MET:Authentic Learning Environments

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This page was originally authored by Linda Peterson (2007).
This page has been revised by Erin Gillespie (2008) and Simonjay Moreton (2008).
This page has been revised by Jennifer Long (2009).
This page has been revised by Patricia Collins (2011).

Web Artifact Video - Created by Braulio Fernando Morales (2015)

An authentic learning environment is a pedagogical approach that allows for the construction of meaning grounded in real-life situations and the learners own personal experience (Newmann, Marks & Gamoran 1996) Students are able to “explore, discuss and meaningfully construct concepts and relationships in contexts that involve real-world problems and projects that are relevant to the learner” (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 1999). The movements towards creating authentic learning environments is essential as research has found that when the learning process is separated from its applications in the real world, knowledge will remain inert and unused beyond the classroom (Discroll, 2005).

File:Cheam wetlands.gif
Students collect water data at the Cheam wetlands

The Construction of Meaning

Gestalt Man, cultural context and the making of meaning

The Constructivist theory of learning's central tenet is that knowledge is created when a learner, confronted by a question, project, case or problem, enagages with the content domain and creates meaning from this interaction. The individual's prior knowledge, sociocultural context, beliefs and values all affect learning and the meaning that is created. This way of thinking finds its beginnings in the work of Jean Piagetand Jerome Bruner.

The influence of sociocultural context was first recognized by Lev Vygotsky. The interpretation of ambiguous images such as the Gestalt Man reflects this ideology. Depending on their age, religious background, and life experience, people may identify the picture on the right as a map, a roughly drawn cow, the face of a man, or the face of Jesus Christ. Once the meaning of the image (particularly this image) has been created by the viewer, it is nearly impossible to construct alternate interpretations. Meaning or knowledge in any domain can not be given or transmitted to the learner, it has to be actively created; hence the adage “construct and produce – don’t reproduce” (Newmann, Marks & Gamoran 1996). Rather than presenting the learner with the factual content that is to be learned, constructivists begin with a question, project, case or problem.

Authentic Learning - The signifigance

File:David Jonassen.png
David Jonassen, a major proponent of Constructivist Learning Environments

Authentic learning requires a paradigm shift in the true purpose and execution of learning; from disconnected ideas and activities to real-world relevance. Psychologists have described the immense difference between taking the time to learn about science and actually learning to be a scientist. The meaning and relevance of isolated facts is minimal until a student can identify what those tools can do for them (Lombardi 2007). Further research has found that unfortunately most of what is “learned” in the school context is unapplied or inert knowledge with little value (Mims 2003). As Newmann, Marks & Gamoran (1996) elucidate, calls for educational reform are occurring, not simply because of high dropout rates or low test scores, but from concerns that the kind of mastery required for students to earn school credits, grades, and high scores is frequently trivial, contrived, or meaningless. Researchers have cautioned that for too many years, the focus in education has been primarily on those skills that are relatively easy to obtain, as opposed to the fundamental skills of analysis and creativity (Lombardi 2008).

It is by manipulating new knowledge in the solving of unfamiliar problems with increasing complexity, that knowing takes place and concepts are learned by using them. David Jonassen has done much to advance our understanding of the power of Constructivist Learning Environments in driving individual and group learning Designing Constructivist Learning Environments (CLE). He stresses that problems, questions or projects must capture the learners’ interest and draw them into the content domain. The problems need to be worthy of consideration by the people who work in the field. As the students attempt to solve the problem, they come to know the meaning of the language and symbols used in specific professions. Finding a solution to the problem must be seen as important by the learners for whom the learning environment is designed. Educators must take great care when selecting and/or designing problems and should consult with experts in the field to ensure the problem is realistic and at an appropriate level for the specific learners. A well designed, authentic learning environment provides a relevance and career preparedness not overly present in more traditional, diadetic forms of education most importantly because they employ industry standards and professional expectations in much of what they do (Windham 2007).

Skills developed by participating in authentic learning environments

There are many skills students develop while participating in an authentic learning environment. Lombardi (2007) recognizes that apart from becoming familiar with the language and symbols used by the professionals, students will be able to:

  • Judge the validity and reliability of new information
  • Develop the ability to recognize relative patterns in unfamiliar contexts
  • Flexibly work across disciplines and cultural boundaries to develop creative solutions to the problem under investigation
  • Through practice students will develop patience to follow and complete more complex problems.

