Embracing Change and Discovering Affordances in the Time of COVID: Report on the Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) Conference, 2020

Jason R. Walters, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, Japan

Walters, J. R. (2021). Embracing change and discovering affordances in the time of COVID: Report on the Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) conference, 2020. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 12(1), 123–135. https://doi.org/10.37237/120109


The Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) held its 15th annual conference event on the 5th of December, 2020. Due to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the event was conducted online via the Zoom teleconferencing application, marking JASAL’s first “virtual conference” and requiring an impressive feat of innovation from organizers. The conference, attended by more than 50 participants in total, featured 20 presentations on a variety of topics relevant to self-access learning and supporting language learner autonomy. Highlights of the day included a plenary talk by Satoko Kato and Hisako Yamashita and a virtual tour of Tokyo International University’s English Plaza. In this conference report, 17 English-language presentations are summarized and arranged according to three themes: autonomy-supportive learning projects; SALC development via research and reflection; and reflections on the transition to emergency remote self-access in 2020.

Keywords: learner autonomy, learning spaces, advising, online learning, reflective dialogue

On Saturday, 5th December 2020, The Japan Association for Self-Access Learning (JASAL) held its annual conference on the occasion of the organization’s 15th anniversary. Circumstances arising from the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the decision to hold the event online via the Zoom teleconferencing platform and to allow participants to attend free of charge, providing a safe and socially-distanced format for members and guests to gather, share expertise, and build community during an otherwise isolating time. The online format permitted international guests to join educators, administrators, and learning advisors (LAs) from Japan and Asia in sharing insights on self-access and independent learning during a year marked by demand for flexibility and innovation.

Drawing on more than ten years of collaboration at the top of their field, Satoko Kato and Hisako Yamashita offered an excellent and timely two-part plenary talk examining the nature of reflective dialogue, its essential role in the learner’s transformative journey, and its value to teachers seeking further professional development. This memorable session exemplified the conference’s theme, “Learner Support in Self-Access Learning,” reminding us that although our learning spaces may have changed significantly in 2020, learners need our support more than ever.

The following comprises a report of all English-language sessions presented at JASAL 2020. A number of themes emerged with direct relevance to the state of self-access and learner autonomy during this tumultuous year; following a review of the plenary talk, presentation summaries are organized according to these topics.

Plenary Talk: Reflective Dialogue and Learner Support in Self-Access Language Learning

Satoko Kato, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

Hisako Yamashita, Konan Women’s University, Hyogo

Kato and Yamashita’s excellent talk was introduced with a framing question: “How can we get more students to use our self-access centers (SAC) regularly so that students become autonomous learners and achieve their language goals?” The answer, according to Yamashita, lies in the dialogical quality of autonomy as both socially produced and uniquely one’s own (van Lier, 2004). Reflective dialogue—intentional engagement with reflective thinking in interaction—affords learners a chance to recognize achievement, re-evaluate assumptions, develop confidence, link learning processes with the inner-self, and be truly heard within their communities of practice (CoP). Yamashita provided practical suggestions on designing classroom and SAC-based activities promoting peer reflective dialogue and examined the “ripple effect of affordances” that expands to benefit whole learning communities. Kato examined “reflection through dialogue” from the perspective of advising in language learning, sharing advising strategies grounded in coaching and counseling research that promote reflective dialogue not only between teacher and student or advisor and advisee, but also between colleagues and in professional mentoring relationships. Kato discussed her finding that reflective dialogue in relational mentoring promotes practitioners’ mutual growth and well-being; with a glance toward positive psychology, she concluded by challenging the audience to view well-being as central to professional development.

