Authentic Learning

By Jan Herrington
Dec 12, 2011

1. Overview

Authentic learning is not—contrary to popular opinion—performed in the real world in excursions, internships and practicums and the like. It is basically an approach to teaching and learning that is used within a classroom or educational institution. There is no requirement to venture out in the traffic and weather! It is designed to give students opportunities to think and act like professionals but in a learning or training context.

So in a physical sense, it is easy to organize, but in a pedagogical sense it is actually very challenging to plan and enact because of the need to cleverly design an all encompassing task, and deal with the limitations imposed by curriculum requirements and institutional restraints.

In this MOOC, I know I am speaking to educators who care enough about their students to engage in thinking and reflecting on their teaching to affect CHANGE (so in effect, I am preaching to the converted).

Nevertheless, sometimes the culture of a university or institution, or indeed, teaching/learning and assessment policies, squeeze even the ‘believers’ to the point where we cannot create the learning environments that we believe in. We know that people learn best by being actively and collaboratively involved in learning but in universities, we continue to use lectures and other one-way, vessel filling, sage-on-stage, methods to tell students what they need to know. We then assess whether they can reproduce that information in examinations, or through written assignments that have no life other than in the teacher’s file/folder. We live in bad faith, resigned to the restrictions upon us, and all the while knowing that we could do better for our students.

There is no more important role for teachers in higher education than the design of learning tasks and assessment. An authentic learning approach enables educators to design tasks and assessments that are based on the kinds of activities that are performed in the so called ‘real world’.

But many people misunderstand authentic learning. For example, they might think it means teaching in real-world settings, or teaching with realistic examples, or internships such as practice teaching. And while authentic learning can certainly include all of these elements, it is also so much more.

If you visualize a matrix of pedagogies across dimensions of task on one axis (authentic at one end and decontextualized at the other), and setting on the other axis (real workplace to academic setting), you will recognize that most tasks in universities sit in the quadrant representing academic tasks in academic settings. Authentic learning is about moving educators from there to the quadrant that represents authentic tasks in academic settings (see
and the YouTube movie there for a visual representation of this matrix).

An authentic learning pedagogy focuses on students collaboratively creating genuine products that are polished and professional, and that are shared and published. So students might be creating products that are movies, websites, wikis, and communities shared in social media and on the web.

Authentic learning is appealing as a pedagogical approach on at least
four counts:

1. It situates knowledge in realistic contexts, thereby contextualising knowledge, and making it less likely to remain ‘inert’ when needed to solve problems;
2. Realistic tasks cognitively challenge learners to solve problems and think in the same ways as professionals working in real world contexts;
3. Technology-based cognitive tools can be used both in the processes and products of learning;
4. Complex tasks require the creation of real products and artefacts, and are more worthy of the investment of time and effort in higher education than decontextualised exercises and tasks.

The creation of genuine sharable products ensures that authentic learning is in a position to capitalize on the participatory culture afforded by social media.

2. Readings

These resources are a good starting point for understanding authentic learning and how it can be used in designing engaging learning environments for learners of all ages and levels:

Website: (still in progress) A range of resources and links on authentic learning, including a model of nine elements of authentic learning

YouTube channel: A series of short presentations on authentic learning

Diigo site: Links to authentic learning environments and project ideas

Book: A Guide to Authentic e-Learning (with Thomas C Reeves and Ron Oliver)

Book: Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education (with Anthony Herrington)

Creative commons edited book: New Technologies, New Pedagogies (on mobile learning – free download of whole book or individual chapters)

Google it:


For some background reading on authentic learning and situated learning (the theory from which authentic learning largely derives) see:

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

Lombardi, M.M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. ELI Report No. 1. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

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

Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: 10 suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219-236.

3. Suggested activities for course participants

It would be great if we can create and share—or indeed, share already existing—examples of authentic learning environments. Think about contributing in these ways (and please let me know of any other forums you know that might be suitable!):



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