A new member of the family: The Sojo International Learning Center

Jon Rowberry, Sojo University, Kumamoto, Japan

Rowberry, J. (2010). A new members of the family: The Sojo International Learning Centre. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 1(1), 59-64.

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A new member of the family: The Sojo International Learning Center

The Sojo International Learning Centre (SILC) is a new facility which has been developed jointly by Sojo University and the External Language Consultancy Centre (ELCC) based at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS).  This report aims to explain the rationale for the SILC project and to briefly outline the services offered by the centre before going on to describe some of the practical challenges that were encountered in getting the SILC up and running.

The SILC Project

Sojo University is a private university in Kumamoto city with a focus on Engineering, Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Sciences. In 2009 a partnership was established between the university and the External Language Consultancy Centre at KUIS to deliver an English proficiency programme, initially targeting first year students, as well as a self-access learning centre (SALC) for the use of the entire university community. The Sojo International Learning Centre (SILC) formally opened in March of this year in time to deliver the first year English requirement to students from all five faculties.

The SILC is housed in a three-floor building which has been completely refurbished to facilitate six teaching rooms, the SALC, the SILC cafe and all staff offices. The building has been designed with a focus on comfort and usability so as to make it as accessible as possible. In order to ensure that SILC users have an opportunity to actively develop their language skills through communication, the second and third floors of the SILC operate an ‘English-only’ policy. However, Japanese is permitted on the first floor to provide a comfort zone for learners who may initially feel overwhelmed by the English only environment and need a space to relax and build up confidence.

There are nine full-time teachers (including the SILC Director and Assistant Director for Curriculum), two learning advisors (including the Assistant Director for the SALC), a full-time SALC manager assisted by a number of part-time staff, and a SILC general manager.  The 11 teachers and learning advisors come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Japan. They each have extensive teaching experience and at least Masters level qualifications in the field of EFL and seven of them were previously based at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan.

Although focusing superficially on English language education, the function and potential benefits of the SILC go well beyond language learning. For example, it is anticipated that the communicative approach to language teaching and learning adopted in the taught curriculum will allow students to develop their interpersonal skills and to participate more actively in class, while the focus on independent learning will encourage them to become more autonomous in all aspects of university life. Ultimately it is hoped that improved English language skills combined with a high degree of learner autonomy will help students to bridge the gap between graduate and postgraduate courses as well as significantly enhancing their future employment prospects in an increasingly competitive jobs market.

The Self-Access Learning Center

In order to realise these goals, establishment of a self-access centre was very much at the heart of the initial proposal for the SILC project and the Sojo SALC officially opened for business in June 2010. It is a state-of-the-art facility with a huge variety of resources including custom-made worksheets, movies, music CDs, speaking booths, computer software, graded readers and a wide range of books, magazines and newspapers. At the heart of the SALC is the Conversation Lounge, where students can talk informally to teachers and to each other, play board or card games in English, use an English version Nintendo Wii, make comments or create sentences using a magnetic poetry board, watch BBC World and access the Internet via a 50inch plasma TV screen. The lounge also hosts a number of regular events including a monthly film night, weekly discussions on sport and music and a computer-mediated communication project with students in Alaska.

Moreover, in common with the SALC’s sister institutions at KUIS and Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University, a learning advisory service is available for students across the university in order to help learners to set manageable targets, find appropriate resources and evaluate their own performance. In order to reinforce the belief that independent learning does not just mean learning on your own five ‘Multi Purpose Rooms’ are available in which groups of up to six students can meet to work collaboratively on their learning in English. In this way, learning goals and methods are determined by the learners themselves in collaboration with peers, learning advisors and teachers according to their own individual needs.

Curriculum

English classes in the SILC are designed to help students increase confidence and motivation for using English by activating what they may have already learnt in school. They work in small groups on a variety of fun and engaging language-based tasks and learn to communicate effectively, research and present information in English and find out about other cultures. The curriculum has been built around a set of proficiency descriptors adapted from the Common European Framework for Languages and students are assessed continuously through regular quizzes, homework activities, lesson participation and presentations as well as through a speaking test at the end of each semester.