Autonomy-Supportive Learning Projects

A Project-based Seminar on Learner Autonomy

Elizabeth Lavolette, Kyoto Sangyo University, Kyoto

The morning’s first presentation reviewed inventive possibilities for redesigning an undergraduate seminar (zemi) for a project-based focus on learner autonomy. Having initially experienced difficulty selecting topics with a broad appeal for third- and fourth-year learners, Lavolette described her approach to a more specialized zemi program that allows learners to connect their unique language learning experiences with their chosen fields while developing advanced research skills. Ideal outcomes for such a course would see zemi students present their own autonomy research (perhaps at JASAL’s student conference) and produce a paper suitable for publication, co-authored with peers and their instructor. Introductory tasks would include readings related to learner-selected research topics, production of a literature review, and class presentations of relevant articles; learners would later work to develop a research proposal, obtain ethics committee approval, and create instruments for data collection. During year two, zemi students would collect and analyze data while incorporating the literature review into a larger research report. In the last semester of the proposed program, participants would share their findings at a conference, revise their manuscript, and submit it for publication. Lavolette concluded with a request for advice on maintaining a student-led course with level-appropriate modes of participation.

Tourism Revival Project: How to Improve Academic Skills Autonomously through Active Learning

Mikiko Fukutome, Yamanashi Gakuin University, Yamanashi

The “Tourism Revival Project” is a task-based activity developed to boost flagging motivation and engagement in online classes while encouraging the autonomous development of academic skills. Following a theoretical background outlining the benefits of active learning (Killian & Bastas, 2015), Fukutome described classroom procedures and objectives. Initial tasks involved brainstorming activities exploring the state of the tourism industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, learners formed groups focused on industries impacted by tourism, and created fictional characters associated with these industries. Over time, participants role-played as hotel managers, flight attendants, and the like, working in teams to identify problems and revitalize their industries. LAs and assistant language teachers (ALTs) worked with students to develop organizational and time management strategies while raising awareness of the learning process; learners reported not only improved research skills, but also greater creative thinking and feelings of self-efficacy. In a video message, participating ALTs shared their perspective on building rapport and motivation among the learners and their experience in gaining a greater awareness of the challenges unique to language learning. Fukutome deemed the project an overall success and suggested that active learning tasks, with effective scaffolding alongside learner choice and advising support, are a practical option for introducing academic skills while promoting learner independence.

Drama Events in Self-Access Centers: Traversing Uncharted Waters (YouTube)

Chhayankdhar Singh Rathore, Soka University, Tokyo

Rathore offered a unique look at the potential for developing learner autonomy and language proficiency in self-access environments by way of process drama activities. Research indicates that drama provides language in context, familiar narratives, and encourages meaning-focused input and output while fulfilling the stated goals of self-access: building social relations, supporting emotional well-being, and developing autonomy. With this theoretical foundation in mind, Rathore conducted two workshops featuring acting and improv games and activities at the Soka University self-access learning center (SALC). Regrettably, these events suffered from low student turnout and uncertain learning outcomes. Lessons learned from these events guided Rathore in developing a third workshop, “Understanding Global Issues Through Drama”, which built on process drama pedagogy (Bowell & Heap, 2013). This more cohesive workshop, linking real-world issues with learner-generated narratives, encouraged students to visualize, create, and finally embody their own unique characters. Through a series of scaffolded activities, it elevated basic role play to the level of “performance.” Journal writing and reflection discussions allowed learners to recognize and embrace their successes while providing feedback to assist organizers in designing future events.

SALC Development via Research and Reflection

Student Staff Perspectives on the Global Commons at Kyoto Sangyo University

Matthew Claflin and Elizabeth Lavolette, Kyoto Sangyo University, Kyoto

This follow-up presentation resumes the researchers’ appraisal of Kyoto Sangyo University’s Global Commons (GC) language center via Mynard’s (2019) Typology of SALCs in Japan. Within this typology, SALCs lacking 1) a primary focus on learner autonomy, 2) dedicated staff, and 3) opportunities for community-based learning and L2 interaction are classified as “administrative centers”. Having covered the first two of these elements in their excellent 2019 presentation, Claflin & Lavolette described their case study exploring student staff perceptions of the GC. Responses to interview questions about participants’ experiences in the GC were largely positive, emphasizing facilities, location, and resources; however, discussion of community-based learning and authentic language use were discussed chiefly in terms of job duties and procedures. Based on this and previous data, the presenters concluded that according to Mynard’s typology, the GC is likely an “administrative center” and went on to propose means by which the facility might be progressively transformed into a “social-supportive SALC.” Before concluding, Claflin and Lavolette proposed a model for expanding Mynard’s typology to include learning centers outside of Japan.

