Review of the JASAL 2018 x SUTLF 5 Conference

Brandon Bigelow, Tokyo International University, Kawagoe, Japan

Bigelow, B. (2019). Review of the JASAL 2018 x SUTLF 5 conference. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 10(2), 205-211.

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On December 15th, 2018, the JASAL (Japan Association for Self-Access Learning) Conference was held in Kumamoto, Japan. Befitting the event’s theme of Making Connections, the conference was jointly hosted by JASAL and SUTLF (Sojo University Teaching and Learning Forum), the flagship event of the NanKyu Chapter of JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) at the recently renovated Sojo University. In this article, the organization of the conference is briefly introduced followed by a description of the plenary speaker’s presentation. Additionally, six of the conference’s presentations are summarized, and at the end of the article is a conclusion with the author’s final thoughts.

Conference Organization

First, it is worth mentioning that the presenters were given a thoroughly detailed program of the event weeks beforehand. The program began with an enthusiastic welcome from the Sojo University President, JASAL, and SUTFL. Additionally, it included a site map and venue information with useful photos; this was essential for a first-time visitor like myself. The program also included a clear schedule of all the events, and a comprehensive description of the presentations and presenters. One inconvenience was the unavailability of wifi.

The event actually began on Friday, December 14th, with a tour of Sojo International Learning Center’s impressive SALC (Self-Access Learning Center), and a welcome reception with pizza and drinks. Unfortunately, I could not attend as I arrived late that evening from Saitama. Saturday morning began with registration, two rounds (four separate choices) of morning presentations, and opening remarks, followed by grant presentations and pictures. Next, two more rounds of presentations were offered, and afterward, attendees were provided a lunch buffet at the neighboring Kehinkan cafeteria. After lunch was the plenary session with speaker, Tomomi Kumai, and another round of presentations. Following was the controlled chaos of a poster session, a short break, the final two rounds of presentations, and the closing remarks. My poster-sharing experience was intense, revelatory, and exhilarating, contributing a high concentration of useful conversation and exchange of ideas. Saturday evening was a time to let loose a little and enjoy a satisfying meal at Jang Jang Go. Sunday tours of the Kumamoto Castle and a shochu distillery were also offered to those interested.

Plenary: Access Yourself: Raising Intercultural Awareness For Language Teachers and Learners

I found Tomomi Kumai to be simultaneously confident and welcoming, both charismatic and personable. Kumai is an intercultural trainer, international educator, and transformative coach. She is a Korean Japanese bicultural citizen. She specializes in improving intercultural competence and providing people with opportunities to learn from and empower each other. Her selection was spot on for the Making Connections-themed event. Kumai asked the attendees to meet someone who we would not normally meet and discuss the state of our institutions and SALCs. I believe this was very effective in giving the room a noticeable buzz of energy, and reiterating the consistent message of connection. The audience was also introduced to Edward T. Hall’s (1976) idea of culture as an iceberg, where one’s superficial level of does not accurately reveal the much deeper and nuanced perceptions and beliefs we all have. We also discussed the important distinction of generalization versus stereotype. In addition, Kumai shared useful models including DIVE (Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate) and the six stages of Bennett’s developmental model of intercultural sensitivity, (Bennett, 1986) both of which can be useful for many professionals, especially those at an international institution. Despite the talk lasting only one hour, I certainly had a fresh desire to improve my intercultural competence and to further expand the honest discussion of intercultural awareness with my colleagues.

Presentations

An impressive 28 presentations took place during the conference, only six of which I was able to attend. It was rewarding to be able to join an array of fascinating SALC-related presentations, though I was disappointed that I was unable to attend several other sessions that also sounded valuable. I had a keen interest in students’ perspectives.

Connection over a cup of tea: How to enhance authentic communication skills

Mikiko Fukutome’s presentation featured a description of the self-study abilities that students acquired following a series of culture-based activities. Events including participating in tea ceremonies, playing traditional Japanese games, and folding origami were established in order to help connect all levels of English language learners. Fukutome usefully showed step by step exactly how the tea ceremony activity was conducted in her specific small liberal arts college (Yamanashi Gakuin University) context. Not only were students able to improve their English skills, but they also increased their confidence through authentic communication and deepened relationships with students from around the world. This presentation has inspired me to create student-led activities, for both Japanese and international learners, that allow for more genuine communication and meaningful cultural connections.

Making peer-support a part of the SAC experience

Abidemi Bankole’s presentation offered a discussion regarding how peer support is being successfully implemented in its SAC (Self-Access Center). Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (Beppu, Japan) has many peer advisors who are hired primarily to tutor Japanese students. The peer advisors are international undergraduate students with high-level English ability who are recruited, then shadow a current peer assistant, and afterward are trained for specific duties. This presentation was especially illuminating because attendees were shown the transparent process of the peer support system, from the initial job-advertisement phase up until the details of their multiple responsibilities. Additionally, promising data was displayed, highlighting the measurable effectiveness of the program. Bankole encouraged other universities with peer-support resources to integrate these students in various ways into their own SAC.

