accessed as the startup page when any student in CILL wishes to use any part of the Internet. Therefore the hit counter was put on a page which is exactly the same as the home page, but which was only accessed when a student returns to the home page after accessing other pages on the CILL site. This happened much less frequently than hits to the startup page, and users do not have to go back to the home page to browse around the site. Therefore the hit counter was not an accurate measure of the number of hits on the site. A better place for the counter has since been found. Now the default page accessed by the computers in CILL is called 'default.aspx', and there is no hit counter on it. The page that outsiders come to and CILL students come to if they press the 'Home' button on the site is called 'default.aspx' and this is where the hit counter is.

The low level of use of the learner training and development opportunities provided by the CILL pages could be for one of three reasons.

Firstly, it could be due to the students overall satisfaction with their perceived independent language learning abilities, a satisfaction found as the result of a different research project. Thus students might feel they have no need to access the learner training and development opportunities provided on the CILL site.

Secondly, CILL students might not know of the existence of these learner training opportunities, perhaps because they rarely use the CILL Internet site as a whole, perhaps because some students do not use the Internet, and perhaps because the site is not mentioned in the orientation students receive when they first come to CILL.

Thirdly, when asked what type of learner training they would like in CILL, the students tended to pick learner training rather than learner development options, for example, how to use the computers to learn English, and how to book a room.

A different pilot study of supporting the Communication Studies for Year One Computing students service English E.A.P. course by providing a series of web pages has proved popular with the students.


5. Conclusions and Recommendations

Mention of the CILL Internet site and its learner training and development opportunities should be included in the orientation procedure to avoid depriving the students of these opportunities.


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Last updated on: Thursday, May 30, 2013