Learners Creating the Spaces They Belong in Student-led Learning Communities

Daniel Hooper, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

Hooper’s research offered a comprehensive look at learner identity among members of a SALC-based learning community (LC). An extensive theoretical background exploring social learning spaces preceded the introduction of “interest-based” LCs in the Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) SALC, particularly the “LFs,” a bilingual student-led conversation group accessible to learners of all proficiency levels. Citing Wenger (2010), Hooper explored the creation of identity in CoPs and the relational links between individual and community. He also shared his study investigating social identification among LF members via a qualitative analysis of language learning histories (LLHs) and interviews. Though members conceptualized the community’s goals in diverse ways, Hooper found that participants indicated identities of participation within a pleasant learning environment, readily identified as members of a larger international community of English speakers, and assumed various postures in negotiating sociocultural norms. With reference to participants’ LLHs, he 1) linked the development of identity with the antecedent conditions of the learner and 2) examined the importance of balancing support with autonomy, both practical implications for anyone working to nurture CoPs, particularly within SALCs. This presentation generated an especially dynamic Q&A session which continued beyond the presentation in the conference’s social room.

Addressing Demotivation and Amotivation in Self-Access Language Learning

Phillip Bennett and Curtis Edlin, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

Bennett and Edlin presented a less familiar angle on the heavily researched field of learner motivation with this talk focusing on factors that contribute to demotivation and amotivation in learning environments, and suggested strategies and interventions to alleviate negative outcomes. First defining demotivation and amotivation as distinct phenomena, Bennett and Edlin linked motivation and experience to Expectancy Value Theory—in short, learners must believe the benefit of completing a task is worth at least the effort required to do so. Exploring several learner case studies, the presenters illustrated that for each, motivational gaps emerged for different reasons; while amotivation may result from low self-efficacy, learned helplessness, or simple lack of interest, demotivation is more often linked to social sources, environments, or other lived experiences. Considering this potential diversity of influences (and drawing a clear line to Kato and Yamashita’s plenary talk) Bennett and Edlin suggested that reflective dialogue is an ideal method for identifying the sources of a learner’s unique circumstances and proposed distinct sets of tools and strategies for interventions with both amotivated and demotivated learners. The presenters ended by discussing social and autonomy-supportive features and resources that allow SALCs to mitigate negative influences on motivation.    

Support for Multi-Language Learning: A Case of OU Multilingual Plaza at Osaka University

Yoko Sei and Maka Abe, Osaka University

As an advocate for the diversification of Japan’s foreign language education agenda, I found it refreshing to hear Yoko Sei and Maya Abe of Osaka University (OU) describe the development of a truly multilingual learner community. Citing research pointing to learning centers’ responsibilities to serve ever-more diverse student bodies, Sei and Abe shared the mission of OU’s recently opened Multilingual Plaza (OUMP): 1) to promote English for specific academic purposes, 2) to assist learners majoring in 25 different foreign languages, and 3) to ensure that visiting students from abroad are supported in their efforts to learn Japanese. The OUMP offers one-to-one language learning advising to all students regardless of their major, and learners may sign up for 20-minute conversation sessions with teaching assistants—both online and in the center—in English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. There are plans to expand these offerings to other languages in the future. An on-site learning library provides language resources in 25 different languages, and resources for further independent learning are available on the OUMP’s elegantly designed website. This presentation concluded with mentioning the goal of including additional study tools and holding on-campus social events. We look forward to future updates as the OUMP team works toward their long-term development goals.