Creating Authentic Learning Environments

It is easier to recognize the importance of authenticity in the constructivist learning environment than to dissect the elements that make it so. As acknowledged by Nikitina 2011, this is partially due to the fact that the authenticity only fully develops when the learner extends it through interaction with a particular task. However, the focus for all authentic tasks should be that students construct their own knowledge, that their inquiry is focused and disciplined, and that the task has a “real world” value above and beyond just completing it for a mark (Newmann, Marks & Gamoran 1996).

Ten Characteristics of authentic learning environments

Harrington, Oliver and Reeves (2000) list 10 characteristics of authentic e-learning activities which can be equally well applied to authentic learning environments. It is important to note, that is not mandatory that all authentic tasks have complete adherence to the ten characteristics (Nikitina 2011).

  • have real world relevance and are not simply classroom based
  • provide complex tasks that take a significant amount of time to complete
  • have ill-defined problems that require students to define tasks and sub-tasks to be completed through multiple interpretations
  • provide students the opportunity to collaborate
  • provide students the opportunity to examine the problem from different perspectives using a variety of resources
  • require students to reflect on their social and individual learning experiences
  • require integration of content from several disciplines and lead to outcomes beyond the specific learning objectives
  • integrate assessment into the activities rather than employing external tests in an effort to be reflective of similar real world assessments
  • lead to the creation of a polished product with value in their own right outside of simply earning a mark
  • allow competing solutions and a diversity of outcomes instead of one single correct answer

Technology, multimedia and authentic learning environments

Although the idea of authentic learning has been approached before, it is receiving another well-deserved look due to the recent advancements of technology and multimedia. Authentic tasks actually provide a bridge between the classroom and successful incorporation of technology. Whereas the original implementation of technology in the classroom fell short; using technology to complete complex tasks that are authentic does find success because the need for a perfect match between curricula and technology disappears (Means and Olson 1994). Moreover, the use of multimedia to situate the content and enhance the understanding of knowledge for new learners is highly effective. Students in the beginning may not have the expertise and experience to decode a problem if it is simply text based. To support authentic learning, multimedia environments can provide learning through a context. This promotes challenging and complicated engagement, increase meaningfulness and encourages further research (Dunlap, 1999). To support student use of multimedia practioners must actively incorporate; scaffolding, providing an authentic context for tasks, providing resources and providing collaborative tools as needed (Jonassen, 1999). Authentic learning with multimedia can be accomplished through web discussion forums, developing simulations or using a web-based performance support system (Dunlap, 1999). Barbara Means (Means & Haertel, 2004) believes technology lends authenticity to school tasks and she views multimedia as a tool that enables students to achieve more valuable "polished" work (Means & Haertel 2004). Barbara Means et al., (2004) believe students value their work highly because the tools used are similar to those used by professionals.

Affordances of authentic learning environments

There are a multitude of affordances being generated from the integration of authentic tasks. One of the key affordances is seen in the enhanced collaboration of educators. Due to the need for support when implementing AL for the first time, many educators are going back to their colleagues for ideas and encouragement. Studies have reported that strong mentorships have developed out of colleagues being eager to share expertise and challenges faced from incorporating new authentic tasks (Means & Olson 1994). This exchange of information and ideas generates further levels of collaboration such as knowledge building communities. Another unique affordance that is being created is the opportunity for student citizenship and community building within the authentic task (Newmann, Marks and Gamoran 1996). Furthermore, students are reporting a stronger sense of doing something important, as they complete sophisticated, industry-ready products with the help of technology (Means & Olson 1994). The technologies in authentic learning environments also engage students in other compelling ways. For example, an instructor can write on the Web CT blackboard, and open a discussion activity in a chat room. The blackboard is not only under the control of the instructor, it is a shared text tool. Students may jump from the chat room discussion, to write comments on the blackboard. To contrast, think of a conventional classroom: A student who is hesitant to speak would not jump up, walk past the teacher at the front of the class, take the chalk from the teacher and then write thoughts on the blackboard. In this example, the online learning environment supports collaboration and reflection, two of the ten characteristics of authentic e-learning activities.

A final, and still developing affordance, is the ability of authentic activities to minimize the achievement gap amongst learners of diverse social backgrounds. Researchers have found that adopting this pedagogy produces more authentic grades, through formative assessments, and as such a more equitable level of success regardless of socio-economic factors (Newmann, Marks & Gamoran 1996).

Simulations and authentic learning environments

The integration of multimedia and using simulations can help the instructor create meaningful and realistic learning activities (Dunlap, 1999). For example, Google Earth can be used in a lesson to take a virtual “around the world” tour to answer an ill-structured problem on the challenge of completing such a journey, by basic modes of transportation, in one year. On a more sophisticated level, Jonassen's research in designing Constructivist Learning Environments (CLE) provides examples situated in the business world where students learn the roles of managers, investors and those working in a food production company, or an ecological field study (Reigeluth, 1999).

