Reflection on Authentic Learning

Last week I attended the Authentic Learning Colloquium held at the University of the Western Cape. The subject was Authentic Learning as a pedagogical model based in work by Herrington and Oliver (2000), which has its roots in situated learning theories and in cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, Collins and Dugaid, 1989).  Authentic learning is where teaching and learning take place within a classroom or training environment in a way where  students think and act like professionals – effectively giving students the opportunity to exercise realistic work practices and use authentic materials or methods for learning.

The model specifically focusses on learning design that provides authentic learning activities in a planned classroom (physical or virtual) environment, (rather than internships or field trips that take place in the real world). The matrix below illustrates where authentic learning falls:
Al_1        Al2
Source: Authentic Learning

There are nine principles or criteria of Authentic Learning which can be applied to designing or evaluating learning environments:

  • Authentic context where the learning nvironment reflects the way knowledge will be useful in real life.
  • Authentic task which may be complex and ill defined and may include the production of knowledge.
  • Expert performance where students have access to expert thinking.
  • Multiple perspectives where students examine different views using different learning experiences.
  • Collaboration involving collaborative problem solving and social support in learning environment.
  • Reflection
  • Articulation: enable students to use own words to make meaning and make tacit into explicit knowledge.
  • Coaching and scaffolding where teacher is coach and facilitator or student apprentice.
  • Assessment where there is alignment with course objectives and learning tasks.

I found these criteria very interesting, as they provide a comprehensive and holistic approach. There is a divergence from connectivism principles in the sense there is a greater role for the instructor and expert here both in the sense of giving access to expert thinking and to the role of coaching and scaffolding.

The point was made during the Colloquium that instead of seeing any learning situation as authentic or not, it is more useful to see it in a continuum with some courses or activities having particular strengths. For this purpose, the Authentic Learning framework has a Evaluation Matrix (downloadable PDF) helpful for for designing and for evaluating learning experiences – a course or activity can be evaluated against the criteria.

Source: Authentic Learning

Examples of authentic learning

Much of the day’s discussion was about how to go about designing authentic learning activities and courses. During the colloquium, participants presented various case studies/techniques to show authentic learning in action. One common aspect was the production of a ‘real’ artefact or item which served as both the process of learning and in some cases of the assessment. Some examples included:

  • Digital storytelling videos produced by industrial design students.
  • Video interviews with educational innovators conducted by students integrating ICTs into their own practice.
  • Co-construction of curriculum notes and collaborative working during a physiotherapy course.
  • Group blogs by nurse educators to reflect on practice.

Virtual worlds and simulations as pedagogical approaches also featured as examples of how to bring appropriate context and tasks to situation, as well as allowing students to experience multiple perspectives.

Further reflections and musings

I found the criteria of access to ‘expert performance’ very interesting. If I look back on the Open University MAODE modules, one element that has  been missing in MAODE is actually connecting students to experts. The module design is largely asynchronous and based on social constructivist lines where students make meaning from texts, materials with guidance from the tutor and peers. I wonder whether bringing in experts (educational technologists, learning designers, researchers and academics etc) would add to the feeling of authenticity, enable modelling of actual practice and instill an identity of being an learning technologist?

Another area that occurs to me is whether MOOCs might be be considered authentic learning? (Yes I know – even this blog post isn’t MOOC free). On the one hand, MOOCs are rather akin to attending a conference, with a loose and evolving curriculum rather than the carefully designed approach of the Authentic Learning Framework, and their very generality seems to mitigate against a specific authentic context or  task. The needs and objectives of MOOC participants are so wide that it is difficult to see how the MOOC by itself could be considered an example of ‘authentic learning’. On the other hand, MOOCs do bring in elements of the framework such as expert performances, multiple perspectives, collaboration and reflection and the focus away from essays and tests (at least for c-MOOCs) can make  assessment and articulation more authentic. Studying with ‘open learners’ where a MOOC is open to anyone can invite ‘the real world’ into a learning experience.

Evidently, authentic learning design isn’t an exact science and I don’t know if there is a substitute for being in a situation than…er…being in a situation. However, I was excited with some of the case studies, especially involving virtual worlds and developing real world digital skills in making meaningful artefacts which can be used for articulation and assessment.


Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42

Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23-48


2 thoughts on “Reflection on Authentic Learning

  1. Pingback: Reflection on Authentic Learning | Authentic eLearning |

  2. Like many of your posts, I found this one really thoughtful and well crafted. I especially like the idea of experts within the programme to lend authenticity to particular aspects of the teaching in a practical environment. It sounds like it was a great conference.

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