SAC Resources Across Four Stages of Skills Development for the Four Skills

Curtis Edlin, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

Building on the emerging theme of aligning offerings of self-access centers (SACs) with the needs of broad student communities, this presentation suggested a model by which self-access resources can be targeted to serve learners at different points in their development and with individualized learning goals. After descriptions of Whitmore’s (2002) four stages of skills development—unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence—Edlin described learners’ need for 1) awareness, 2) study, and 3) practice (respectively) to progress between these stages. He went on to recommend cross-referencing these three needs with three distinct categories of SAC resources: 1) social, 2) environmental, and 3) material. This can be done using an intuitive tool he developed to provide a variety of activities for learners with diverse needs, while keeping the four skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in mind. For instance, a focus on reading at the intersection of “awareness” and “environmental resources” reveals the need for effective signage and comprehensible facility information, while opportunities for “practice” via “social resources” may include reading circles or book clubs. Following his sensible presentation, Edlin provided this cross-referencing tool, along with a document containing activity suggestions in each domain, to a grateful audience.

Emergency Remote Self-Access: Making the Leap

Supporting Learners via Social Media amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kayo Namaizawa and Miro Oki, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

Namaizawa and Oki shared ongoing changes implemented by the administrative staff of a SALC working to assist students during a time of uncertainty and change. Presenters first examined the evolution of social media and social networking services (SNS) supporting their SALC, from the establishment of a Twitter account in 2009 to the 2020 creation of a student-staffed SNS team. Recognizing learners’ enthusiasm for and experience with SNS platforms, Namaizawa and Oki described how embracing SNS can enable SALC staff to deliver resources, facilitate activities, and provide a broader range of learning experiences to students in a safe and socially distanced space. Three keywords informed their approach:

  1. Connection – SNS allowed staff to promote the SALC and its events to learners off-campus, reaching a broader audience by linking numerous services and automating communication.
  2. Support – New learning materials delivered through SNS supported learners by promoting independent learning, providing content suitable for varied levels of proficiency, conducting online social events, and encouraging positive mental health.    
  3. Cooperation – A culture of collaboration between administrative staff, student staff, and teachers promoted feelings of self-efficacy and ensured that online communication from the SALC was supported broadly by the team.

Presenters expressed their hopes that lessons learned during the pandemic will be valuable in guiding future efforts to support independent learners.    

Adapting a Self-Access Learning Program for Emergency Remote Education

Shari Yamamoto, Tom Mach, Craig Mertens, Gregory Sholdt, and Tom Stringer, Konan University, Hyogo

Experienced presenters from Konan University discussed efforts to maintain the quality of language learning and support services provided at the LOFT, a large-scale SAC, amid the coronavirus pandemic. This pre-recorded presentation benefited from high production values and began with a visual introduction to the SAC and its standard procedures, providing context for the changes to come in 2020. Yamamoto explained that the shift from in-person interaction to an online environment necessitated the continuation of authentic interaction between students, staff, and teachers. This was accomplished by introducing “events” (presentation-based workshops conducted by LAs) and “visits” (casual chat circles moderated by teachers and LAs). Human resource procedures (e.g., remote training programs for student staff and scheduling systems) were updated, and instruments for collecting learner and staff feedback were designed. A review of this feedback revealed a positive reception from students, as well as suggestions for improvement. Online activities, though enjoyed by learners, appeared to be suffering from poor performance by presenters, lagging student attendance, and difficulties with LAs’ scheduling. Positive changes were observed in the fall semester after establishing clear time frames for presentation proposals and leader feedback, while LA goals have been clarified through a new orientation program. To address student conduct issues, staff created an “advice and manners” video and distributed a bilingual document encouraging positive behavior. Finally, record keeping systems and check-in procedures were standardized in order to better manage student and staff attendance. The presentation concluded with a short preview of plans for 2021.

