Viorel Ristea, Center for International Education & Exchange, Prefectural University of Kumamoto, Japan
Ristea, V. (2022). Launching a tutoring system within a restructured self-access language learning center in Japan amidst a pandemic. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 13(1), 142–161. https://doi.org/10.37237/130108
This paper examines the inaugural year of a rebranded and restructured self-access learning center (SALC), launched at a provincial university in Japan towards the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on implementing, promoting, and managing a tutoring system, both online and face-to-face, while facing the challenges and limitations imposed by the pandemic. Even though the pandemic has forced most traditional face-to-face classes and on-campus activities online, there is still little research concerning online self-access services in Japan, as also noted by Davies et al. (2020). Existing research on SALL in the pandemic tends to focus on well-established SALCs. This paper aims to fill this gap in the literature by also discussing the challenges of online tutoring and revealing the solutions to overcome those challenges over the course of a whole academic year in a new SALC. Finally, it hopes to provide an insight into the management process, together with the administrative challenges faced by the researcher, acting as the sole tutor and coordinator of the SALC.
Keywords: self-access language learning, tutoring system, online learning, response to emergencies, COVID-19
The main focus of the present paper is the implementation of a tutoring system during the inaugural year of a rebranded and restructured self-access learning center (SALC) inside a provincial Japanese university while facing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional aspects not related to the pandemic are also discussed, with hope of providing an insight into what other new or established SALCs can expect when deciding to implement a tutoring system online and/or face-to-face, not only under the special circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also under normal conditions.
The aim of the study is threefold: first, to examine the inaugural year of the rebranded and restructured SALC, with a focus on implementing, promoting, and managing a tutoring system, both online and face-to-face, and reveal the ways to overcome some of the main challenges faced during the process, while identifying some of the factors that affected the operation of the center as a whole; second, to discuss the challenges faced not only during face-to-face tutoring sessions, but also during online sessions, in an attempt to fill a gap in the literature concerning online self-access services in Japan; and third, to provide an understanding of the operation and management process of a SALC from the point of view of a first-time coordinator/tutor, including academic and administrative tasks and bureaucratic obstacles.
Therefore, the approach is predominantly focused on providing insight into and solutions to specific practical problems encountered during the process, based on personal notes on my observations and experiences as tutor and coordinator over the course of a full academic year (April, 2020 – March, 2021), while briefly covering some of the more significant issues from the beginning of the following academic year.
The term ‘tutoring’ had already been decided at the time of my employment at the Global Lounge, and even though throughout the related literature other terms like ‘counseling’ (Gardner & Miller, 1999) or ‘advising’ (Carson & Mynard, 2012) seem to be preferred, for the sake of consistency, the term ‘tutoring’ and derivatives will be used throughout this paper.
A preliminary examination of the SiSAL Journal and JASAL Journal’s archives revealed that the term ‘tutoring’ is not very often found in the SALL literature, occasionally being used in the ‘peer-tutoring’ context (e.g. Takeuchi, 2015; Ruegg et al., 2017; McCrohan & Caldwell, 2021). While it might be tempting to view ‘tutoring’, ‘counseling’, and ‘advising’ as having a similar meaning in the SALL context, Carson and Mynard (2012) see ‘counseling’ and ‘advising’ in a very different light, and Reinders (2008) argues that ‘tutoring’ is different from ‘advising’ (or ‘counseling’) in the sense that in the latter the “the focus is not directly on the language, but rather on how to learn the language.” In the case of the GL, ‘tutoring’ also maintains a prime focus on how to learn the language, while also adding the extra element of discussing the language itself. In this regard, ‘tutoring’, as used throughout this paper, could be understood as a slightly more directive approach than ‘advising’, as discussed by Carson and Mynard (2012). While more research is necessary to prove it, it could be argued that, even in the self-access context, maintaining a certain amount of focus on the language is in the best interests of students, especially beginners.
The most important contribution concerning the topic of self-access language learning (SALL) and the management of SALCs during the COVID-19 pandemic was made by the studies published in September, 2020, in the special issue on self-access and the pandemic of the Studies in Self-Access Learning (SiSAL) Journal, which acts as the main academic hub in the field of SALL, with peer-reviewed papers published quarterly.
