Setting up a self-access centre: Where to start?

Have you just had the go-ahead to set up a new self-access learning centre? Congratulations!

We often get asked where to start when establishing a new SALC, so we compiled a list of some of the main things to think about. This list is not in order; one of the skills a SALC manager needs to have is the ability to work on multiple projects simultaneously right from the start up phase. Good luck!

1. Read!

Colleagues have been setting up self access centres for over 30 years, so benefit from their experiences. For example, read Gardner & Miller’s excellent book Establishing Self-Access. It was published in 1999 and does need updating, but it is a valuable resource nevertheless. The authors have also published another book this year: Managing Self-Access Language Learning. Also read about related themes such as learner autonomy and self-directed learning. We recommend Phil Benson’s book Teaching and researching Autonomy. The open-access, quarterly publication Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal is also a useful resource. Other useful resources have been collated by the AILA research network for learner autonomy.

2. Establish a timeframe

When will you need to open? Allowing one year for setting up would be ideal, but if this isn’t possible, consider establishing a calendar of when services will be available rather than trying to do everything all at once. Group milestones into phases to make your task manageable and give you and your team a sense of progress.

3. Set up communication channels

In order to keep colleagues and students informed of the aims, timeline and progress, you need to have a communication strategy right from the beginning of a project. Make a poster, blog or website and add regular posts. Send periodic bulletin emails. Invite input and ideas all the way through.

4. Conduct a needs analysis

Begin by talking to senior members of the institution in order to understand their rationale for going ahead with establishing a SALC. Next, do a needs analysis involving all the other major stakeholders, e.g. students, teachers, librarians, admin staff.  Conduct surveys / focus groups with current students and older students about what kind of support they need(ed). It is also important to involve faculty and staff at this stage: gather their input and share the results to be transparent from the start in order to get everyone on board. Summarise the findings and tailor all of your services and materials to the needs of the students.

5. Visualise your SALC

Visit other centres, read the literature, refer to the survey data and use your imagination to make a “wish list” of what you would like to include in your SALC. Share the wish list with your team and encourage them to add to it. Start a Pinterest board, make drawings and plans and begin to visualise how your SALC will look.

6. Make a detailed list of facilities and and equipment

Narrow down the wish list to the practical / possible and make a detailed list of facilities/equipment you would need, the rationale, examples, pictures, and an estimate of the costs. This document will help you negotiate for the start up budget so make sure it is well researched and as complete as possible. You need to think about the start up costs and the annual costs (include materials, online subscriptions, events, PR, printing, photocopying, stationery, maintenance, staffing, student wage, furniture).

7. Think about staffing

Decide what staff you would need, what skills and qualities they should bring and how they should be hired. You might not be able to to hire someone with relevant background, so think about their previous experience, their expectations of the role, and what training they might need.

8. Work on your mission statement.

Explain succinctly what your aims and rationale are and how you will achieve your aims through the services. Define your terms clearly, e.g. what you mean by learner autonomy, etc. What’s your language policy?

9. Think about layout

e.g. will you have designated spaces? Where will your materials go? How will you arrange them? By skill? By purpose? Think about having places to allow food and drink. Imagine the flow of people traffic. Incorporate noisy interactive spaces, quiet spaces, places to watch/ listen, places for technology use. If the SALC were a shop, how would it be arranged?  Incorporate ideas from retail.

10. Design the space

Involve designers (if you have the budget) in designing the space and selecting and ordering furniture. Think about what kind of atmosphere you want to create. If you want to make a warm, welcoming environment, you probably need to spend more money on design and furniture. Think about study space, soft furnishing, lighting, natural light, noise. Make the design flexible so that you can make adjustments later. For example, make sure that the furniture is movable and shelf heights can be adjusted.

11. Consider your online SALC

Think about what online resources you want to offer? What platform will you need to be able to offer these resources to users?

12. Think about how you can promote autonomy.

A key aim of self-access is to promote learner autonomy, so you need to think about how you will do this. Will you offer courses? Optional modules? In-class workshops? Orientations? A core credit-based curriculum? Think about training and budget implications of this.

13. Think about how you will offer advising services

Will learning advisors based in the SALC? A suitable space will be needed. Think about your advisor training schedule. How about a writing centre or speaking practice centre?

14. Databasing materials

Think about your check in/out system. Can you use the existing library system (best solution). If not, research other options.

15. Public relations

Create a PR strategy. What flyers, posters, events are needed? Start planning a series of opening events.

16. Student staff

Learner involvement in the running of a SALC is crucial. Start hiring students and training them. Group training can be offered initially and several times per semester, but one-to-one training is always needed so build in time to do that. Later, the students can take responsibility for training new staff.

17. Consider linking the SALC and the classroom

Depending on the institution, it might be appropriate to have a strong link between the SALC and the classroom. If so, work with curriculum writers to build in SALC options throughout the courses.

18. Strategic planning

Have a forward thinking 10 year plan and 5 year plan. Have a more detailed plan for your first year with timeframes. Use this to help you evaluate success of the centre.

19. Consider your own training and motivation

What are your personal strengths and weaknesses? What skills and knowledge do you need to develop? Make a personal development plan and find a mentor to help you to keep on track.

20. Collaborate

If you are working independently, build in weekly opportunities to discuss progress with other colleagues. Meet in person at least twice per month.

21. Be flexible

Despite all your thinking and planning, you won’t get everything right first time. You will be tweaking your mission and services for at least a couple of years. Observe and document how the centre is being used. Talk to users regularly and conduct ongoing action research to continually improve the services.

Can you think of anything I’ve missed? Feel free to add a commentt

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1 Response to Setting up a self-access centre: Where to start?

  1. tokyomike55 says:

    Lara just sent me a link to this — We’re about to venture into setting up our own SAC here at our campus. This blog is a great start! Thanks for posting!

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