Have a Look Around: The Effect of a ‘Push’ Activity on Future SAS Use

André Parsons, Hokkaido University of Education, Hakodate Campus, Japan

Stuart Warrington, Nagoya University of Commerce and Business, Nisshin Campus, Japan

Parsons, A., & Warrington, S. (2019). Have a look around: The effect of a ‘push’ activity on future SAS use. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 11(1), 5-23. doi:10.37237/110102

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Abstract 

Although mandatory regular use of self-access centres is surprisingly common, this goes against the purpose of them to foster autonomous learning. However, some students never consider using such resources without being pushed to do so. In order to create an opportunity to discover a self-access station (SAS) at one Japanese university, a single assignment was designed and implemented requiring students to visit the SAS in order to answer questions related to its use and facilities. Thereafter, an end-of-term questionnaire was conducted to investigate how the assignment affected student awareness and use of the SAS, and whether they would have visited the SAS had there been no task. The results show that awareness of the SAS was raised. However, most students did not use the SAS post-assignment and indicated they would not have used it without the assignment. Reasons provided suggest time constraints, location, and issues of comfort to be contributing factors.

Keywords: self-access centres, mandatory use, opportunity, discovery, awareness, evaluation

 

While there are many challenges to running a self-access centre (SAC), perhaps one of the hardest issues to overcome is encouraging students to make use of such a facility. To a student, entering such a space can feel “…novel and unfamiliar…” and akin to “…crossing over an unknown threshold” (Birdsell, 2015, p. 272). Indeed, as Croker and Ashurova (2012) note, for many students, language learning is something to be done inside the classroom with a teacher, and the concept of self-access language learning and the use of such facilities for this purpose can appear quite alien. Hence, they propose a push-pull strategy whereby students are first asked to visit the space to complete assignments as part of their classwork, and then encouraged to continue going back through social events and activities. This strategy, Croker and Ashurova (2012) contend, can help many students build a regular habit of centre use. Likewise, Gillies (2007) suggests building a connection between the classroom and self-access and appealing to instrumentally-motivated students via the offering of credits for self-access learning as ways to encourage more users. There is also the idea of requiring students to use a SAC a certain number of times as part of a self-access policy (Monk & Ozawa, 2002, 2005). However, Warrington (2018) argues that such mandatory use does not reflect nor result in “an identity congruent with self-access” (p. 151). Warrington’s viewpoint is very much in line with Cooker (2010), who, in her discussion of self-access principles, states:

…self-access learning should be truly self-access, and whilst a certain amount of guidance is necessary for learners to be able to use the centre and understand how it operates, at no other time should they be required to use the facility. (p. 7)

Yet, it is interesting to note that required use of SACs appears quite prevalent. Indeed, Navarro (2014) surveyed 38 self-access experts from various self-access centres regarding their beliefs about the purposes of self-access centres and found that “61% reported mandatory SAC attendance” (p. 15). When the experts were asked if they believed SAC use should not be required, only 16% responded that voluntary use was essential with 58% stating that such use was preferable, and 26% saying it should be compulsory.

While agreeing that self-initiated student visits to a SAC is ideal and a goal worth striving for, in settings where language learning is not the focus, it may be too optimistic to think students will voluntarily visit the space. However, a policy which not only removes student choice but also forces them to regularly visit a space only undermines the fundamental of fostering language learner autonomy and is best avoided (Benson, 2001; Cooker, 2010; Holec, 1981). In addition to this primary reason, space limitations may not make it feasible to require such regular use given the potential for overcrowding, which in turn could result in negative experiences for users. Nevertheless, it can still be important to require students to visit a SAC at least once as a means to raise their awareness of this extra resource space for language learning. This is especially true for students unlikely to take initiative to explore it (Croker & Ashurova, 2012).