The special issue gathered 11 papers from around the world, all with a focus on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on providing and supporting SALL services. However, most discussed the impact of the pandemic on already well-established centers (e.g. Ohara & Ishimura, 2020). I am not aware, as of writing date, of any study that examined the first year of a SALC launched after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three of the papers in the special issue were from contributors in Japan and two from contributors in Mexico, with the rest coming from UAE, Indonesia, The Philippines, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the UK. Apart from dealing with the impact of the pandemic on SALL, the papers also touched upon key aspects of SALL, such as learner autonomy (Al Ghazali, 2020) advising in language learning (Davies et al., 2020; Guban-Caisido, 2020), self-directed learning (Harwood & Koyama, 2020), student support (Kelly et al., 2020), and out-of-class learning (Mideros, 2020). Concepts such as electronic self-access language learning (Anas et al., 2020), and virtual learning environments (Ruiz-Guerrero, 2020; Schneider, 2020) were also discussed.
While all the papers served as the basis and provided inspiration for the writing of this paper, more relevant contributions were made by the concept of operational process models (OPMs), introduced by Navarro Cira and Carillo López (2020), and Ohara and Ishimura’s (2020) discussion on emergency remote support (EMR) for SALCs. Although the obvious common theme with all the above-mentioned papers is that of the impact of the pandemic on providing and supporting SALL services, the present paper distinguishes itself by discussing the challenges encountered while launching and managing a tutoring system at a newly inaugurated SALC. It is hoped that this rather uncommon perspective can make a small contribution to the body of literature on the coronavirus pandemic and SALL.
Starting from the mid 1990’s, the Prefectural University of Kumamoto (PUK) operated a tape library, which offered access to booths where students could watch movies on VHS or listen to music or English language speeches on cassettes. Starting 2007, in a first attempt to implement a SALC within PUK, the tape library was changed into the Language Learning Commons (LLC). A reception desk with two part-time staff and more language learning-oriented resources were also added.
After a restructuring and rebranding process of about a year, the LLC was officially closed in March, 2020, and the new Center for International Education & Exchange (CIEE) together with its dedicated self-access language learning part, the Global Lounge (GL), were inaugurated on April 1st, 2020. The inauguration of the GL as a self-access learning center under the umbrella of the new CIEE happened two and half months after the first COVID-19 patient was reported in Japan on January 16th (Shimizu & Negita, 2020). Two weeks after the inauguration, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency nationwide and the first wave of preventive measures against the spread of the coronavirus was adopted at national level, creating an unprecedented context that affected many aspects of our everyday lives, including our work environments. While the Japanese government’s “Japan Model” approach could be considered to be less drastic than in other parts of the world, with lockdowns lacking enforceability and states of emergency depending on people’s cooperation (Shimizu & Negita, 2020), this still posed unforeseen challenges that greatly affected the operation of the CIEE and the GL.
As its name implies, the CIEE is responsible for managing the international affairs of PUK, including the recruitment and enrollment of international students. To achieve all this, two full-time staff members, one from within the university and one from Kumamoto’s Prefectural Office, plus a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) representative were appointed as CIEE staff members. One faculty member from the Department of English Language & Literature was appointed director.
The GL employs two part-time staff members, positions inherited from the reception desk of the old Language Learning Commons (LLC), plus myself, as the newly hired part-time coordinator and tutor. The GL occupies about two thirds of the space in which the CIEE is located, with the other third being portioned out to include both the CIEE and GL staff desks.
The addition of a coordinator/tutor counts as one of the main differences between the old LLC and the new GL, and a major step towards becoming what Gardner and Miller (1999) refer to as a controlled self-access learning environment, that is a place “in which self-access materials and activities [are] made available in an organized way” (p. 20). The evolution from the old LLC to the new GL also involved a natural transition from a place that not only provides opportunities for students interested in foreign languages to meet, to a place where encouraging all students to make use of the available language learning and human resources and engage in self-directed learning is also a priority.
The language learning resources at the GL cover various languages and learning needs. Most are graded readers for English, with the rest covering Chinese, French, German, and Korean. A variety of resources are also available for language proficiency tests, e.g. TOEIC, TOEFL, HSK, etc. A wide collection of movies on DVD and Blu-ray is available for viewing only inside the GL. One computer and two Blu-ray players are available for use on one side of the GL. Laptops and iPads are available for borrowing and use inside the GL.
