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Review of  Autonomous Language Learning with Technology


Reviewer: Ali Dincer
Book Title: Autonomous Language Learning with Technology
Book Author: Chun Lai
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 29.580

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

In one of his recent books, which provided a snapshot of the growth of the topic of autonomy in the field of foreign/second language (L2), Benson (2013) reported that an increasing number of articles and special issues have been published in the language learning and teaching journals, that several leading international conferences have taken place, that a number of collaborative works have been conducted and that over 30 book-length publications have been produced within the last decade. Despite the sheer quantity of the literature on autonomy, most studies are concerned with in-class or institutional language learning (Benson & Reinders, 2011; Reinders & Benson, 2017). What happens outside of the classroom in regard to successful language learning is little known and, therefore, more research is needed to gain an in-depth understanding (Lai, Zhu, & Gong, 2015). Hence, autonomous language learning beyond the classroom, with its various names (e.g., out-of-class learning, non-instructional learning, after-class, extracurricular or out-of-school), still lingers as a relatively unexplored terrain (Lai et al., 2015; Reinders & Benson, 2017). Given this, autonomy beyond the classroom is a promising topic of interest for educators and will have its heyday in the years to come with the proliferation of information and communication technologies in the era of digital language learning and teaching. Chun Lai, with her timely book, Autonomous Language Learning with Technology: Beyond the Classroom, makes a clear contribution to this less-charted terrain with reference to K-12 schools and universities. She provides readers with an overview of the phenomenon in a book with three sections and a total of nine chapters.

The first section, Understanding Out-of-Class Autonomous Language Learning with Technology, has four chapters. This section presents background knowledge of the importance of autonomous language learning beyond the classroom. It comprises topics on the key terminologies, theoretical backgrounds, nature and decisive factors of learners’ out-of-class autonomous language learning with technology.

The first chapter, Introducing Key Concepts, discusses the concepts pertinent to autonomy and technology. After a short description of the autonomy and goals of autonomous language learning, the author draws a yin-yang shape by centring autonomous language learning with technology beyond the classroom. Later, she illustrates a framework of reference for the relationship between autonomous language learning and three goals (i.e., autonomy as language learner, autonomy as language user and autonomy as person). Finally, she elaborates on autonomous learning with reference to the associated terms of self-directed learning, agency, informal learning and so forth.

The second chapter, Theoretical Backgrounds and Frameworks, is a highly comprehensive review of the reciprocal relationship between technology and autonomous language learning. With reference to the literature (Benson, 2005; Murray, 1999, as cited in this book) and emphasizing that the faith in learner autonomy is largely dependent on technology, Lai summarizes various models from the theoretical perspectives of autonomy beyond the classroom and stresses that the models presented in the book depict different lenses of the phenomena rather than a comprehensive list. After proposing a more detailed version of the framework, which had already been presented in the first chapter, she discusses the phenomenon in light of the three goals of autonomous learning in the model.

The third chapter, The Nature of Out-of-Class Autonomous Language Learning with Technology, encompasses the different facets of the concept and provides the reader with research-based findings regarding the concept in question. By drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that work on autonomous language learning is in its infancy, Lai deals with the nature of autonomous learning beyond the classroom in terms of learners’ use of technology, interaction with various technological resources and the construction of language-learning ecology through in-class and out-of-class learning. After describing out-of-class practices, she questions the quality of learning ecology and focuses a lens on the positive associations between out-of-class learning experience and outcomes. To assess learners’ learning experience outside the classroom, she then conceptualizes a balance-oriented framework for the quality of out-of-class language learning.

The fourth chapter, Factors that Affect Out-of-Class Autonomous Language Learning with Technology, examines a subset of factors that affect learners’ selection of technological tools for their self-directed learning and discusses these factors under two headings: learner internal and learner external factors. Based on a range of research from across the world, Lai first provides readers with some oft-cited internal factors of autonomous language learning beyond technology, such as gender, language proficiency level, language learning beliefs/values and language learning preferences. Later, she lists some research-based external factors. These include social context, comprising language teachers, peers and parents of learners, expectation and instruction type of educational institutions and characteristics of technological resources. In addition to these two stand-alone factors (i.e., internal and external factors), Lai emphasizes the joint facilitative role of these factors in determining language learners’ selection of technological tools in their learning. She ends the chapter with a call for more research to address the factors that affect out-of-class autonomous learning.

The second section of the book, entitled Promoting Out-of-Class Autonomous Language Learning with Technology, consists of three chapters that discuss how to promote and support language learners’ autonomous learning with technology beyond the classroom. More specifically, Lai examines language learners’ needs and the roles of teachers for the development of learner autonomy. She outlines the major design principles for educators wishing to create technology-enhanced language learning resources.

The fifth chapter, Learner Training, begins with a summary of language learners’ perceptions regarding autonomous language learning with technology beyond the classroom. Lai then unfolds the divergence in learners’ and teachers’ expectations of technology support beyond the classroom. She agrees with the idea that learners need explicit training activities to use technology and tools for acquiring self-directed study skills in language learning. Finally, she presents research-based evidence in response to the questions of what to support and how to support learners’ autonomous language learning with technology.

