Authentic tasks and situated learning

An older man is controlling a mechanism as an apprentice watches.

In taking classes about education, I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll read something that describes the classes I’ve been taking. Sort of a meta-education. Thus is the case with the 2006 article “Authentic E-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks” by Jan Herrington. It started out as a fairly typical dry academic paper, until I got about halfway through and one sentence caught my attention: “…we explored online courses of study that use a single and sustained task to provide a meaningful context for student learning.”

Herrington recalls Collins, who defined situated learning as “the notion of learning knowledge and skills in contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be useful in real life.” In other words, the knowledge and skills being imparted are presented in a way that’s similar to how the knowledge and skills will be used in real life. While there are undoubtedly numerous examples of this, the one that comes to mind is the stories in Duolingo. Duolingo is a language learning application that works mainly by teaching people words, phrases, and sentences in whatever language they are learning (the L2 in linguistics parlance). After people get to a certain level in a language course, they are presented with the option to read stories in the target language. The stories themselves are fairly short, and usually consist of a dialog between two characters. The words are shown on the screen and are read aloud by actors. As the story moves along, Duolingo, will stop and ask the user to define a certain word, or ask a question to test their comprehension. The stories are all fairly normal, real life situations, such as buying clothes, taking a taxi, asking for the restroom, and a child wanting to bring home a stray dog. As the learner progresses through the course, the stories become more difficult and build on the more advanced vocabulary and grammar taught in the course.

If I understand it correctly, authentic tasks are a subset of situated learning, or as Herrington puts it, “Authentic tasks are an integral component to situated learning environments.” The author did a literature review on authentic learning environments and found ten characteristics, and this is the section that matches my experiences in this master’s program so far. I’ve only been in the program since last semester, and have had four classes in that time – two last semester and two this semester – and all of them have involved tasks that are presumably authentic to those we’ll perform after graduation. This is the first characteristics Herrington lists: “Authentic tasks have real-world relevance.”

The second characteristic that’s mentioned is “Authentic tasks are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.” That’s certainly true of the projects I’ve done in these classes so far. In EDUC-R622 Learning Environments Design, we had two major projects. One was to do an analysis of an actual learning environment and the other was to develop a prototype of a learning environment. The assignments were very loosely defined, and the only things we had that might be considered guidance were the grading rubrics, but even then I think they were very flexible as long as the projects were coherent and well-presented.

The third characteristic seems to be one of the most important, at least as far as grad school is concerned: “Authentic tasks comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time.” The best example I can think of for this characteristic is the project I worked on in EDUC-R521 Instructional Design and Development. This project was team-based and over the course of nearly the whole semester we worked on an instructional design assignment. While we were assigned sub-tasks, and shown examples of them, they were just parts of the process of the main activity.

I don’t want to go over all of the characteristics, but there are still a few more that bear mentioning. The fifth one that is mentioned is “Authentic tasks provide the opportunity to collaborate,” which I think is mostly true. Most of the classes have had a mix of group projects and individual projects, which I think is also authentic. Sometimes at work, we have to do things on our own, rather than in a group. That said, when I was an undergrad, I dreaded doing group work because I often ended up with at least one group member who didn’t do the work. In grad school, things are different in my experience. There are no slackers, mostly. If they can’t handle the workload, they won’t be back. Because of this, now I really like working with others on projects. Maybe it’s because of the pandemic, but the chance to virtually network with other team members over meetings in Teams or Zoom is something I look forward to. We don’t have to arrange a day and time to meet together in a library or a cafeteria, so we don’t have to fuss around with our schedules. We only have to arrange a time when everyone will be near a computer with network access. Videoconferences are definitely a game-changer.

Another characteristic to mention is “Authentic tasks are seamlessly integrated with assessment.” This is also true. Probably the truest of them all. In these classes, I’ve never had a test or a quiz. Everything is based on the projects and lots of writing. The undergraduate me would have been aghast at the amount of writing I do today as a grad student. With experience, it’s become a lot easier to deal with this.

The final characteristic I want to mention states that “Authentic tasks create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.” This is also true, but it feels a bit nuanced. While these class projects produce some very polished products, I think the whole point of doing these projects is to prepare us for activities we may work on as professional instructional designers. Each project stands on its own, but each project is also part of preparing us for the future.

In taking classes about education, I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll read something that describes the classes I’ve been taking. Sort of a meta-education. Thus is the case with the 2006 article “Authentic E-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks” by Jan Herrington. It started out as a fairly typical…


  1. Hi Mike,
    Seeing as I’ve been in 3 of 4 of the same classes with you so far, I really enjoyed your take on Herrington and connecting it to your own experience in graduate school. I also felt that the R521 task in particular was very much an authentic learning problem, in that we were going through the same design process as we will be following when we eventually become practitioners in the field. I also enjoyed our group work, and think that collaboration with others is another way to boost student learning through the social construction of knowledge. I know I learned a lot from my group members, just as I was learning a lot from the tasks.
    How would you connect these tasks and group work to cognitive apprenticeship? Would you say you have experienced cognitive apprenticeship in the program thus far?
    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Hi Katie,

      I’m not 100% sure if I think it qualifies as cognitive apprenticeship. In one of the readings, “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” by Lave and Wenger, the authors wrote “We and out colleagues had begun to talk about learners as apprentices, about teachers and computers as masters, and about cognitive apprenticeship, apprenticeship learning, and even life as apprenticeship. It was evident that no one was certain what the term meant.

      I understand the concept of craft apprenticeships, and how they are a useful metaphor for use in other areas of education, but I don’t think the program has become a cognitive apprenticeship for me. Not yet, anyway. If I were actually putting the lessons into action – beyond the class assignments – then it might feel more like an apprenticeship. To me, an apprenticeship involves a lot of do-it-yourself, trial-and-error type projects. I have some ideas about some projects I’d like to do over the summer, but we’ll see how it goes.

  2. Hi Mike,
    I like your example of the Duolingo language learning app! My experience with the app only stays at the vocabulary level so I did not know they have those “real-life” stories. Those will definitely be helpful for creating a meaningful context for learning.

    1. Hi Chaoran,

      The Stories are only available on some courses, such as Spanish for English speakers. I think they plan on adding them to more courses in the future, but it probably depends on what resources they have or how much time their volunteers are able to commit.


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