Under the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, judging by the area of the GL and the government’s recommendation to keep at least two meters between users, a maximum number of 15 users were allowed at once inside the GL. Eating and drinking were prohibited and everyone, including staff members, was required to wear a mask at all times and to sanitize their hands before entering the GL. Users were also required to use the provided spray sanitizers to sanitize their study environment and GL equipment before and after they used it. Temperature checks were conducted when larger groups of up to 15 users were expected to use the GL at the same time for various activities. The tutoring space inside the GL is not fixed but created using dividers; this gives a sense of privacy while allowing for rapid reconfiguration of the space as needed.
Implementing the Tutoring System
On April 7, 2020, the Japanese Government declared a state of emergency in seven out of the 49 prefectures. Approximately two weeks after the inauguration of the Global Lounge, on April 16, the state of emergency was expanded to the entire nation. The state of emergency in Japan was not enforced, but it relied mostly on the population’s cooperation to comply with a set of guidelines aimed at stopping the spread of the new coronavirus (Shimizu & Negita, 2020). Government institutions had to set an example by following the government’s recommendations while also enacting regulations at an institutional level. According to PUK’s rules, no students were allowed inside the GL during April and most of May.
Before its inauguration, the launch of a face-to-face tutoring system was set as a prime objective for the GL. Under these circumstances it became clear that the only feasible option would be to first implement a temporary online tutoring system. Initially, a few software platforms were considered for the tutoring system, including ZOOM, feature-rich but problematic at that time due to privacy concerns, and LINE, less specialized but highly popular among the Japanese students. The university already had an institutional license for Microsoft Office services, and by the end of April, 2020, Microsoft Teams had been decided as the official platform of PUK for online classes and activities; thus, it also became the official platform for online tutoring sessions. Inside Teams, the Global Lounge Team was created and a few channels were added to the team, each with a focus on different aspects of the GL activities, including an ‘Events’ channel and a ‘Tutoring’ channel.
While other SALCs faced challenges in maintaining contact and providing online support in the beginning months of the pandemic to an existing language learning community focused around their centers (e.g. Schneider, 2020), this was not a concern in the case of the GL. It could be argued that the delay caused by the restrictions allowed for ample time to design and implement the online tutoring system, which was not part of the initial plan of the SALC.
At the end of May, 2020, the emergency level was dropped to level 3 (out of 5), students were allowed inside the GL, and preparations for face-to-face sessions began. During May and June, four tutoring sessions were available daily (online only throughout May) and starting July, the number of sessions was increased to six. Each session lasts for 30 minutes, and right from the beginning the need for a Tutoring Booking Timetable (TBT) to keep things organized emerged. The TBT is a Microsoft Excel file which shows which time slots have already been booked and which are still available for booking during the current month. A new TBT is uploaded to the Tutoring channel every month, after which it is manually updated every time a student books a tutoring session. It can be accessed as a tab inside the Tutoring channel and it is also printed and displayed inside the GL.
As strange as it may seem, in recent decades, from the high-tech capital of the world it once was, Japan has stagnated technologically and it is now considered by many to be a pretty low-tech country (Low-tech Japan challenged in working from home amid pandemic, 2020; Wilson, 2015). The OECD Skills Outlook (2015) has shown that computer operational skills of most adult Japanese are pretty basic. Another study by Cote and Milliner (2016) showed that Japanese students, aged 16 to 29, also have very low computer skills. In the case of PUK, students’ poor computer operational skills were demonstrated when we discovered that most of them faced difficulties accessing even some of the basic features of Teams, so not long after face-to-face sessions were made available, procedural guidance and technical training had to be offered at the end of each tutoring session. This included practical demonstrations on how to access the GL Team, how to view the TBT inside the Tutoring channel, and how to contact the coordinator using the Chat feature included in Teams. Students who were not already members of the GL Team were made members and instructed on how to add other colleagues who wished to join the team. Having as many students as possible joining the GL Team is beneficial when posting a new TBT at the end of each month. With a recently added feature that integrates Teams with Outlook, it is now possible to send out an email announcing the availability of the TBT for the next month to all members of the GL Team without having to maintain a separate mailing list in Outlook.
