The 2012 Independent Learning Association Conference in Wellington, New Zealand

Vick L. Ssali, Aichi Gakuin University


The 5th Independent Learning Association 2012 was held at Victoria University of Wellington from Thursday, August 30th to Sunday, September 2nd. It was under the theme Autonomy in a Networked World. With three pre-conference workshops, five plenary sessions and over 110 presentations, practitioners and researchers had lots of chances to exchange ideas on fostering learner autonomy in a rapidly changing language-learning field. The beauty and calmness of Wellington; the wonderfully relaxing location of Victoria University; the sincerely welcoming spirit of the Kiwis, and the meticulous precision of the organizers, all helped make this conference a memorable occasion. I tried to attend as many sessions as possible in order to have as a wide a feel for the conference as possible.

Mike Levy, a professor of second language studies at the University of Queensland, was the first keynote speaker and he talked about the need for teachers to find ways of making the best use of the technologies students bring to class. The title of his presentation was The Students’ Voice in Designing Optimal CALL Environments: Approaching questions of autonomy and independence in a networked world, and he succinctly summarized what the conference was mainly about. He argued that teachers should tap into such popular tools as mobile apps, online dictionaries and many others. He argued that although they may not be perfect, they will be very useful in the creation of effective technology-mediated learning environments in the future.

Another keynote speaker who went to the core of the theme of autonomy in language learning was Andy Gao, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong. He expounded on what he called, “the fundamental interaction” between the currently popular concepts of autonomy and agency. He claimed that autonomy, traditionally defined as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning’” (Holec 1981:3), is specific to the individual learner and is self-regulatory. He described Agency, on the other hand, as the total sum of the universal, sociocultural factors that drive learners on to the path of autonomous language learning. He argued that agency is therefore the universal prerequisite for the genuine practice of autonomy. 

Japan and JALT were noted for their big presence. Over 70 of the 180 or so delegates were Japan-based teachers and researchers! Many of them described the various programs they are involved in, at their respective institutions, to help students take the all- important step from being language learners to being language users. 

One of my own favorite presentations was by Garold Murray, Naomi Fujishima, and Mariko Uzuka of Okayama University. Their presentation, The Power of Place: Autonomy and Space, outlined the importance learners attach to language interaction spaces as they transform them into places of action in their language learning process. The presenters’ description of events and the results of a survey-based study that investigated learners’ self-efficacy beliefs and self-regulation strategies, the English Café they set up at Okayama University, is an example of what I discussed in my own co-presentation on the necessity of teachers and innovators expanding classrooms into language interaction spaces.

Overall, the presentations and plenary sessions I attended were of very high quality. Not only the big names in the field of independent learning, but also other researchers and practitioners from all over the world gave well-researched and inspiring reports on the efforts at their respective institutions to develop and nurture autonomy in language learning.

The organizers must also be commended for a job so well done. From the scheduling of the presentations to the constant supply of relevant information, I have no doubt that most, if not all the delegates, appreciated the good work that went into the organization of this international conference. From the student interns to the conference co-conveners themselves, all the organizers were always at hand to guide the participants in any way required. The catering is another area that must be commended. Being provided with food and snacks during both tea and lunch breaks spared us the hassle of running in and out of the venue to look for shops and cafes. One would sometimes feel we were getting more than what we had paid for.

One area that I found wanting was the size of rooms. They were too small for almost all the presentations I attended. Many attendees would be seen squatting or standing during sessions. Besides this, however, this 5th Independent Learning Association Conference was a pleasure to attend, and personally I am already looking forward with high hopes to the next one in Bangkok, Thailand in 2014.

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