Consequently, it can be argued that a small ‘push’ may lead some students to return and incorporate the use of such a SAC as a part of their language learning. This was the rationale behind a single ‘push’ assignment designed and implemented at Hokkaido University of Education (Hakodate campus). The assignment was envisioned as the scaffolding necessary for students to successfully navigate a self-access space without making assumptions about their ability to be autonomous learners (Thomas & Rose, 2019). It required students to visit the campus’ self-access station (SAS) once to learn about its use and facilities as a means to “explore the boundaries and possibilities of that space” (Nakai, 2016, p. 168). Lack of student choice was acknowledged for this one-time assignment and was offset by leaving the students to decide whether to continue visiting and using the SAS post completion of it. Further details of the ‘push’ assignment are discussed following a brief description of the SAS.

Self-Access Station (SAS)

In 2012, the Hakodate campus of Hokkaido University of Education opened its International Center for Multimedia Language Learning (ICMLL) (See Figure 1). The ICMLL includes three CALL rooms, a multi-purpose room and the SAS. Although the new space offered for the SAS allowed for a larger facility than before, it was still quite limited as most of the ICMLL’s space was allocated to the CALL rooms. This was the result of a university planning decision over which there was no control. Also, while the space was originally only for the SAS, it was later decided to locate the exchange students’ common room there, and all Japanese language classes are now conducted in the multi-purpose room adjacent to the SAS. In addition, despite being initially designed for language learning, the CALL rooms are now also used for regular non-language related courses. This has thus created a “complex dynamic ecosocial system” (Murray, 2018, p. 103).

parsons fig 1

Figure 1. Layout of SAS within the International Center for Multimedia Language Learning

The design of the SAS was originally based on the work of Sheerin (1989), and Gardner and Miller (1999), and follows Miller and Rogerson-Revell’s (1983) supermarket self-access system. It is a completely open space, consisting of two areas: The Learning Café and the Learning Pocket (See Figures 2 and 3). The former is for practicing conversation as well as offering opportunities to take part in intercultural communication while the latter is meant for more focused, private study. Within this space, there are four individual study rooms equipped with computers which make use of installed language learning software programmes. There is also a group work room. The two areas are divided by a wall of bookshelves housing various materials for learning different languages. In addition to the physical resources, social resources for language learning are also offered. These include Speaking and Writing Support provided by teachers, and learning advising. There is also a newsletter called SAS Express written by volunteer student editors, and an Experiencing Language and Culture Program where students can practice conversation one-on-one with exchange students and learn about different cultures. Finally, starting April 2020, the SAS’s paid student staff will prepare and hold language learning events there.

In terms of use, students wishing to utilise either the private rooms or the materials are required to sign in using a form available at the reception desk. They are asked to do this as a means to not only keep track of how many students are actually using the SAS and what they are doing, but also to better understand which materials are often being used for future purchasing purposes. For those students who simply want to use the space for conversation or for self-study using their own materials, signing in with the form is not necessary. However, all students entering the SAS are asked to swipe their student card through a card reader located at the reception desk as a way to keep track of the overall number of visitors. Nevertheless, it appears not all students do this, which is an issue that needs to be addressed.

parsons fig 2

Figure 2. Learning Café

parsons fig 3

Figure 3. Learning Pocket

SAS Discovery Assignment

To provide an opportunity to explore the SAS, students were required to complete a short, simple assignment anytime during a designated class period and finish it with only a single sign in to the SAS. The assignment could have been completed individually, in pairs or even in groups if so desired. Although the assignment was a required one, it was not seen as demanding. That is, it only asked students to explore the SAS as a means to raise their awareness of its location, use and facilities and, in line with Cotterall and Reinders’ (2001) suggestion, was meant to serve as a kind of self-orientation.

The assignment consisted of two parts. The first part included eleven questions which focused on what the SAS space consists of, the materials and languages available, language policy, opening hours and a rule regarding where one can eat and drink. While the questions were, on the whole, intended to be quite simple, they were nevertheless designed to get students to spend a little time ‘digging’ for the answers. In so doing, it was felt this would encourage them to explore the space further, raising their awareness of the variety of materials and languages in the SAS. It was also hoped this would serve as a motivational catalyst for them to return to the SAS later.