Initially a channel called “Inquiries” was also added, where we were hoping for students to ask questions and get answers in a relatively short time, having the channel also act as an interactive and growing Q&A platform that could be accessed by anyone looking for answers regarding the GL and its services. Unfortunately, we had only one student posting questions in the course of the first term, and we decided to close the channel before the start of the second term. One explanation for the students’ reluctance to post questions on an open platform like Teams could be the fact that students’ ID numbers and real names are always displayed next to any message posted on channels inside Teams. Given the fact that the Japanese are well known for their reserved nature and Japanese students often experience language anxiety (e.g. Araki, 2010; Kaneko, 2016), this outcome should have been expected, even though interaction within the channel involved the use of the English language only in written form.
While other universities have successfully implemented online booking systems (e.g. Ohara & Ishimura, 2020), due to the lack of adequate technological resources, we had to take a more traditional approach with a combination of a dedicated email address and printed booking forms inside the SALC in the initial stage, and later, after students became more accustomed to Teams, the option to contact the GL coordinator directly was also added. Guides explaining the different booking procedures and how to gain access to the GL Team were made and distributed among students and faculty members. In addition, students’ institutional email addresses facilitated the implementation of the booking system and its integration with Outlook Email and Calendar, but to this day very few of them are actually aware of this feature; therefore, for first-time sessions a few minutes are still reserved to provide students with support in using all the necessary online platforms.
In time, the online tutoring system proved to be more than just a temporary response to an emergency, with quite a few students preferring it even after the emergency level dropped and face-to-face sessions were allowed inside the GL. Therefore, it became clear that it was necessary to keep the online option available for the rest of the 2020 academic year and onward.
Promoting the Tutoring System
Gremmo and Rilley (1995) argue that the success of a SALC depends on learner training. As part of the Welcome Week program for first-year students, which was held for the first time in June, 2020, after a delay of two months, and again in April, 2021, we held five consecutive daily Café Events inside the GL during lunch time, with the purpose of introducing the GL and its services to the first-year students. Café Events are special events held during lunch time where a PUK student or staff member, or sometimes an outside guest speaker, shares their knowledge and experience on different topics. Based on our initial goal to create an English-only environment inside the GL, the first series of presentations, in June, 2020, were held only in English, but judging from the students’ reactions, we could easily conclude that this was not the best approach. Thus, for the second year, we simplified the structure and the language of the presentations, and added more detailed explanations in Japanese.
While other well-established centers already had a community of language learners focused around their SALCs, in the case of the GL at PUK, the biggest challenge, and one of the main tasks, was to build a community of language learners around the SALC. Just as students didn’t rush to make use of the self-access facilities available for the first time in the 1970’s (Little, 2015), here, too, five decades later and on a different continent, students seem to be displaying the same reluctant behavior when first introduced to the concept of SALL. Taking the pandemic context and its social distancing requirements into account, the reluctance seemed understandable, but, as expected, it did add to the complexity of the task to create a stable community of learners around the SALC.
The SALC’s activity was pretty limited in April, 2020, and even after the launch of the online tutoring system at the beginning of May, initially things progressed slowly, with only seven students making contact and booking online tutoring sessions during the whole month of May, 2020. The solution to this challenge came with the first attempt at integrating the tutoring system into the English department curriculum. Gardner and Miller (1999) argue that the initiation into self-access should be carried out by the teachers in the classroom, the place “where many students feel most secure” (p. 156), and suggest that one way to link the classroom with the SALC is through projects or activities that start in class and have to be continued at the SALC. Cooker (2010) agrees that “a certain amount of guidance is necessary for learners to be able to use the center and understand how it operates”, but she also argues that “at no other time should they be required to use the facility”.
The integration of the tutoring system with the English department curriculum was a two-stage process. In the initial stage all first-year students of the department were not required, but were strongly encouraged, to take at least one tutoring session at the GL during the first semester. All 50 students of the English department booked tutoring sessions and all but one attended at least one tutoring session during June and July, 2020. In the second stage the students were asked to pay a visit to the GL during one class, for a brief introduction and to access the resources available inside the GL (books, magazines, movies, games, etc.), after which they had to write a report on their time spent at the GL as part of their mid-term assignments. Having to follow the social distancing rules imposed by the pandemic, the students were divided into groups of up to ten and were allowed to spend 30 minutes inside the GL. The integration process continued throughout 2021, with more teachers from the English department and one from the science department opting to integrate the tutoring system within their curriculum, by encouraging students to take tutoring sessions to improve on their English skills or to accomplish various assignments.