Organizing an Online Event and a Community for Learners During the Pandemic

Yusei Takahashi, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

It is always a highlight to hear presentations by students who choose to spend their free time exploring independent learning at conferences like JASAL; we were fortunate this year to hear from Yusei Takahashi, a fourth-year undergraduate and peer advisor at the KUIS SALC. Takahashi first reflected on his team’s effort to design a series of online events raising KUIS students’ awareness of independent learning skills. Using Google Forms, Zoom screen sharing capabilities, and other online tools, organizers were able to maintain an efficient, collaborative workflow. In 2020, Takahashi’s team designed and promoted five well-received events which were held from June to December, each with distinct content and independent learning themes. Takahashi also explained the challenge of maintaining his own project, an on-campus LC, during KUIS’s year online. Here again, he made use of tech-based affordances like Zoom’s breakout rooms, questionnaires, and Google Slides to sustain the community as it moved online. Takahashi presented positive survey responses from LC members and reported that the group continues to meet its objectives of increased student talk time and strengthening social bonds. Finally, he described experiencing greater personal self-efficacy following these successes. 

Online and Back Again: Adapting a SALC to Changing Circumstances in a Pandemic

Katherine Thornton and Christopher Phelps, Otemon Gakuin University, Osaka

Otemon Gakuin University’s E-CO is an autonomy-supportive SALC that emphasizes language learning, supporting international exchange, and developing positive attitudes toward both. As with most language centers in Japan, E-CO was required to quickly adapt its academic and support services to an online format in response to COVID-19. The E-CO team worked to ensure all academic support and community-building services remained available to students; language practice, workshops, and social events were conducted via Zoom or similar applications, student staff were allowed flexible modes of participation, peer chats were maintained, and SNS such as Twitter and Instagram were used to promote events. Following a successful semester online, a second adaptation was required due to the university’s decision to adopt a hybrid format: as most students began attending campus in the fall semester, Thornton and Phelps worked to re-invent on-campus services while prioritizing student safety. Student capacity at tables was reduced, plastic screens erected, hand sanitizer made available, and windows opened to maximize ventilation. Tech tools were introduced to enable contact tracing in the event of an outbreak, and usage agreements ensured visiting students’ awareness of social distancing guidelines. Discussion and learning support activities such were hybridized, with many (e.g., teletandem) continuing to take place online, and staffed flexibly by both students and faculty. Though attendance fell in 2020, Thornton and Phelps believed that their efforts were a great success. Outstanding visuals and numerous practical suggestions for attendees made this presentation a standout.

Using Moodle to Manage Attendance Records of a Language Learning Center (LLS)

Andrew Johnson, Future University Hakodate, Hokkaido

Although several presentations at JASAL 2020 discussed the need to embrace software tools as our learning spaces have been forced to adapt, most focused on pedagogical or logistical implications rather than on the technology itself. Johnson’s deep—yet accessible—dive into Moodle provided an extremely straightforward look at how his institution uses the application to maintain student attendance records at Future University Hakodate’s Connections Cafe. Following an effective visual introduction to the physical space, operating hours, and staff, Johnson introduces the LLS’s “small group sessions”, conversation tutorials in which students reserve seats to participate in discussions led by an English-speaking staff member. Noting that learners can receive credit for attendance and that one semester requires processing more than 1000 student reservations, Johnson explained the need for a reliable, bilingual attendance management system and the decision to adopt Moodle for this purpose. An extensive tour of selected modules illustrated how learners can navigate Moodle both to locate and reserve space in their desired sessions and to keep track of their coursework and attendance. Avoiding the technical glitches and cyber-speak typical of software demonstrations, Johnson also provided a hands-on look at the application’s administrator mode and described its strengths and weaknesses to audience members looking for a reliable and user-friendly software solution for record keeping and e-learning.  