The second part of the assignment asked students to provide feedback in English or Japanese vis-à-vis improving the SAS. Although this part was optional, students were encouraged to complete it as it could potentially provide important information and insights on improving the SAS (See Gardner & Miller, 1999). However, it was also explained in advance that not all feedback could be addressed due to budgetary or logistical concerns.

Methodology

There were four purposes for this research. The first was to see if an SAS discovery assignment could raise awareness of the SAS. The second was to find out how students felt about the assignment. The third was to see if the very same assignment could prompt students to make future use of the space. The fourth was to see if students would visit the space or not without an assignment and why. To investigate student perspectives linked to these purposes, four research questions were created.

RQ1.   To what extent did the assignment help raise student awareness of the SAS, its use and its facilities?

RQ2.   What were the students’ thoughts and/or feelings about the assignment?

RQ3.   Was the assignment successful or unsuccessful in ‘pushing’ students to further use the SAS?

RQ4.   Would students use or not use the SAS if there were no required assignment?

Methods

To provide answers to the 4 research questions, a three part mixed-method questionnaire was administered. This kind of questionnaire, which made use of both closed- and open-ended questions, was utilized to collect data since a deeper, broader understanding of a phenomenon cannot necessarily be attained from singular use of a quantitative or qualitative method (Hurmerinta-Peltomaki & Nummela, 2006). What is more, the presence of open-ended questions is believed to assist in establishing the validity of closed-ended questions on the same questionnaire (Schuman & Presser, 1979). Hence, these install more reader confidence in the findings and conclusions drawn from a specific study (O’Cathain, Murphy, & Nicholl, 2010). The questionnaire was administered in Japanese as this is the L1 of the participants and provided ease of understanding and response. It was also deemed more suitable given information can be left unsaid in L2. The questionnaire was admittedly not piloted due to time limitations and lack of access to different students to pilot it with. However, a Cronbach’s alpha coefficient was used to gauge the overall reliability of the first part on the questionnaire (i.e. closed-ended items 1-11) post-administration. This produced an alpha coefficient of .954 for these items which is significant and considered high. To assess the reliability of the second and the third part of the questionnaire, the open-ended questions underwent meaning confirmation with a Japanese native speaker. As a result, a few questions were slightly changed to facilitate their meanings and subsequently rechecked by the same native Japanese speaker. These small changes resulted in congruous understandings and it was therefore determined these questions could be used. Thereafter, the decision was made to administer the questionnaire.

In the first part (See Table 1) of the questionnaire, participants were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with 11 items focusing on various aspects of the assignment and its effect on improving their awareness of the SAS. This part utilized a 6-point Likert scale in order to ensure answers would not be ambiguous. In this study, 1 meant Completely Disagree while a 6 meant Completely Agree.

The first three items investigated how the assignment helped students with their understanding of the materials and languages available and how to sign in to use the SAS. The next five questions examined the appropriateness of the amount of work involved in doing the assignment, its difficulty, the time required to do it and also the ease of entering the SAS. The final three items looked at the potential of a more in-depth SAS-related assignment or perhaps weekly or multiple assignments to be completed over a semester.

The other two parts of the questionnaire contained open-ended items. In the second part, students were first asked if they returned to the SAS after the assignment’s deadline had passed, and if yes, why they decided to return, to what extent the assignment affected that choice, and if not, why they did not return. They were also asked whether or not they would have actually visited the SAS to learn about the space and its use and facilities if there had been no assignment to complete and their subsequent reasons. Finally, in the third part of the questionnaire, students were asked for feedback on how to improve the assignment they completed and their overall impressions of it.

Student sign-in data from April to December 2019 was also collected using computer-based quantitative observation to determine the frequency of SAS and SAS resource use after the assignment. This method was deemed ideal as it allows for the timely collection, organisation, visualisation and historical recording of behaviour-related data (Ice, 2004; Martin & Bateson, 1993; Thompson, Flores, Bridier, & Whatley, 2014). Student card-related data however was deemed unreliable and excluded from the study for two reasons: (1) Students did not always swipe their card to use the SAS, and (2) their purpose for SAS use could not be accurately determined from this digital information.