In the initial stage carried out between June and July, 2020, the integration process inevitably led to a sharp increase in the number of students accessing the GL and tutoring sessions, with 16 students attending a total of 44 sessions (38 face-to-face, 6 online) in June, and 55 students attending a total of 91 sessions (57 face-to-face, 34 online) in July, and it is during this period that we had to increase the number of daily sessions from four to six, for a better synchronization of the GL tutoring timetable with the students’ class schedule. The integration turned out to be beneficial not only as a temporary measure to attract students to the SALC and build a community of language learners, but also in the long run, as it generated a word-of-mouth type of ‘marketing’ for the GL and the tutoring system among the students. According to Gardner and Miller (1999), “students are more likely to pay attention to accreditation of SALL which comes from their peers” (p. 34), and our experience supports that claim. Apart from generating a growing stable community of learners, this also led to a number of approximately seven new students (from all three faculties at PUK) on average booking tutoring sessions every month for the rest of the academic year (end of March, 2021).
Gardner and Miller (1999) also place great importance on learner training. They argue that for first-time learners, before being allowed to use the SALC, a counseling session should be conducted, explaining the purpose and benefits of counseling (p. 185). Given the fact that both the CIEE and the GL were newly established facilities, in the initial tutoring session, emphasis was placed on explaining the role of the CIEE inside PUK, the role of the GL as the self-access part of the CIEE, the job of the coordinator/tutor at the GL, and the benefits of the tutoring system. The term ‘self-access language learning’ together with an adapted definition were also introduced during the initial tutoring session. Based on personal observations and notes, none of the students who attended tutoring sessions for the first time during the first year were familiar with the term ‘self-access language learning’.
As for the language used during tutoring sessions, an ‘all English’ approach quickly proved to be less effective than desired. A recent study by Pearce (2021) on the linguistic diversity among Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Japanese elementary schools found that most ALTs had some degree of Japanese ability, and more than half of them (approx. 55%) made use of Japanese quite often during the lessons, which resulted in very positive outcomes. The use of the Japanese language helps the students see foreigners as multilingual individuals which leads to them realizing the multilingual reality of the globalized world (Forlot, 2018, as cited in Pearce, 2021). One ALT from Pearce’s study justified her use of Japanese during classes as follows: “Keeping their (the students’) interest and the doors of communication open is important to justify using some Japanese, since refusing to ‘meet them half-way’ often results in anxiety and giving up attempts to communicate” (Pearce, 2021). Based on my observations during tutoring sessions and interactions with the students at the GL, and judging from my own six-year teaching experience as an ALT in Kumamoto Prefecture, in the case of near-beginner students, an approach based on a mix of ‘easy English’ and ‘easy Japanese’ seemed very appealing and was eventually adopted. As in the case of the ALTs from Pearce’s study, this ‘bilingual’ approach proved to be very effective in getting the message across and the students gave very positive feedback when asked about it.
Gremmo and Riley (1995) argue that “practical experience has shown that a self-directed learning scheme providing a reasonable variety of methodological and linguistic resources can help learners to find their way through any foreign language”. Not long after the first tutoring sessions were conducted, following students’ requests and based on my own experience as a Chinese language learner and educational background in Chinese language teaching, we also started promoting Chinese as another language available for study, through English, at the GL.
Managing the Tutoring System
The inauguration of the GL under the unfortunate circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic unavoidably delayed the launch of the tutoring system. While online tutoring sessions were started at the beginning of May, face-to-face tutoring sessions were started only after the government lifted the state of emergency in all prefectures of Japan, two months after the launch of the GL. In spite of that, the university, following the prefectural government’s guidance, kept its own emergency level at 3 (out of 5), which required a set of precautionary measures (still in effect as of writing date) to be carried out before and after each face-to-face tutoring session.
A safe distance of at least two meters has to be kept between the tutor’s desk and the learner’s, and close-contact conversation should be avoided even when standing. Since face-to-face tutoring sessions can be conducted with up to four students at a time, roughly the same distance is kept between all desks.