Two Self-Access Centers’ Transition to Online Services During the Pandemic

Isra Wongsarnpigoon, Pornsri Wright, and Yuri Imamura, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba

Though I have never visited KUIS in-person, I find myself becoming ever more familiar with its SALC through years of presentations and articles by its prolific teaching and advising team. I was unaware, however, of Kanda’s Multilingual Communication Center (MULC), a second self-access center developed in 2009 as a “pseudo-study abroad” environment supporting cultural diversity and reaching beyond English to sustain seven additional language programs. This economical presentation managed to vividly describe the offerings and goals of both facilities while reviewing modifications made according to each center’s unique needs in 2020. The SALC staff’s priorities were to bring their first-class learning advising program to the Zoom platform and to modernize the online delivery of learning advice and multimedia resources while improving SNS connectivity. The MULC, considering the needs of several language programs, worked to ensure uninterrupted opportunities for authentic interaction in students’ target languages via conversation practice sessions and study materials coordinated with coursework specific to each major. Highlighting the diversity of services these facilities can provide and providing a model for audience members doing similar work, the presenters emphasized the need for long-term adaptability according to a given team’s shared objectives.

Positive Outcomes from Online Learning

Carlos Budding, Akita International University, Akita

This video talk described the challenge of adapting procedures for a SAC that, before COVID, had obliged students to account for a full 60 hours of attendance per semester. Budding emphasized Akita International University’s (AIU) strict requirements regarding “LDIC time,” that is, physical presence in the Learning Development and Intercultural Studies Center (LDIC). He also described the successful transition to a more flexible system that permits learners to work independently on projects of their choice for five hours each week and report on their experiences via email. Conducting surveys and interviews with focus groups, Budding found that this new system, emphasizing the substance of learners’ autonomous work rather than attendance hours, resulted in more communication between students and staff, greater peer collaboration, improved time management for learners, and produced a broad range of independent study projects linking language learning with personal interests such as cooking, charity work, or journalism. This visually ergonomic session (which also had the distinction of being the only presentation to include appropriate “TED” background music), concluded by considering the future application of these findings to AIU’s English for Academic Purposes program. 

An Attempt to Create a Virtual Social Space through Zoom

Tetsushi Ohara, Tomoko Eto, Fumie Ishimura, Lindsay Mack, and Nicholas Medley, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Oita

The final session of the evening examined student responses to Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University’s (APU) SALC Online Lounge (OL), designed by faculty as a 2020 stand-in for the on-campus facility. Administrators ensured that advising sessions, English and Japanese support sessions with student staff, and social events successfully transitioned to the Zoom platform, maintaining most services offered on campus. The presenters reported on survey data collected from two groups of learners—those who used the OL, and those who did not. Attending students reported positive experiences, noting that visiting the OL improved their communication, motivated them to develop better study habits, and helped them to develop friendships. Although attending students expressed appreciation for these social opportunities, many non-attending students reported that their everyday lives had not changed considerably (presumably due to Japan’s relatively lax COVID response), and that while interested in the OL, they were occupied with part-time jobs, real-life social events, and preferred to see their classmates face-to-face. Other students expressed hesitation to visit based on confusion about the purpose or procedures of the OL. A brief review of the study’s limitations followed these results. Presenters noted that this research project is ongoing, and that additional results can be expected following further data collection.


In years past, the opportunity to visit the hosting organization’s self-access facilities was a JASAL conference highlight; these tours often provide context for presentations, insights into the unique priorities of various institutions and communities of practice, and new approaches to pilot with our own learners. This year, we owe many thanks to Tokyo International University, whose team kept the tradition alive with a virtual tour of the English Plaza SAC. This excellent video tour, produced with good humor and high production values, gave audience members an immersive view of the SAC’s offerings and procedures from the perspectives of students and staff members.

Every successful conference has a great team behind it, and much credit is due to the JASAL leadership, who expertly managed the logistical and technical demands of the online format, transforming the annual conference to bring together live streaming, video recording, and discussion forums into a cohesive and enjoyable professional development event. The conference concluded in the evening with an informal “virtual happy hour,” offering networking, collaboration opportunities, and the chance to socialize with others in our field. Though circumstances remain unpredictable, we look forward to an on-site JASAL 2021 planned for October 22-23 at Akita International University.  

Notes on the Contributor

Jason R. Walters is Assistant Director of the Core English program at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies and has lived in central Japan since 2009. His primary research interests include native speaker-ism in Asian EFL education, language learning advising, and practical applications of positive psychology in the classroom.  


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