Cultural Consideration for Learner Autonomy

Here’s a post for this month’s ELTresearch blog carnival on Learner Autonomyfor info click here.

Article: Dias, J. (2000). Learner Autonomy in Japan: Transforming ‘Help Yourself’ from Threat to Invitation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13(1), 49-64.

In the article Joseph Dias reports on an action research project in a speaking/listening class at a Japanese University in 1999. The project was to record the influence that the presence of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) had on students’ attitudes, motivation, and language use. Students were surveyed at the beginning and at the end of the course and the results, although mixed, showed that students who were exposed to ICT “made greater efforts to speak English with their classmates and teacher”.

One of the purposes of the action research project was to encourage self-directed and independent learning in the students. Students in the classes that were studied (apx 300) were likely to not have extensive experience with these types of ICT, nor would they likely have much experience with self-directed and independent learning.

In Japan, as the article states, students are exposed to computers and digital environments at varying points in the educational system. The article notes that because teachers and students in High School are too busy preparing for entrance exams, that unless they are exposed to ICT in Junior High many students will encounter digital environments for educational purposes for the first time when they begin university study. I imagine this has changed considerably since the time of this study.

In Confucian based societies, education systems traditionally do not promote autonomous learning skills, leaving young learners with a gap in abilities of deeper contextual learning and self-directed study skills. From my experience, this is true in Japan, where educational environments (although changing) are highly transmissive and center on the teacher as an authority. This is why I chose this article (despite it not being open access, sorry. I haven’t included the link and don’t recommend paying for it) – autonomy in Asian EFL contexts is such an essential variable to consider when teaching and designing instruction, a variable that doesn’t and can’t fit into Eastern educational systems the same way that it does in Western contexts.

When it comes to Distance Education and Cross-Border Instruction, debates about cultural bias, Western bias and even neo-colonialism are important to have (Note this from last week, aimed at MOOCs) because the matter will play a role in building effective instruction or not. Regardless of which side of the issues one leans, education is embedded in culture. Regardless of what one considers is researched best practice, these values may not transfer over into a different culture with a different educational system. Research conducted in one culture might not be applicable in all cultures.

Dias seems to be aware of this difference, quoting from Healy (1999) about cultural differences and the bias of Western concepts. Dias notes the negative connotations that promoting self-directed learning in Japan will bring with it, thus he tries to design the activities in his course with this in mind – namely with peer-to-peer support. This is the core point of the study, I feel.

The ICT involved in the study included a web browser, a class mailing list, authoring software, email, and word processing software. The class where the ICT was implemented was a ‘functional language’, and the researchers were aware that the use of ICT would reduce the amount time they had to cover all of the material that they normally do. In their eyes, they would be covering less material but at a greater depth. The ICT use was supported in various ways, guiding students to become self-directed with both teacher and peer support.

The surveys administered were intended to measure attitudes, motivation, and English use by the students. Here are some points from the results:

  • more than 25% of students not in the ICT classes received no exposure to computers
  • students asked for additional digital literacy skill training from teachers
  • in low computer use cultures, this may be time consuming on teachers who do use ICT
  • many students had not used email in English prior to the classes
  • using computers to study English ranked last in a list of ICT experience
  • There was a major difference (40-70%) between ICT and non-ICT classes in reported effort to use English with classmates and with teachers
  • Students in ICT classes were instructed to teach classmates on ICT techniques, but they also frequently taught others students (friends) in non-ICT classes

The results were not conclusive in any absolute way – no single research project of this type could be. However, the results were encouraging. As noted, this study dates back to 1999, perhaps a time when the window of testing such things (at least from the computer/digital experience angle) had just opened and was about to close. In less than a decade, students would have much more experience with computers, and mobility would permeate. Although, maybe this only means that the digital skills taught now, a decade and a half later, need to be more specialized. Autonomous skills are now in the spotlight.

I find studies like this fascinating. Autonomy skills have emerged in today’s world-of-access as Essential Skills. Yet, there are the contextual and cultural distinctions to consider. Asian countries and their educational systems are not evolving into western ones (to approach instruction as so would be drastically wrong). Non-English speaking culture educational systems exist as their own, with their own histories, regardless of subject matter and even as they develop autonomous components.


Healey, D. (1999). Autonomy in language learning. In J. Egbert and E. Hanson-Smith (Eds.), CALL environments: Research, practice, and critical issues (pp. 391-402). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.


One thought on “Cultural Consideration for Learner Autonomy

  1. Pingback: The 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival on Learner Autonomy has arrived! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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