Everyone inside the GL is required to wear a protective mask at all times, including during face-to-face sessions, and by far this is the measure that has the most obvious impact on the interaction between the tutor and the learners. For example, explaining how to pronounce a certain sound or word while the only visible part of the face is the eyes is obviously a demanding task and it often doesn’t generate very successful results. One workaround involves the use of online language learning resources, plus an iPad connected to an Apple TV device. The AirPlay function allows the streaming of pictures and videos on a large display, which is helpful for a variety of language learning activities, including for phonetics purposes.
Before going into more specific problems related to the management of the tutoring system itself from an administrative point of view, it is worth also discussing the overall management of SALCs, as this is an important but often overlooked aspect of SALL, even though it has been often discussed in the literature, with notable contributions coming from Gardner and Miller (1999, 2011, 2013a, 2013b).
According to the operational process model (OPM) proposed by Navarro Cira and Carillo López (2020), the manager, coordinator, or administrator of a SALC is responsible for planning and leading the SALC’s activities and to support all the people involved in the provision of the services (i.e., advisors and staff). Gardner and Miller (1999) also argue that “the self-access manager is a middle manager accountable for a set of resources and the activities of a group of people” and that “perhaps the most serious problem a SAC can suffer from is lack of management” (p. 71).
Navarro Cira and Carillo López (2020) further suggest that there should be a clear distinction between administrative tasks (management process) and academic tasks (service realization) inside a SALC. Judging from my own experience as both a coordinator (administrative tasks) and a tutor (academic tasks) at the GL, I concur with their suggestion and I can attest the fact that administrative tasks can be time-consuming and can get in the way of academic tasks. In order to allow SALCs to focus on providing high-quality academic services to learners, institutions should recognize that self-access management is an important task and requires a certain level of expertise (Gardner & Miller, 1999, p. 72), and ideally the management process should be kept as simple as possible, free of unnecessary bureaucratic strain.
Also, if the SALC is operating under a larger facility, as is the case at PUK, with the GL (the self-access part) operating under the CIEE (management of international affairs), the bureaucratic burden of the dominant facility can have an impact on the academic performance and the overall performance of the SALC. In other words, if the SALC is not a stand-alone recognized facility, the facility under which it operates can have a great influence on the whole SALL process, since more time and human resources might have to be allocated to running the higher-level facility.
Datwany-Choy (2016) argues that SALCs should also have a system to check the exact number of learners actually served. Even though the GL has an automatic check-in system where students have to scan the bar codes on their student ID cards when entering and exiting, the system only records the entry and exit times, without including any information about the purpose of the visit. Also, the system logs each visit as a separate entry, without providing any automated links to additional data on the student’s previous visits. While this kind of system can provide an accurate view of the number of users, an upgrade to the system to include, among other things, the purpose and materials accessed during each visit under a single user profile log would be beneficial in better understanding students’ use of the SALC. This would also ease the administrative burden of the coordinator and other staff, as not having to manually enter the above-mentioned data in a separate system will obviously allow more time to be spent on academic tasks.
Since the GL is lacking the above-mentioned comprehensive user log system, while performing my administrative tasks I have created and implemented a separate system to keep track of all the tutoring sessions and the exact number of users served. Due to the lack of more advanced technical equipment and support, Microsoft Excel was used to create a file with separate sheets to record and monitor different aspects of the tutoring system. Among other details, the data stored includes the date and time, the type (face-to-face or online), the language (English or Chinese, or Japanese in the case of international students), and the purpose of the session (language learning advice, test practice, conversation, etc.). The system also automatically generates a unique session ID, separate entries of each student’s visits, and an overview of the tutoring system with relevant quantitative data.
The upper management of PUK is interested in knowing the exact number of tutoring sessions and learners served every month and how many of the learners are first-time users of the tutoring system. Thus, a report with all the required data is submitted every month. However, Datwany-Choy (2016) argues that a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of the SALC, as a way to evaluate the performance of the SALC, “requires more than summative reports based on headcounts”, and Gardner and Miller (1999) state that “these statistics are useful but they do not measure effectiveness” (p. 76).