Participants

Participants for this study were purposively selected from two compulsory first-year English classes. Purposive sampling was used to specifically concentrate on the selection of individuals with particular and/or ideal characteristics who would be better able to assist with such relevant research (Bernard, 2002; Spradley, 1979). The two first-year classes were designated as Class A and Class B. Each class consisted of 20 Japanese students from Hokkaido University of Education (Hakodate campus) in Japan. All students were informed of the aims and purposes of the study and provided their informed consent. They were also given the option to opt out at any time. Student data selected and used for this study was determined based on the following criteria: 1. The student had visited the SAS during the required time period for the assignment and 2. The student had submitted the assignment by the designated deadline. As a result, the number of participants was reduced to 18 for Class A and 16 for Class B respectively. As the purpose of the study was to investigate the assignment’s effect on the students as a collective whole, information regarding gender and major was deemed irrelevant and excluded. Nevertheless, each student in Class A and B was given a pseudonym (e.g. Student A1# or Student B1#) to protect their identity.

Data Collection Process

The students’ first task was to complete the SAS Discovery assignment. The time period for the latter was different for each class. In Class A, this period was from April 22 to June 3 2019, and in Class B, it was from June 14 to July 12 2019. The assignment and how to sign in for it were explained to the students on the first day of each time period. Then, during each designated period, students could freely decide when they would visit, and they could submit their work in advance if completed. However, no work would be accepted after 9AM on the final day. Students were also asked to provide feedback on the SAS, and in the case where no feedback was written, comments were requested before accepting the submission.

Regarding the sign-in data, students were asked to fill out a form that indicated they were there for the assignment (See Figure 4). The SAS reception staff were also verbally informed of the assignment and maintained soft copy records of student SAS attendance which were then forwarded to the researchers by email. This data was meant to provide valuable evidence on post-assignment use.

parsons fig 4

Figure 4. SAS Sign-in Form

The end-of-term mixed-method questionnaire, which was written in Japanese and checked by a Japanese native speaker, was administered in the final class and took approximately thirty-minutes. Students were given time to read the questionnaire silently and ask any questions pertaining to it. After this time, the complete questionnaire was explained, and once confirming the students’ understanding of the parts and their items, they were given time to complete it. Upon completion, each questionnaire was checked to ensure all questions had been answered after which each student was thanked for his/her cooperation and dismissed. 

Data Analysis

As the data collected for Part 1 of the questionnaire came from closed-ended items and were thus quantitative in nature, descriptive statistics were used to analyse these. For Parts 2 and 3 of the questionnaire, thematic analysis was used to make sense of the qualitative data from the open-ended items in each. The sign-in data collected was analysed using descriptive statistics.

Findings and Discussion

Questionnaire Findings

Research Question 1: To what extent did the assignment help raise student awareness of the SAS, its use and its facilities?

The questionnaire results (See Table 1) demonstrate that for the students overall, the homework assignment appeared to help them become aware of the kinds of materials available, which languages they can study in the SAS, and how to sign in to use the space. When examining each class separately, Class B’s results were slightly higher in terms of understanding the materials available and the languages one can study. Moreover, they understood the sign-in process better even though Class A was also taught how to do this using the actual form. While the reasons for the latter requires further investigation, it does nonetheless suggest the need to provide SAS sign-in information via a handout and/or online. Moreover, it raises questions over how users interact with staff and vice-versa. That is, whether students are cognisant of asking staff for assistance and if SAS staff notice when such users need help. In relation to the latter, SAS staff may not necessarily recognise who is a user and who is not due to the location of the SAS (See Figure 1) and its immediate proximity to other adjacent rooms (i.e. the CALL room and the multipurpose room). Hence, subsequent interviews and observations in a future study will be requisite in providing such answers.

Table 1

Questionnaire Results for SAS Discovery Assignment

parsons table 1

Research Question 2: What were the students’ thoughts and/or feelings about the assignment?

