The complexities of designing authentic learning in open distance learning (#change11)

In this week’s MOOC, the focus is on authentic learning. Jan Herrington provides very insightful pointers to her understanding of authentic learning (which differs from may other notions regarding authentic learning).

Let me immediately state that her proposal makes a lot of sense to me and I found her videos and explanations insightful.

Looking at the amount of articles that she has written on the subject, I felt both overwhelmed and somewhat angry. Overwhelmed at the sheer volume of research and angry at myself that I just don’t have the time to engage with most of her research. Every week during this MOOC I encounter a new focus which sets me on a wild Google-chase amidst balancing work/life and end-of-the-year-tiredness.

According to Herrington, authentic learning consists of nine elements namely:

  • Authentic context
  • Authentic activity
  • Expert performances
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Collaboration
  • Reflection
  • Articulation
  • Coaching and scaffolding
  • Authentic assessment

Before I attempt to make sense of these within the context of a huge open distance learning provider on the African continent, let me share a recent experience with you.

Recently I was part of an interdisciplinary course development team which designed a foundational module with the broad focus of “Engaging with society”. The project was one of the first interdisciplinary offerings and were developed from the following disciplines: sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history, political science and development studies.  The course development team  developed a curriculum for a cohort of students who would have comprised of 95% black students of which the majority of students would have been female. The student enrolment would furthermore have come from a range of rural and urban settings with most students in the age group of 25-35.

The plot is about to thicken…

Around the table were academic experts of both genders but all of them white… (don’t go away, the plot thickens even further).

Each of the academics representing the different disciplines put forward “content” that they felt was important. This resulted in an interesting and at-times deeply frustrating experience as all of them jostled for “content space” in the 16-week semester. From all the participating disciplines and individual academics (each with their different hobby horses and claims to fame) there were an unlimited number of options and possible foci to cover (and uncover). This resulted in the first number of meetings giving new meaning to “the curriculum as contested space” (Prinsloo 2006).

At a follow-up meeting where we attempted to finalise the “content”, one white male academic proposed: “We should definitely include something about gangs”.  Immediately I asked “why?” to which the academic replied “Because it is important for them”.

Let me immediately acknowledge that I had and still don’t have any doubt about the academic and personal integrity of the academic members of the team – they were all very committed and honest in their attempt to design an authentic learning journey that will empower students to “engage with society”.

So what was wrong with the wish to “include something about gangs”?

I suspect there were two major issues at stake, namely the somewhat untenable position of a group of white academics designing a curriculum for 95% black students on how to engage with a society of which the team had no idea about; and the somewhat arrogant claim that gangs are important to them.

Which brings me to Herrington’s proposal for “authentic learning”.

While residential lecturers have the luxury of seeing and knowing their students (I assume) in classroom interactions, open distance learning institutions never “see” their students – and open distance learning (ODL) institutions have to rely on up-to-date student profile data and learning analytics to get to know our students. Add to this that many of our foundational courses (modules) have more than 15,000 students per 16-week semester with relatively limited Internet access; then the issues Herrington raises such as “collaboration”, “coaching and scaffolding”, “authentic assessment” and “authentic activities” are real challenges.

With the digital divide slowly disappearing; mobile and online learning will soon create huge possibilities and opportunities for more authentic learning design in a 16-week semester. However, my main concern is that for authentic learning to become a reality, course design teams will really have to take student profiles and student contexts much more seriously.

While “gangs” may be a very interesting and depending on the context, be an authentic focus; I suspect that in the example above (taking into account the student profile) – that a focus on “gangs” would have been not only inauthentic but also resulted in a possible racist curriculum.

Unfortunately the above is not the only example where the composition of a course development team results in a serious misjudging of the curriculum’s audience.

I suspect that designing authentic learning requires that we also seriously consider the capacity and composition of course development teams in order to design authentic tasks and authentic curricula for an increasingly diverse student body.

But are we ready? Do we care?