SILC teaching rooms are not traditional teaching rooms but are referred to as ‘Blended Learning Spaces’ (BLS). Desks and chairs can be moved freely around the room to accommodate a variety of groupings and activities while state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment facilitates audio, video and web-based learning. Each BLS is equipped with a full set of student computers with English operating systems and headphones for listening activities. The computers allow the students to undertake research and compile documents and presentations in English as well as to communicate electronically via ‘Sojo-M’, the SILC’s online interactive learning community hosted by Moodle.

Research

The English Communication curriculum is constantly evolving on the basis of action research being conducted in the SILC. Institutional research within the center focuses primarily on the implementation and evaluation of SALC resources and practices, the use of Sojo-M and other electronic tools to support students’ learning and the effectiveness of the curriculum itself in meeting the needs of the students and faculties.

Moreover, there are a number of more specific projects currently being pursued by SILC lecturers. One of these focuses on student motivation, another is looking at attitudes towards language learning while a third is investigating the potential benefits of computer mediated communication.

Challenges

As with any new project, there have inevitably been teething problems. One of the biggest headaches was in ensuring the design of the building as well as the furniture and equipment were fit for purpose and ready on time. This was a massive undertaking even given the invaluable assistance from the teams at KUIS, Bunkyo and KIFL (Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages). Thankfully, the Sojo University senior managers were thoroughly committed to the project from the outset and have been very supportive in getting the center set up on schedule. Nonetheless, accommodating the various expectations of academics, students, designers, budget holders and other stakeholders has been a major challenge.

Of course, the opening of the building itself was only the beginning of the process and this has been another source of frustration for many at the university. Although classes began in the SILC in April, the Self-Access Learning Centre was not originally due to open until the end of May with the remainder of the first semester scheduled for setting up systems and working practices, conducting student orientations and rolling out the various services before opening fully from September. The reality of course, was that students and staff expected everything to be up and running as soon as the building opened its doors back in March and since then the SALC team has been working frantically to complete the ordering, database materials and get them out on the shelves. Although the majority of services and resources are now available (ahead of schedule) there was initially some confusion and frustration from students and staff who visited the SALC in the opening weeks only to be told that they could look but not touch.

Another thing we have had to grapple with has been making the centre accessible for students with very full schedules. At our parent institution, KUIS, students tend to have very busy lives but committed learners can usually find opportunities within the working day to visit the SALC and make use of the facilities. At Sojo, however, the working day for most students begins before 9 in the morning and continues until 6. If they are lucky they may have one free period, usually the last one of the day, but more often than not they will be in lessons or laboratory research until they go home. To compound this issue, students from the Pharmacy department, who also happen to be those with the greatest motivation for studying English, are based at a separate campus more than a kilometer from the SILC. At present, the centre is only open until 7pm and it has not been possible to remain open later than this or on weekends because of insufficient staffing levels combined with security concerns. It is difficult to schedule teachers to work late in the evening given that they are often in the classroom at 8.50am teaching the first class of the day. However, with our proposed expansion in 2011-12 it should be possible to extend our opening hours to better accommodate the needs of all Sojo students.

Despite these challenges we feel that overall the establishment of the SILC has been as smooth as can realistically be expected. Although fraught at times, it has been a relatively uncomplicated birth thanks in no small part to the wealth of experience on hand from mother KUIS and big brother Bunkyo as well as the Sojo ante- and postnatal teams. As any parent will tell you, however, there is a long way to go yet and there will no doubt be many a sleepless night before we see those tentative and wobbly first steps turn into an assured and erudite swagger.

Notes on the contributor

Jon Rowberry is from England where he completed an MA in TESOL from the Institute of Education while working in further education. He subsequently spent three years at KUIS in Chiba, before returning to the UK to teach and manage EAL provision at a London secondary school. Now enjoying his third stint in Japan as Director of the SILC, his research interests include student motivation, learner autonomy and CALL.

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