Rubesch and Barrs (2014) have discussed the importance of supporting a physical SALC (under normal conditions) with a virtual presence using technologies such as a website or social media sites. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an online presence became vital for many SALCs around the world. In the case of PUK, the main technology used to create an online presence and promote the tutoring system and other activities of the GL is the Microsoft Teams platform. Rubesch and Barrs (2014) further argue that “the heart of the online presence” for the SALC at Kanda University of International Studies is the student-centered website, which also “acts as the online hub of the SALC”.
While the CIEE and the GL at PUK do not have a website of their own, the front page of the university’s website contains a link called kokusaikōryu (国際交流 – International Exchange) which leads to another page where separate links to the CIEE and the GL can be found. This is not a major drawback for the online presence of the GL, but the use of the website by the GL staff is rather problematic. Due to various bureaucratic obstacles, which can go all the way up to the upper management of the university, last-minute changes and information regarding the tutoring system and activity of the GL cannot be uploaded in time on the website, as it takes up to four working days to pass through all the bureaucratic channels and get approval for posting any new information on the university’s website.
Fortunately, in the beginning of the present academic year (April, 2021 — March, 2022), the university started operating a web portal using the Microsoft SharePoint services. Access is granted to the students after logging in using their institutional email and password. Posting information on the portal is faster, as approval is needed only from the CIEE management. Inside the portal, the CIEE has its own dedicated space with a menu containing links to various services and activities of the center. The GL and the tutoring system have their own separate links, but even though I have tried on numerous occasions to point out the fact that the main objective of the GL and the tutoring system is to promote student/learner autonomy with the proper use of language advising techniques by the tutor, in the case of the GL, but also referred to as “(language) learning advisor” (Carson & Mynard, 2012), the higher management insists on promoting the GL and the tutoring system as a place and service dedicated to English language conversation practice, commonly known within the Japanese society as eikaiwa (英会話), which literally means “English language conversation” and is offered as a paying service by many private language teaching companies in Japan.
Therefore, the pages dedicated to the Global Lounge and the tutoring system on the portal, and also on the university’s website, contain no information related to the promotion of student/learner autonomy and very little on advising in language learning, focusing mainly on presenting activities involving English language conversation. While I am by no means against the idea of having English language conversation activities inside the GL, as this is indeed an accepted and encouraged practice within many SALCs in Japan, it is my opinion that the information on the GL and the tutoring system should reflect the true nature and scope of the SALC and its activities. These are two examples where bureaucracy and inadequate management can get in the way of the smooth operation of a SALC, hindering its progress and academic performance.
Other Related Issues
One of the main challenges posed by the social distancing restrictions recommended by the Japanese government since the onset of the pandemic was allowing students to be involved in the operation of the GL for administrative or peer support services. Involvement of students in the operation of the SALC is encouraged for promoting student ownership, a concept also discussed by Werner and Von Joo (2018), who argue that some ways to promote student ownership of SALCs are through leading a student club and/or engaging student staff members.
While an initial attempt at creating a Global Lounge Club was carried out, it was abandoned after a few online meetings, when it became clear that the desired level of student involvement could not be achieved under those circumstances. Thus, a new goal for the second year of the GL was to allow some of the regular users of the GL to get involved in a club or student committee, but again the restrictions of the ongoing pandemic did not allow this to happen. Fortunately, this idea has not been abandoned, and one of our main goals for when the circumstances will allow it, is to create a Global Lounge student committee, not only for the purpose of promoting student ownership, but also with the aim of creating an informal counterpart of the official CIEE committee, which to a large degree is in charge of important decisions regarding the GL. One of the benefits of having a student committee is that it can also aid in promoting the use of the GL with the help of satisfied users that are actively involved and understand the concept of SALL. As already mentioned above, according to Gardner and Miller (1999), students do not only influence each other when it comes to the benefits of SALL, but faculty and staff members who are less aware of the concept of SALL and its benefits might also be influenced by the students’ opinions (p. 34).
