Educational courses and training programs have often followed a very familiar route: instructor presents information, learners ingest information and prove they’ve understood it via a test, and then instructor releases learners into the world to utilize their newly gained skills.
Do you sense that anything is missing from this traditional approach? Perhaps, say, an engagement between learners and the real-world problems they’re being taught to solve?
If you do, many instructors would agree with you. They say a more dynamic framework of learning allows students to explore innovative and creative ways to solve problems that are going to have real-world value in their lives. They call this framework “authentic learning.”
How does authentic learning work?
There are a few ways of understanding this concept.
The Glossary of Education Reform describes authentic learning as “a wide variety of educational and instructional techniques focused on connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications.”
As teacher Steve Revington puts it, “Instead of vicariously discussing topics and regurgitating information in a traditional industrial age modality, authentic learning provides a learner with support to achieve a tangible, useful product worth sharing with their community and their world.”
While you’ll find a number of definitions out there, the common thread they all share is that authentic learning gives learners the opportunity to practice and implement their new knowledge in the world outside the classroom.
Consider the example of an instructor-led course on leadership development. A traditional approach might present current models to the learners, who memorize the concepts and regurgitate them back in a written assessment. An authentic learning experience might begin with a question—“What does effective leadership look like?”—and challenge the learners to investigate this question in the real world, through research inquiry and active practice. In this way, students of the course are able to apply learned concepts in real-world situations and even develop new frameworks of their own to contribute to the body of research.
Want to model authentic learning in an online environment? No problem, say the authors of a recent research paper on the topic. Just make sure you follow these steps:
1. Establish an authentic context for learning.
There’s a danger in oversimplifying complex topics if you try to fit it into one learning platform. Give learners the opportunity to broaden the ways they explore their inquiry in “the real world” by creating multiple learning atmospheres outside the LMS environment. Social technologies, blogs, and virtual gatherings (such as Google hangouts) challenge students to reconsider the whole world their classroom.
2. Assign learners authentic tasks.
Real-life problems are not (unfortunately) multiple choice; they are multifaceted and often carry shades of gray that can make even the most confident learner uncomfortable. So why not create tasks that mimic this in the online environment? Team projects that are question-driven and have no pre-determined outcome are most likely to get your learners to stretch the limits of their innovation.
3. Provide access to expert information and relevant models and frameworks.
While authentic learning is deeply individualized and question-driven, learners who don’t have access to modeled expertise can flounder. Offer plenty of resources, including instructor expertise, internet sites, and even peer-to-peer mentoring, to support the learning process.
4. Encourage learners to collaborate with one another.
An integral part of authentic learning is that students form teams to investigate real-world issues and create solutions. Partner or group your learners for as many tasks as you can. Virtual collaboration has become incredibly easy with multiple options such as discussion boards, chat forums, Skype, and Google doc collaborations.
5. Create multiple opportunities for deep reflection and articulation.
One of the best ways to shake learners out of the comfortable zone of rote memorization and regurgitation is to have them reflect on and articulate what they are learning. In an online environment, these could be written assignments, uploaded videos, podcasts—to name a few.
6. Offer authentic assessments.
Authentic assessments, according to the authors of the study, aren’t separate from the assigned tasks themselves. They’re woven continuously into the work learners are doing and mainly comprise blog posts, written or recorded reflections, portfolios, and team-based presentations.
The key takeaway is that authentic learning allows learners to use the whole world as their classroom. Steve Revington notes, “In the end, it’s the applied demonstration that counts. ‘It’s all in the doing.’”