[Image retrieved from on 12 December 2011]


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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8 Responses to The complexities of designing authentic learning in open distance learning (#change11)

  1. Pingback: The complexities of designing authentic learning in open distance … | Educations Club

  2. jaapsoft2 says:

    Hi thank you for this picture of educational design.
    Even with private teachers in a 1 student 1 teacher educational environment it takes time to negotiate goals and procedures. Teacher often seems to know what content is important but do not know what content is important to the one student.
    So in distance learning content needs more care than honest experts designing a course. (Exception: courses to standard assessments like for driving license)
    I do think of Dave Cormier: ” … I think of curriculum as an output of a course rather than an input, so i enter a course with an outline of study, or a syllabus and focus on helping students build their own curriculum. …”

    • Jaap- thanks for the response.

      I like the reference to Cormier’s “curriculum as outcome” of a learning journey rather than the “input” or necessarily the starting point. With the massification of higher education and especially in print-based open distance learning with thousands of students registered for a course or module, it is however a huge challenge to individualise learning. Distance education or open distance learning is based on two basic notions namely a certain amount of standardisation and economies of scale. Both these two aspects in traditional distance education makes it very challenging to design authentic learning for thousands of very diverse students, especially if they were all to be credited for achieving agreed upon outcomes?

      I firmly believe that whether we plan for it of not, students individualise learning to a large extent – whether we allow (and credit) them or not. Maybe that is our saving grace?

      After my experience in this MOOC, I do however sense that MOOCs challenge the basic assumption of standardisation in traditional distance education as being in contradiction to individualisation and authentic learning. I sense that it is possible to offer (and credit) a “standard” broad set of outcomes and yet allow (and credit) students to individualise their learning.

      While the above will definitely be possible in online and mobile learning environments; it is very difficult (if not almost impossible) in print-based environments where courses (modules) are designed at least three years in advance before these modules are eventually delivered (literally).

      In closing: Cormier’s suggestion of the “curriculum as outcome” reminds me of the distinction between the “intended curriculum” and the “realised curriculum”. I suspect the latter has the most potential to be individualised while the former should make space for its realisation?

  3. Pingback: #Change11 Authentic Learning in Classroom and Higher Education | Learner Weblog

  4. Herrington Jan says:

    Hi Paul, Just wanted to say at the outset how much I have enjoyed reading your entries on the #change11 Mooc sessions. Your ideas have really contributed to thinking about learning that we are exploring in these weeks. I also appreciate the challenges that you face in South Africa, with huge numbers of students learning from basic text resources, with potentially little opportunity to engage with each other much less collaborate. Nevertheless, even the smallest moves towards the ‘authentic’ end of the continuum would in my view pay off, because of the effort made by teachers to situate learning in a realistic context. The example of the gangs was fraught with difficulty as you described, but I would always go back to the origins of the course itself and what its creators were hoping to achieve by having a module called ‘engaging with society’. How could this learning be put to use? And could students create products that reflected this learning? Even with minimal technology and resources, they could engage genuinely with such tasks, and it is in the design of the tasks that the real work and the pedagogy resides.

    • Dear Jan – thanks for your response on my posting – much appreciated.

      Although it is true (as you suggest) that we should “go back” to the original intention of the originators of the course/module; even then designing authentic learning is a major challenge considering the wide variety of learners in a distance education institution with more than 400,000 students. Though it is possible to design authentic learning (following amongst other things your guidelines); the composition and sensitivity of the course development team is very critical. If the team is not aware of how their racial, class and gender composition influences their thoughts on the curriculum, we are in trouble. And unfortunately, many academics on course development teams are less sensitive to racial, class and gender issues than their preoccupation (and often arrogance) in “knowing” what students need.

      A luta continua, but I am not sure victory is certain…

  5. Pingback: The complexities of designing authentic learning in open distance learning (#change11) | Authentic Learning |

  6. Pingback: The complexities of designing authentic learning in open distance learning (#change11) | Open Educational Resources in Higher Education |

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