Flexible design of self-access learning centres for longevity

This article is not a discussion about the efficacy of self-access learning centres. (In recent years, some universities have backed away from physical centres, switching to online resources instead.) Instead, my assumption is that there is value in making available spaces for independent learning equipped with suitable resources. Moreover, my focus is on the secondary/high school level of education rather than on tertiary.

My concern is how relatively small educational institutions can maintain and develop quite costly self-access learning centres in the long-term. Initially, when an institution establishes such a learning facility, its novelty value stimulates student participation. However, this enthusiasm tends to peter out. Therefore, I suggest a way to keep such facilities well-utilised and worth the investment.

That way is flexible room design.

Some physical learning centres are beautifully designed, with sculpted furniture, carpets, etc. and work well as inviting environments. Here is an example:

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On the down side, rooms like this usually have fixed furniture and are space-inefficient, in other words there are relatively few seats and computers. (With the increased use of tablets and other mobile devices, however, a low number of networked PCs is becoming less of a concern.)

Another common room design is almost indistinguishable from a traditional computer lab; desktop computers are arranged in rows or in clusters, like this:

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The room can accommodate many learners but is not that enticing and restricts interactions. Yet the main problem, to my mind, is both designs’ static nature. Compare this learning centre:

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The computers are around the edge of a large space. The furniture is movable and can be flexibly arranged. At the front of the room is an interactive whiteboard. So, this room can easily double as a classroom that is ideal for, e.g., project classes, enquiry-based learning or academic writing lessons.

Such versatility means that more use can be made of these expensive facilities. The room still operates as a self-access centre during lunchtimes and after school.

Here is an alternative design that is also flexible:

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In this room, the desks and wheeled-chairs can be moved easily and there are power sockets in the floor for laptops and tablets. Some paper-resources and a few desktops are present on the edge of the room. Again, there is an interactive whiteboard and other AV aids at the front.

Finally, here is a smaller space that is very versatile:

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This room is intended for small group work, consultations, meetings and club activities as well as individual self-access learning.

In sum, flexible room design is one measure to  make it more likely that the facilities will continue to be genuinely useful for learners and schools.

Loop input: A valuable training strategy

First off, I want to thank Tessa Woodward for the idea of loop input. She introduced the concept in a 1986 article in The Teacher Trainer journal and articulated it again in her 1991 book, Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies.

Since reading about this training strategy, I have experimented and found it to have the distinct advantage of making the content of professional development workshops highly memorable.

So what is it? In short, with loop input the message of the training and its means of delivery coincide. This is best understood through examples, and in this post I would like to present a couple that I have developed. This has been done before, for example in this entry on John Hughes excellent blog elteachertrainer. However, the additional contribution I would like to make is to provide examples beyond the language teaching profession. Below are two examples of loop input for trainers of all disciplines.

Example 1: An opening activity to introduce the topic of thinking skills

I was tasked by a secondary school to provide a staff development session on the topic of developing students’ thinking skills. When I was writing the materials for this session, I decided that I needed a dynamic, interactive opening activity that would also serve to introduce the topic. My goals for this activity were mainly to engage the participants, but following its completion I wanted to be able to provoke initial reflections on different ways of thinking. This would then lead into more detailed consideration of the ways of thinking that are needed for success in different school subjects, e.g. history or mathematics.

As I was searching for inspiration, I recalled an entertaining language activity in Jill Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games that I had used many times in ESOL lessons and had always proved a winner. It is called Detective Work and is a card game designed originally to practise reporting past events. Students work in small groups, turn up one card at a time from a pile, and discuss the clues to the murder that are on the cards. In the process, they should use several verb forms.

I adapted Detective Work in two ways. Firstly, I changed the context of the murder to the school in which I was leading the professional development session. Seeking approval beforehand, I made one of the vice-principals the victim and one of the teachers the perpetrator. This was the cause of some hilarity in the session. Secondly, after the task was completed and the groups had all solved the murder mystery, in plenary I posed the question, “How did you solve the crime?”. This led to a discussion of the distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Having just directly experienced deductive reasoning themselves, teachers appeared not to confuse it with inductive reasoning, as could easily happen. Moreover, sometime later teachers from this school remarked upon that task to me. Their recall was partly due to how much they had enjoyed playing the role of detective and competing with other groups to solve the murder. My hope is that they also recalled the message of the activity.

Example 2: A complete development session on the topic of learner autonomy / self-directed learning

My overall goal for this whole-day staff development session with 70+ teachers at a secondary school was to help teachers grasp the importance of scaffolding the process by which students become more independent. I also hoped that the outcomes of this session would dovetail with earlier professional development at this school on the topic of differentiating instruction.

So, instead of leading a conventional training session, which typically would include input on research findings from me followed by discussion work on how to apply those findings in the school’s distinct learning environments, I opted to give the participants more freedom of choice.