Overall, in part 1, the students appeared to consider completing a task of ten questions appropriate. What is more, according to the statistical data for Q9- Q11, they appeared to like the idea of completing one further assignment (> multiple or weekly assignments) requiring the use of SAS materials. This was corroborated by the following part 3 comments:

“I thought that if there had been an assignment requiring actual SAS use, we would have been able to learn even more about what is in the SAS.” (Student B11 – Class B)

“Instead of just knowing what is in the SAS and what you can do there, I think that having an assignment that requires actual use of the materials might result in more people thinking they might go back one more time.” (Student B9 – Class B)

“Although I was able to understand how to sign in, the kinds of materials and rules through this assignment, since there was no assignment where we actually used materials, I thought that if there were such an assignment, it would be easier for me to use it by myself later.” (Student A1 – Class A)

Some students also suggested potential assignments such as speaking with the exchange students in the SAS or using the available software. While less than a third explicitly mentioned the possibility of such an assignment, it may be something worth considering for future classes. The prospect of having students select and use materials has potential as they could be asked to write reviews about materials they used which their peers can read. However, if such a task were to be implemented, certain variables would have to be taken into consideration. For example, students may only want to use the materials once. In addition, having to spend further time preparing a review may be perceived as too much and potentially deter them from returning.

As for time required for the activity and its level of difficulty, Class A, in contrast to Class B, felt the assignment took longer to finish and the questions were not easy. As for how easy it was to enter and access the SAS, neither class expressed any concerns. Nevertheless, Class A (4) statistically appeared more uncomfortable accessing and being in the SAS than Class B (4.9), a point further discussed in research question 3.

Research Question 3: Was the assignment successful or unsuccessful in ‘pushing’ students to further use the SAS?

According to the sign-in data (Table 2), it initially appeared that only Student B11 made use of the SAS post the assignment. However, the data from the open-response items showed that 2 students from Class A and a further 5 students from Class B returned to use the space without the sign-in form required to access the language learning materials or the private study rooms. For example, three students mentioned they went back to partake in the aforementioned Experiencing Language and Culture Program.

Table 2

Class A & Class B Sign-in Form Data for SAS Use (April – December 2019)

parsons table 2

Regarding the assignment impact on students’ future SAS use, very few mentioned they were greatly affected. Two students stated that realising there are so many materials available made them want to return while another expressed interest in coming back as a result of liking the SAS’s relaxed atmosphere. However, many of those who felt the assignment had little impact on their future SAS use stated that visiting made it at least easier for them to physically and/or psychologically access:

“I had wanted to use the SAS, but I didn’t know what was there and what you could do, so this assignment allowed me to actually know about it and then it became easier to use.” (Student B14 – Class B)

“Since I used it once for the assignment, my resistance to it [SAS] disappeared.” (Student B2 – Class B)

Even so, most did not return and often mentioned a lack of time as a reason:

“I was busy, so even I wanted to go, I did not have time.” (Student A4 – Class A)

“I would like to use it, but I don’t have time due to club, part-time job and my studies.” (Student A6 – Class A)

“I didn’t have time to use the SAS.” (Student B12 – Class B)

These statements echo the findings from Chan, Spratt, and Humphreys’ (2002), Gillies’ (2007) and Malcolm’s (2004) study. While the SAS is open from 9AM to 7PM, most students’ schedules are quite full with classes, club activities and part-time jobs, so it is understandable as to why some cannot find the time to use it.

Yet, others mentioned a preference for a particular space when studying:

“I didn’t think to use the SAS materials. When I am studying, I go to the library, my home, places where I can concentrate more.” (Student A5 – Class A)

“If I am studying, I usually use the library.” (Student A17 – Class A)

Comments like these are supported by Gillies’ (2007) findings and are valuable for the ubiquitous nature of self-access they reflect (Benson, 2017). While the SAS is a place containing a variety of learning opportunities and resources, it is just one of many learning spaces. Indeed, as Warrington (2018) remarks:

…a SAC should not be limited to one learning environment. Instead, given the presence of physical and virtual learning environments, it should be positioned as something which can exist in either or both, depending on the varying and/or potential limitations of and affordances for individual and social learning within and across the inherent settings or spaces of each. (p. 153)

What is more, Student A5 and A17’s comments suggest the need for improvement. Because these learners chose to study elsewhere, it suggests the SAS needs to be more “facilitative” or “affordance-rich” (Thomas, 2019, p. 118). Hence, in order to create a space conducive to learning for all, it is necessary to look at the different affordances within the SAS to illuminate why many students avoid it.

