This afternoon, I attended an online webinar session offered by Educause Learning Initiative.Â Thomas Reeves from university of Georgia presented “Authentic Tasks in a Web-Based Learning Environment.”Â If you have access to the archive, it’s worth a view, and if you haven’t explored the ELI resources in general, those are worth the time as well.Â A few notes and comments regarding the session. Dr. Reeves described the concept of authentic tasks, gave several examples and then provided several rationale justifying the need for greater use of authentic tasks in higher education.Â The majority of the hour was spent describing a ten-point framework that he and colleagues have developed regarding the characteristics of authentic tasks. WHAT ARE “AUTHENTIC TASKS?” For those perhaps not familiar, Dr. Reeves defined authentic tasks as, “Learning activities that replicate the kinds of activities that learners may engage in the real world.” Â Â He offered an example from his own class; rather than reading about program evaluation, his students work with real world clients to evaluate eLearning programs as part of the class: learners plan, conduct and report an evaluation. One of the better examples I use personally is one of the activities in my “Introduction to Computers” class.Â Rather than having learners simply read and take a quiz regarding the components of a PC system, I assign them to work in groups to purchase a computer whose components match the unique needs of a real world computer user they selected as a case study.Â Each group must make a specific, unique decision regarding each PC component to ensure their selected user does not under- or over-spend on a computer. RATIONALE FOR AUTHENTIC TASKS Of course, Professor Reeves believes strongly that authentic tasks are critical to all learning, online or otherwise.Â During this session, he offered two specific arguments in favor of authentic tasks. First, from the NSSE student engagement study, only about 7% of our undergraduates study as much as a typical faculty member expects them to.Â That study identified five key factors to an engaging undergraduate education: student-faculty interaction; active, collaborative learning; time on task; continuous, timely feedback; and high academic challenge.Â As Dr. Reeves argued, authentic learning tasks addresses four of the five; I’m assuming the one that it would not necessarily address is “time on task.” Second, 21st Century skills and outcomes may uniquely be facilitated and assessed by authentic tasks: access/use information, communication skills, critically thinking, problem solving, and exhibiting intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately, authentic tasks may not be used widely enough in higher education.Â Dr. Reeves didnt’ note any specific statistics, but interestingly, session attendees believed authentic tasks are not used more widely in higher education because of (a) a lack of models for faculty to follow (40%), (b) a lack of time for faculty to develop and assess authentic tasks (24%), or (c) a lack of incentive to implement authentic tasks (23%). CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTHENTIC TASKS I don’t want to go into detail and simply repeat the characteristics Dr. Reeves noted; you can find the ten characteristics of authentic tasks detailed on one of his websites.Â I want to comment on a couple of them and the discussion that occurred in the session backchannel. Ill-defined and Complex. Dr. Reeves suggested authentic tasks should be ill-defined and complex.Â In short, activities should reflect the complexity and nature of tasks within the real world and should require the production of knowledge rather than the RE-production of knowledge.Â That left a begging question, “What does Ill-defined mean?”Â From my experience with problem-based learning, there’s a very critical difference between an ill-defined problem and un-defined learning.Â As I offered in the chat session, I believe “ill defined” means that “how” learners may solve a given problem should be left more open ended; there shouldn’t necessarily be a single course of action learners can take.Â Further, an “ill-defined” problem may indicate a general problem that requires learners define the situation or environment in more detail before they can begin to flesh out a solution.Â However, ill-defined does not mean that specific goals for the activity or how it will be assessed or what learners are expected to learn or supporting content should be ill-defined.Â In fact, those aspects of the assignment likely need to be more explicitly defined than non-authentic tasks.Â In short, an “ill-defined” problem describes general point that learners need to reach on a map, but it does not necessarily define the path they must take to reach that point. Afford opportunities for real collaboration. The key to this characteristic was the distinction Dr. Reeves made between collaboration and cooperation.Â It’s one I’ve considered before, and it’s also one I have a very difficult time drawing for my students.Â As a faculty member, what happens when you assign “group work” to students?Â How do they go about completing the assignment?Â Do they truly collaborate and work together to find a solution to the problem?Â Or, do they “divide and conquer” – breaking up pieces of the assignment and agreeing that members will do an equal share.Â The issue to consider when developing an authentic task for learners is how to develop the task in a manner that requires collaboration rather than cooperation.Â I’m not sure I have an answer at the moment. GENERATING AUTHENTIC TASK IDEAS Dr. Reeves presented the framework – or characteristics – of authentic tasks; that’s certainly useful, but I think one challenge that many educators face is the initial process of generating authentic task ideas, “How do I come up with ideas for authentic tasks based on what I’m currently teaching?”Â I think it begins with asking several questions about the current content you are teaching,
- What do I want learners to be able “to do” with this skill or knowledge?
- How might learners use this skill or knowledge in their day-to-day life?
- What task might an employer expect them to be able to do that requires this skill or knowledge?
- When in the future might this skill or knowledge be useful for the learner?
- What problem(s) would this skill or knowledge help a learner solve?
- What work can learners do that allows me to participate more in the learning process?
- What sort of an assignment regarding this skill or knowledge would benefit from learners working together?
- Are there workplace instances where learners will have to apply this skill within the context of a team?
Answering those questions, I believe, leads to the authentic tasks that follow naturally from the skills and knowledge being taught.Â At the very least, it’s a start to move toward more authentic tasks. DISCUSSION Several questions were posted in the session backchannel that I thought were particularly interesting.Â Those questions with my comments follow. Question: Authentic tasks take more time, so that’s time away from other things to cover in class — can you commnet on this tension? My Answer: I’ve found that the authentic tasks have allowed me to shift my time and cover more; because the authetnic tasks rquire learners to engage the text, I don’t spend as much time focused on the base knowledge.Â I spend more time covering specific, more in depth questions or addressing topics that extend the content of the text. Question: What technologies provide new opportunities to embed authentic tasks in the curriculum?Â My Answer: I believe there are basically two types of technologies that make authentic tasks more possible now than before: simulation facilitation and communication.Â More than a few technologies make simulations more possible now than before; animation applications continue to bridge the gap between educators and the programming skills necessary to create simulations (Flash, online application tools etc).Â While it certainly requires a specialized skill set to create Flash-based animations, I do think creating advanced, visual animations is more feasible now than it used to be.Â Further, game platforms and virtual worlds definitely provide educators with more tools that make creating simulations a feasible alternative.Â Second, communication technologies make collaboration regarding authentic tasks more possible.Â For example, I use wikis and collaborative documents to have learners “spec out” a computer for a specific type of user (which I define quite clearly); instead of simply reading about motherboards, processors and memory (intro to computers course), they actually engage the process of purchasing a computer.