Interestingly, Kantor, Waddington and Osgood (2000) and Harrington, Oliver and Reeves (2003) comment that it is not necessary to utilize high end multimedia to achieve an authentic learning environment. Instead, learners must be willing to accept the learning environment as authentic by suspending their "disbelief". The action of suspension of disbelief is the same as what is required when viewing Star Wars or playing a video game. Authenticity resides largely in the above stated characteristics of the activities themselves and less on the technology used to simulate them (Harrington et al., 2003). In particular the tasks should be appropriately demanding for the specific level of the student. If the students perceive the problem is beneath their level, the learning environment loses its credibility.

An example of a multimedia authentic learning environment for K-12 students is Bugscope. Bugscope provides learners with free remote instrumentalization of a scanning electron microscope. Students can create their own experiments, communicate with scientists, have immediate feedback and discuss with other students from around the world. The Bugscope project meets the ten characteristics of authentic e-learning activities described by Harrington et al., (2000).

Types of Authentic Learning Environments

Lombardi (2007) recognizes several different authentic learning practices that students may participate in.

Simulation-Based Learning

Students engage in simulations and role-playing in order to immerse the student in an scenario where the student has to actively participate in the decision making of a project. This helps in developing valuable communication, collaboration, and leadership skills that would help the student succeed as a professional in the field he/she is studying. Some activities available for student collaboration are available at Tools for Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication.

Learning through simulation and role-playing has been used to train flight attendants on how to act during a crisis, train fire fighters on how to respond in certain emergency situations, train medical personnel in CPR through the use of the Resusci-Annie mannequin, and now in the twenty-first century simulations have advanced to incorporate information technology involving visual, material, and auditory stimulation at the same time. According to Miles (2004) incorporating more senses into a simulation makes the experience more real. The American army is now ending the training of its combat-medics with a simulation of a warzone where the medics have to perform save real life mannequins that have been injured while dodging simulated bullets and working in smoke. "The more we go through this, the more mechanical the concepts become. And when you're faced with a real-life scenario, you fall back on your training. Everything comes back." For this reason, real life simulations would be useful in training anyone in how to respond quickly in an emergency.

Student-Created Media

Student-created media focuses on students using various technologies and programs to create videos and [film], design websites, produce animations, virtual reconstructions, and create photographs. As students participate in designing and making their finished project they are gaining valuable experience in working with a range of technologies as well as developing valuable cooperation, decision making, and leadership skills that are valuable in both the classroom and in the workplace. Students have also improved their reading comprehension, writing skills, and their abilities to plan, analyze, and interpret results as they progress through the media project (International Student Media Festival, n.d. and Lombardi, 2007).

Some examples of student made websites may be found at Digitalizing Culture , while a popular example of a student created video project may be viewed on the Quaker Campus website.

Inquiry-Based learning

In this authentic learning practice, cognitive scientists join together with faculty to design web-based resources that are designed to cognitively guide a student through scaffolded stages of development in their pre-professional careers. In Inquiry based learning the student is introduced to the key concepts, and practices specific skills while the instructor monitors the student and makes sure the student is on track and understands what is going on (Oblinger, 2007).

This aspect of authentic learning is critical in students incorporating elements and concepts from other disciplines into solving the problem or task at hand. The instructor is able to facilitate this connection bridging by asking 'what if' questions to get the students to think about the problem from another angle or by using another method to solve the problem under investigation.

An example of inquiry based learning environment is a webquest. This medium is a package of web based materials brought together to explore a topic in depth. You may find webquest examples at the website.

Peer-Based Evaluation

In peer based evaluation students are provided the means to analyze, critique, and provide constructive feedback on the writing assignments of their peers. We are currently doing a similar peer-based evaluation in the ETEC courses as students review each others work and make comments either reinforcing or contradicting what the original author said, and possibly exposing a new understanding of the topic being investigated. Further examples of peer evaluation activities and rubrics can be found at foundation coalition.

Working with remote instruments

Specialized software can open the door to students who don’t have access to certain laboratory facilities or specialized equipment. These various software packages produce similar results that students working in a fully equipped lab might receive. By interpreting the software based results students are able to apply theory to practice as they interpret the data that would otherwise not be available to them.

One example of working with remote instruments would be using to use various earthquake software to simulate the results that a shake-table and a sensor-equipped flagpole may give during an earthquake.