Research Question 4: Would students use or not use the SAS if there were no required assignment?

According to the open-ended responses collected, 21 students said they would not have visited had there been no assignment while 13 indicated they would have visited the SAS on their own. Students who said that they would have visited on their own showed an interest in the SAS and language learning. For those who would not have visited, their reasons reflect those already discussed for Research Question 3. However, students mentioned location more often as a factor preventing their initial discovery of the SAS than as a reason for not returning:

“…as it was far, it was troublesome to go.” (Student A10 – Class A)

“As the SAS is far from where I usually enter the university, I think I would only go when I wanted to use the SAS.” (Student B6 – Class B)

“…I don’t think I would go all the way to see what it is.” (Student B15 – Class B)

Hence, where the SAS is situated appears incongruous with Edlin’s (2016) principle of accessibility: “removing barriers and increasing accessibility facilitates action and learning” (p. 128). Indeed, most classes are held in a building located some distance from the SAS. Furthermore, due to the building layout in which the SAS is situated, a student is forced to approach the entrance to this space from the opposite side. Consequently, if some students are already in the SAS, this can deter one from entering as the following student comments suggest:

“The atmosphere was a little unwelcoming (When you enter, the people already there look at you) and I thought it looked hard to use.” (Student A8 – Class A)

“It is my personal opinion, but I feel resistant to its closed atmosphere.” (Student A16 – Class A)

Student A8 and A16’s comments can also be connected to Edlin’s (2016) principle regarding comfort in which he states:

Comfort is important because it pertains to the most fundamental step students need to take in order to access and exploit the resources available to them—coming to the center. At the other end of the spectrum, people generally avoid uncomfortable places. (p. 128)

If we consider this and Edlin’s (2016) other principle above, it can be argued that without an initial ‘push’ to visit, students would more than likely not visit the SAS. Nevertheless, while a lack of time overtakes location as the primary reason for not using the SAS, one cannot ignore either of these as potential deterrents for future use.

Conclusion

In this paper, a ‘push’ assignment designed for student discovery of an SAS was discussed. While the assignment appeared to have helped the students become cognisant of the SAS, its impact on encouraging them to use it thereafter was quite minimal. Many students cited a lack of time, a preference for other spaces, and physical and/or psychological discomfort as reasons for not visiting. Even so, at the very least, the assignment gave the students a chance to explore and familiarise themselves with this space. To add, it did create a little interest in doing a further assignment requiring actual use of the resources (i.e. materials and private study rooms). Hence, the next step will be to consider making a further ‘push’ assignment that addresses this interest to gauge whether it has an impact. Thereafter, more ‘pull’ activities to address student visitation will be created while considering ways to build a more facilitative environment reflecting the principles underlying a “rich space” (Edlin, 2016, p. 115).

While the data collected for this study came from a mixed-method questionnaire and student sign-in forms, future research will aim to include semi-structured interviews from both users and non-users of the SAS. It will also strive to address the reliability issue with student card-related data through use of direct observation. In so doing, it is hoped this will provide more insight into how students view and utilise the SAS as a means to improve the user experience and inform its future use and design.

Notes on the Contributors

André Parsons, M.A., is a Lecturer and Chief of the Self-Access Station at Hokkaido University of Education, Hakodate Campus. His research interests include language learning autonomy, language learning beyond the classroom, self-access, self-directed learning and extensive reading and listening.

Stuart Warrington, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor and Head of the Self-Access Committee in the Faculty of International Studies at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business. His research interests include self-access, teacher and learner advisor autonomy, professionalism and professional development in English Language Teaching, CALL and MALL.

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