The sixth chapter, Teachers' Role, emphasizes how important teacher autonomy is for learners’ academic life and achievements and then provides research evidence regarding the role of teacher autonomy in shaping learners’ use of technology beyond the classroom. By tying together two viewpoints, the component and process-oriented framework, Lai describes how teacher autonomy is a prerequisite for learner autonomy, why language teachers are reluctant to hand control to students and why they cannot create autonomy-supportive conditions. Referring to other studies (e.g., Hafner & Young, 2007; Little, 1995, as cited in this book), she concludes that to help teachers fulfil their responsibilities in promoting students’ learning beyond the classroom, they should be informed about self-regulated learning through in-service training and should go through the same autonomous experiences as their learners.

The seventh chapter, The Resource and Environment Design, is the last chapter in this section and here Lai explores the factors that affect the design of out-of-class technology for language learning. She adds further details of language learners’ engagement and active involvement in language learning with the design of technology-enhanced resources. She lists three major design principles for out-of-class learning. These are: (a) language educators should maximize the language-learning potential of the learners, (b) they should achieve an optimal balance between in-class and out-of-class learning activities and (c) they should prepare learner-centric designs.

The third, and also the final section of the book, is entitled, Researching Out-of-Class Autonomous Language Learning with Technology. With the aim of reaching conclusions and identifying faith in autonomous language learning beyond the classroom, this section includes two chapters that present the current and future research perspectives of out-of-class language learning.

The eighth chapter, Towards a Research Agenda of Out-of-Class Autonomous Language Learning with Technology, proposes a research agenda under the two key headings of research areas and research methods. Lai first summarizes the current literature under three main themes: (a) research profiling, (b) evaluating the effects and (c) promoting out-of-class autonomous language learning with technology. She discusses these areas in detail by providing samples of showcase research that she considers to be “… somewhat biased towards certain regions and the learning English” (p.162). She then links current and future research foci in a tabular format. Later, she discusses the methodological considerations in research with regard to the challenges faced in capturing language learning processes and in evaluating the learner outcomes of out-of-class learning.

The closing chapter of the book is entitled Conclusion and The Way Forward. This chapter first provides quotations from different fields, highlighting the combination of in-class and out-of-class learning for advancing learning. Later in the chapter, she calls for research on the systematic investigation of autonomous language learning beyond the classroom, reflecting the insights present throughout the book. Lai presents broad suggestions concerning language learners, teachers and resources that await empirical research. She also lists some direct ideas/recommendations and poses a few questions for educators and developers of learner-training programmes to ponder when designing programmes and environments to support learning beyond the classroom. She ends the chapter with various questions awaiting responses from researchers who wish to examine and extend understanding of this unexplored area of the L2 field.

EVALUATION

From the praise of Prof. Dr. Hayo Reinder (someone who has published several papers on learner autonomy beyond the classroom), which is cited on the back cover of the book , I am assured that Chun Lai has prepared a reference guidebook of autonomous out-of-class language learning with technology. Rivalling her counterpart, Miranda Hamilton’s prelude work (2013), in the same Bloomsbury series, Lai achieves novelty here and adds much to the expanding literature on autonomous language learning with technology. The book has some strength in terms of the organization of the chapters, the adoption of a visual approach and a comprehensive list of references. In terms of the design of the chapters, Lai shows the gaps in the literature by establishing a place for theoretical frameworks in earlier chapters and, in the later chapters, provides the readers with many ideas for future research. With her visual approach, she covers the issue in detail and presents the main ideas in summary charts and process diagrams near the end of each chapter. She has consulted numerous resources from the literature and refers will to a wide range of recently published studies. In spite of these strong points, the book fails in some aspects that lower its ease of reading and understandability. For instance, even though the introductory pages in the first chapter set out the content and intention of the book, a separate preface or reflective introduction with regard to the aims and organization of the book is missing. Furthermore, it sometimes becomes a little exhausting for readers to come across the same authors’ names and read repetitively used references in each part, with much detail about each one—although the author does this deliberately in order to explain the topics. Finally, in contrast to the assertion on the back cover that “this book is suitable for all those involved in language learning and teaching”, I can say that teachers and novices in the field who would like to gain detailed practical information on how to design and apply recipes for autonomous language learning activities with technology might be disillusioned as the suggestions in the book might be too theoretical to apply and sound not concrete enough for them. Then, this book might be more suitable for both novice and expert researchers in the field in terms of its thought-provoking, explorative nature and it can serve as a valuable handy resource to those who would like to delve further.

Overall, fleshing out the phenomenon with a wide range of research-based findings, this book is an important resource for the promising, uncharted terrain of L2 research and is worth reading if you are interested in researching new vistas of autonomous language learning with technology beyond the classroom.

REFERENCES

Benson, P. (2013). Teaching and researching: Autonomy in language learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Benson, P., & H. Reinders (2011). Beyond the language classroom: The theory and practice of informal language learning and teaching. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hamilton, M. (2013). Autonomy and foreign language learning in a virtual learning environment. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Lai, C., Zhu, W., & Gong, G. (2015). Understanding the quality of out‐of‐class English learning. TESOL Quarterly, 49(2), 278-308. doi: 10.1002/tesq.171

Reinders, H., & Benson, P. (2017). Research agenda: Language learning beyond the classroom. Language Teaching, 50(4), 561-578. doi: 10.1017/S0261444817000192
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ali Dincer (PhD) is a faculty member of English Language Education and Head of Department of Foreign Languages at Erzincan University in Turkey. His research interests include language learner autonomy, L2 motivation and psychological factors in learning English as a Foreign Language.
E-mail: [email protected]

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