It has been observed in other parts of the world and recently discussed in the literature (e.g. Ohara & Ishimura, 2020) that students’ home internet connection speed greatly affected the smooth operation of online classes and/or activities. This phenomenon was also observed among PUK students. There were quite a few instances where students wanted to end the tutoring sessions before the allowed time had run out due to the poor quality of audio and video caused by slow internet connection speed. One way to alleviate this problem is for both the student and the coordinator to turn off the video feature and switch to audio only. According to the official documentation on Microsoft Teams, “when bandwidth is insufficient, Teams prioritizes audio quality over video quality” (Prepare your organization’s network for Teams, 2021). The ‘audio only’ option is, of course, only a temporary fix and a compromise which does not solve the problem in the long run, and it evidently has an influence on the students’ overall ability to enjoy and make proper use of the online tutoring sessions, which, with no video available, have basically the same functionality as a phone conversation. However, in extreme situations, it allows the students to continue the tutoring sessions and not give up.
While the initial goal was to create an English-only environment inside the GL, and even though the staff and I tried to steer the conversations inside the GL towards English, we quickly realized that this was not feasible for various reasons. Among the most important was some students’ inability to understand and follow conversations beyond basic level, and thus they seemed reluctant to engage further. Another reason was the students’ natural tendency to use both their mother tongue and the target language in daily conversations (García, 2008). As it has already been discussed in the literature (Werner & Von Joo, 2018; Ohara & Ishimura, 2020), adopting a translanguaging approach could be one of the solutions for such environments. In our case, translanguaging coupled with a new desire to transform the GL into a multilingual environment, with English having the role of lingua franca, proved to be the optimal solution. There is no ban on the languages allowed inside the GL, and except English and Japanese, the native languages spoken by the international students who are frequent users of the GL, and also by some of the staff (e.g. Chinese), tend to be the most used.
This short analysis was carried out with the aim of examining the inaugural year of the GL, with an initial focus on implementing, promoting, and managing the tutoring system while facing and trying to overcome the challenges and limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic mainly over the course of a full academic year in Japan (April, 2020 through March, 2021), while briefly covering a few important aspects of the following academic year. The obvious conclusion is that inevitably the unfortunate circumstances had an effect on all three stages of the process, and many factors were influenced by the restrictions imposed, especially in the initial phase of the pandemic, which coincides with the implementation stage of the tutoring system.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, the need for one-on-one tutoring sessions is probably higher than ever. Online tutoring/advising might be a solution that works best in places where the pandemic restrictions are still rather strict and do not allow much contact between students and teachers. The use of proper electronic equipment is necessary and can be of great help not only during online tutoring sessions, but also during face-to-face sessions for activities and tasks that are no longer possible due to the pandemic-related constraints.
Since some traditional classes are still carried out online, there are certain needs that cannot be fulfilled. The approaches discussed in the present paper have demonstrated that face-to-face tutoring sessions can be managed if proper safety measures are implemented. Face-to-face interaction is obviously necessary to fill the gaps that online teaching and learning generate. Face-to-face sessions can offer the extra help, individual support, and a level of human interaction which cannot be achieved in the online learning environment.
Based on my own experience and of others (Thompson & Atkinson, 2010), implementing self-access in the curriculum, without forcing it on(to) the students, is difficult and time-consuming. Even though the first attempt at PUK showed an increase in the number of users and helped popularize the GL among the students, especially the freshmen, still much work needs to be done in order to achieve a deeper and more comprehensive integration of the tutoring system into the English language curriculum of all three faculties at PUK.
Finally, it is my view that a minimum understanding of the concept of SALL throughout the management chain of institutions and facilities involved in operating a SALC is instrumental in achieving a higher level of academic performance. The liberation from unnecessary bureaucratic constraints and obligations of those running the SALC, especially when available staff is limited, also plays a crucial role in maintaining a smooth SALL process. These are two of the factors that, based on my experience, can have a deep impact on the overall performance of a SALC, not only under the special circumstances imposed by a pandemic, but also in normal times.
Notes on the Contributor
Viorel Ristea is the coordinator and tutor at the Global Lounge, the dedicated self-access part of the Center for International Education & Exchange at Prefectural University of Kumamoto (PUK). He is now enrolled in a PhD program at PUK, involving self-access language learning and tutoring. His research interests also include self-directed learning, learner autonomy and advising in language learning.
I am most grateful to Prof. Richard Lavin for his continuous and unreserved support, advice and guidance. I would like to extend my gratitude to the anonymous reviewer and the editorial team for their insightful feedback, helpful comments and constructive suggestions.
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