Working with research data

Students collect their own data or use data collected from researchers to conduct their own investigations. This authentic learning activity is very common to any science lab experiment where students must complete a lab, obtain results, analyze and interpret the results, and gain a new knowledge or understanding of what was observed and found while conducting and completing the experiment. For instance, Ducks Unlimited Canada provides lesson plans for students Grade 4 through 12 on wetland conservation. Students participate in authentic practices such as measuring water quality, biodiversity and other biochemical characteristics of the wetland in relation to inflow/outflow, surrounding land use, soil characteristics, water depth, shoreline slope etc. Using this infomation students are able to assess the "health" of the wetland as well as hypothesize about potential human impacts.

Reflecting and document achievements

The last authentic learning practice that Lombardi (2007) recognizes is that of the reflecting and documenting of achievements. As with the ETEC program, e-portfolios are designed to showcase the student’s work as well as let the student reflect back on his/her own learning pattern to improve their own performance over time. This is why in the ETEC program we are encouraged to keep our work and develop an e-portfolio as we progress through the course, but the main learning that is derived from the course is when we go back and reflect on all our courses and apply what we have learned in those courses as we start the final course ETEC 590 which is an amalgamation and cumulation of all the concepts, projects, and paradigms that we have explored throughout the program.

Current and future issues

Due to authentic learning environments and associated projects, teachers have become facilitators in their classrooms where they implement student based learning projects to create, motivate, and spark an interest in the students participating in the activities to solve real world problems. However, some feedback from students and teachers has been mixed. There have been concerns expressed that students start to disengage when the material’s challenge becomes too much. At the same time, other comments from students have suggested that the time involvement does make the authentic task more meaningful than other participation activities (Windham 2007). Educators have also expressed apprehension about abandoning all traditional summative assessment activities such as rote-memory quizzes and Provincial exams. Research suggests however, that this does not have to be the case. Rather, what practioners must do is keep the concluding product (authentic task) as the clear end point for assessment (Newmann, Marks & Gamoran 1996). It has been further noted that the assessment goes along ways to determining and defining exactly what the students deem to be important when contemplating activities. As such, it is integral for teachers who are interested in promoting and integrating authentic tasks to devise a set of assessment procedures that reflect this difference and rise above the many restrictions of traditional means of assessments (Lombardi 2008).

Apart from all of these benefits of authentic learning, Lombardi (2007) suggests that students might still prefer the traditional method of teaching where through rote memorization and finding the “correct” answer can one proceed to the next stage. Authentic learning environments create uncertainty, and cause the student to question, analyze, rethink the problem, and create alternative solutions using knowledge across numerous disciplines. This higher order thinking requires the student to be more mentally mature to deal with ambiguity commonly found when solving “real world problems” outside of the classroom, then the right or wrong approach to learning that many students are accustomed to. To appropriately reflect the investment in participation in such activities, students must also be given suitable quantitative, marks-based credit for completing an authentic task. Given the challenging and time consuming nature of authentic learning, students might ignore a project that does not have direct benefits to their mark or does not tie in to furthering their understanding of the curriculum (Windham 2007)

If we are going to prepare our students to live and function in the real world we must employ authentic learning practices as soon as possible so our students will be trained to analyze a situation and pull resources from a variety of disciplines and peers to help solve the problem. The implementation of authentic tasks and authentic assessments do much to avert the limitations of more traditional classroom methods which have been seen as limiting student’s growth into independent thinkers. A response further echoed in the complaints of employers who are finding their new college graduates are sorely lacking in workplace skills and attitudes (Lombardi 2008)


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External Resources and Links


Foundation coalition (2011)Retrieved January 29, 2011 from

Website for E-Learn (2006) Keynote: Links and Resources. Authentic e-learning in higher education. Retrieved 5 March 2007, from

Links to Authentic Learning Environments

Bugscope is an online learning environment for K-12 students who are interested in the scientific study of bugs.

Chickscope is an online learning environment for K-12 students who are interested in the scientific study of the life cycle of a chicken.

Visible Human Project is a detailed, 3-d anatomically correct representation of human male and female bodies

The weather visualizeris a sophisticated website that integrates current and archived weather statistics with instructional resources using new technologies

Go North is a Live-site that allows participants to join a real team of Arctic researchers as they dogsled their way through adventure learning.

Australia's Authentic Learning Homepage contains a variety of useful ideas and research based activities for the classroom

Virtual Volcano allows participants to explore the history and science behind volcanism as you change parameters and create your own 3-d eruptions.