At the outset, I helped teachers to synthesize a plausible working definition of “learner autonomy” from several that had been sourced from the literature. Then, I provided eight possible learning objectives for the session and invited teachers to select two or three that were most relevant to their individual needs. They also selected the sequence in which they would try activities designed to bring them closer to their chosen learning goals. These activities had been designed as self-access materials with accompanying instructions. The teachers were aware of a prescribed, overall time limit and managed their time accordingly.

At the end of the time limit, teachers came together and reflected on whether they had chosen learning objectives wisely, what they had actually learned, and whether they had managed their learning appropriately. Participation in this process led participants naturally to the apparently paradoxical conclusion that independent learning still needs to be guided by teachers, at least until students’ metacognitive awareness has developed sufficiently.

Conclusion

I have found loop input to be a useful addition to my training strategies repertoire. It is not always appropriate, but sometimes combining the message and the process is potent and memorable.

Hadfield, J. (1990). Intermediate communication games. Nelson.

Woodward, T. (1986). Loop input – a process idea. The Teacher Trainer, 1:6-7. Pilgrims.

Woodward, T. (1991). Models and metaphors in language teacher training: Loop input and other strategies. Cambridge University Press.

Apps for self-directed learning

There are several kinds of apps that can assist you with your learning and help you to develop effective learning habits. Below are 21 recommended apps in 7 categories, and suggestions on how to exploit them.

Many are free to download, but for those which are not, e.g. iStudiezPro, there is usually a free version with restricted functionality. You can experiment with the free version to see whether you like the app enough to invest in the full version. Actually, there are hundreds of such apps on iTunes and Google Play, so why not try others, too.

When evaluating an app, one thing to take note of is its integration with other software and hardware. For instance, Evernote and StudyBlue accounts can be connected, making it easy to create revision flashcards based on notes that you have taken. Mindjet files sync from your smartphone or tablet to your desktop computer via Dropbox.

It is also worthwhile exploring the user guides, video tutorials and case studies that makers of the apps often provide. These can help you realize the full potential of the apps and consider alternative ways to use them.

Study planner apps

Using this kind of app can help get you into the habit of managing your time effectively. Besides keeping track of lectures and tutorials, study planner apps allow you to organize study tasks, assignments and projects according to course schedules, and to set your study priorities. These apps can also provide timely reminders to complete tasks and keep a record of your course grades.

IStudyPlan

istudiez-pro-review

 

My Study Life

Flashcard apps

These apps can be powerful revision aids. After identifying key terminology in your courses, you can create flashcards for important concepts and later be tested on your retention through a variety of quizzes. Progress is tracked and incorrect answers will be retested. Besides your own flashcards, you can browse and use millions of flashcards made by other learners.

  • StudyBlue (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)
  • Quizlet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • gFlash+ (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)

study_blue

quizlet_logo_large

gflash

Dictionary apps

Dictionary apps contain a wealth of information to assist you with academic reading and writing. Besides checking the meanings of words, you can see example sentences and find out common collocations. The thesaurus component in the apps can help you select precisely the right words for written assignments, and hearing the pronunciation of words can assist you with academic listening and speaking.

dictionary

merriam

wordweb

Mind mapping apps

You can utilize these apps in a number of ways. For instance, mind maps are great tools to capture and organize ideas for assignments and projects. They may also be used to rework lecture notes into a more visual format. Some learners employ mind maps as revision aids. These apps work very well on tablets, and the mind maps may be co-created online.

  • Freemind (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Mindjet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • iMindMapHD (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)

Freemind_logo

Mindjet

iMindMap

Bibliography apps

For higher education students, these apps can speed up the process of generating citations and compiling reference lists. With them you can scan or capture metadata and then they will automatically generate references in several styles, e.g. APA, MLA and Chicago. Whereas EasyBib is a free mobile app, Zotero and Mendeley are extensions for web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome.

  • EasyBib (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Zotero (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox, iPad/iPhone [Zotpad])
  • Mendeley (Any Web browser, Mac, iPad, iPhone,Windows phone, Kindle Fire)

easybibvectorlogo

zotero

Mendeley

Note-making apps

These powerful apps can do more for you than providing a convenient notepad. They enable you to collect information on an academic topic from anywhere into a single place. This information can be in many forms, e.g. images, text, web pages, audio/video clips.  The information can then be edited, annotated, filed, and even shared with other students.

  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • OneNote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)
  • GoodReader (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)

evernote

one-note-logo

GoodReader_Logo

Scanner Apps

This kind of app can boost efficiency when working with text in several ways. Many kinds of text can be scanned as JPEG or PDF files, including handwritten notes and text embedded in images. Once scanned, you have the options to straighten, crop and combine pages. Those with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) enable export of PDFs to Word, Excel or Text files. PDFs may also be shared or printed wirelessly.

  • Genius Scan (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • CamScanner (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8)

Genius-Scan-icon

evernote

CamScanner

I hope that you have found this list useful. If you discover better apps, or new categories of learning apps, or new ways to use them, I’m all ears…