Relationship between students’ English levels and their goals: A case report of self-access learning center users

This presentation by Hanako Benson and Misato Saunders from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University showed the relationship between students’ actual English levels and their goals while using measurements based on the GSE (Global Scale of English). The GSE is a worldwide English language standard used by teachers to make effective assessments based on granular measurements (Pearson Website). According to the presenters, a potential major benefit of the GSE is that it is much more precise than other common scales like the CEFR, which can often be too broad for certain institutions. Benson and Saunders shared multiple specific examples of students who did and did not meet their goals, and they analyzed the characteristics and habits of these students, then offered suggestions based on their findings. The audience was reminded that students need to find the best way to improve, that works for them individually, with the guidance of instructors and advisors; students should not simply be told, uniformly, how to improve their English, the growth and discovery should be intrinsic. One lasting point of emphasis was the need for students to make realistic and attainable goals throughout the course of their academic tenure, and to continually monitor and show their progress towards achieving those goals.

Evaluating the SALC – voices from the students

This presentation by Lindsay Mack and Tomoko Eto spoke about the significance of evaluation for maintaining and improving a SALC. The method of evaluation chosen was a survey of more than 800 participants. The attendees were able to see in great detail what students thought of the SALC at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. Even though this university is unique in that it is comprised of about half Japanese-language students, and half international English-language students, key outcomes and trends could be taken away. Noteworthy responses included students’ differing perceptions of the SALC’s services and resources. For example, some students praised the SALC for its quality of advising, its material resources, and for being a good place to study. On the other hand, others said they did not utilize the SALC often because of a lack of privacy and inadequate atmosphere. Another topic that was introduced was Assurance of Learning (AOL), the process of collecting data about student learning outcomes, reviewing and using it to continuously develop and improve the institution. In addition, the presenters considered ways to get non-participating students to utilize the SALC more often. Finally, Mack and Eto offered suggestions for improving SALCs in general, and how to conduct a similar survey at other universities.

Listening to students’ voices

Yui Fukushima and Yukino Watanabe shared their experience from the beginning phase of creating a SALC community. Because of certain limitations at Konan Women’s University, the student presenters oversee a significant portion of the SALC themselves, from conducting meetings to generating different SALC themes. After the initial year of reasonable success because of interactive activities like discussing studying abroad and helping with schoolwork, the presenters are determinedly aiming higher for year two. The main method of discovering ways to improve their modest SALC was to listen to the students and take into account the desires of the people who actually utilize the center. Multiple events, displays, and activities have been incorporated into the SALC based on students’ feedback, and so far it has been successful, from my viewpoint. Some new alterations include having a fun blindfolded, directions-giving game, and a merry-go-round communication activity. The most prominent message to the attendees was that positive changes, no matter how small, really do make a positive impact.

How are learning advisors and advising sessions perceived by the learners who attend them?

Scott Shelton-Strong’s presentation focused on the understanding of his students’ experiences when attending advising sessions. The presenter explained that one important duty of a learning advisor is to lower affective filters. The presenter also discussed why feedback from students is so essential for development and progress. Students who attended advising sessions in the SALC at Kanda University of International Studies (Chiba, Japan) took a voluntary survey, and the results were analyzed, offering an opportunity for Learning Advisors to reflect and evaluate based on relevant data. The responses were discussed in relation to the learning advisors’ goals to develop lifelong self-directed learners, within the framework of Self-Determination Theory, which focuses on the three Basic Psychological Needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. The largely positive results of the student surveys encouraged the attendees to think about the motivating roles of instructors and advisors in their own institutions, as well as the importance of reflective dialogue and perceptions from each participant.

Conclusion

The JASAL 2018 x SUTLF 5 Conference proved to be successful in many ways, from this newcomer’s perspective. The theme of Making Connections certainly reverberated throughout the event and resonated with a significant number of the attendees. The event went smoothly from start to end as the careful planning and organization were evident. This conference proved valuable for learning from so many experienced perspectives on self-access learning. It was helpful to be at the event in person in order to ask questions and make connections. I was inspired by several participants and came away with many ideas to incorporate into the SALC at Tokyo International University. With so many like-minded individuals who are passionate about self-access language learning in Japan, the inspiration was palpable, and the young association will undoubtedly continue to grow. I would like to reiterate my genuine gratitude to JASAL and SUTFL for the Newcomer Grant. I will certainly attend related conferences again and encourage my university to host a JASAL event in the near future. This conference was especially enlightening for me for a number of reasons. To begin, this was not only my first presentation of any kind in Japan, this was the first conference that I had attended in the country. Furthermore, being an instructor at TIU (Tokyo International University), making the long trip from Kawagoe, Saitama, down to this conference in Kyushu was not likely to happen without some financial assistance. I am very grateful to have received the Newcomer Grant of 20,000 yen, offered to a first-time attendee from outside of Kyushu. The grant allowed me to present at an enriching conference that, if not for the grant, would have been difficult for me to attend. Three additional grants were graciously awarded to deserving undergraduate students by JASAL, JALT, and SUTLF.

Notes on the Contributor

Brandon Bigelow is an instructor at Tokyo International University. He has served as a library coordinator for more than two years at the University’s English Plaza, and directly contributes to the SALC’s development. Brandon is interested in the psychology of motivating learners to become more autonomous.

References

Bennett, M. J. (1986). Toward ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Cross-cultural orientation: New conceptualizations and applications (pp. 21–70). New York, NY: University Press of America.

Global Scale of English (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.pearson.com/english/about/gse.html

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York, NY: Anchor Press.