This is the fourth in a series on the characteristics of meaningful learning. The previous posts were Active Learning: Engaging Students’ Minds, Collaborative Learning: Building Knowledge in Community, and Constructive Learning: Making Connections.

Last month, I discussed the Constructive characteristic of the Technology Integration Matrix (TIM). The Constructive characteristic emphasizes the connection between new learning and previous learning. This month, we move on to the Authentic characteristic. The Authentic characteristic emphasizes the connection between new learning and the world outside of the classroom.

“The basic idea [of authentic learning] is that students are more likely to be interested in what they are learning, more motivated to learn new concepts and skills, and better prepared to succeed in college, careers, and adulthood if what they are learning mirrors real-life contexts, equips them with practical and useful skills, and addresses topics that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school.”

Authentic Learning, The Glossary of Education Reform.

From the student’s point of view, the Authentic characteristic answers the questions, “Is this real or just another made-up school thing? Is this relevant to me now or at least relevant to what I’ll need later or in a future career? Will I ever need to know this once I’ve passed my final exam in this class?”

For millennia, most children learned in an absolutely authentic environment, whether it was acquiring basic skills at the feet of their parents or as an apprentice acquiring specialized skills from an accomplished master. With the growth of mass schooling following the industrial revolution, many connections between education and the real world were lost to students now sitting in a classroom with thirty matching desks and thirty matching textbooks.

Fortunately, digital technology has given us the ability to reconnect learning to the real world. Although there are probably as many definitions of authentic learning as there are learning theorists, I think it’s helpful to consider five specific aspects of a student activity that are good indicators of the degree to which an activity is authentic. These five aspects are the context, the task, the sources, the tools, and the product.

In even the best of classrooms, will every activity be 100% authentic for each of these five aspects? Of course not.

Will our students benefit if we leverage technology to make school activities more authentic wherever practical? Absolutely!

Five Aspects of an Authentic Activity

Context. Is the context for this activity something that happens in the real world outside of school?

Not long ago, it was difficult to bring real-world contexts into the classroom. The world outside the classroom was something to read about in books or see in the occasional filmstrip or the even less frequent field-trip. Today, we can bring in video from just about any location, on just about any topic, to demonstrate just about any process—and all with just a few keystrokes on a connected device. Where once students had to take their teacher’s word that a classroom activity was something real, now a teacher can easily conference in an outside expert to interact with students. Simulations can also bring real-world experience to students easily and safely. While some may argue that simulations aren’t “real,” they are certainly more real than not using the simulation and simulations are, in fact, used in the world beyond the classroom. Jumbo jet pilots don’t fly the actual plane on their first day of training.

Task. Does the task reflect an activity would actually happen in the real-world context?

It’s not enough just to have an authentic context for an activity. The task itself should also be authentic whenever possible. At first glance, a simple word problem such as the following might appear to be authentic.

Maria’s cash register drawer contains only five-dollar and ten-dollar bills. It contains twice as many fives as tens and the total amount of money in the cash register is $640. How many ten-dollar bills are in Maria’s cash register drawer?

The context of balancing a cash drawer is real, but no one in the history of retail sales has ever balanced a cash drawer using the relationship between the number of five- and ten-dollar bills. This may be a useful question to force the student to apply a pre-determined problem solving technique, but it’s certainly not an authentic task. A student savvy enough to solve the question is most likely also savvy enough to realize the question is completely contrived. There are innumerable authentic questions that could be posed in the context of a cash drawer, but this isn’t one of them. It would take just a moment to rewrite the question—perhaps like this:

Maria begins her shift as a cashier with $200 starting cash in her register drawer. The coins and one-dollar bills total $60. The rest of her starting cash is in fives and tens. Since she needs to give five-dollar bills in change more often than ten-dollar bills, she always asks for twice as many fives as tens. How many ten-dollar bills should Maria expect to find in her cash drawer at the beginning of her shift?

While this example was just a simple question rather than an extended activity, it demonstrates how a task can be tweaked to make it more realistic.

Sources. Are students accessing a broad range of information, data, and source materials beyond the instructional setting?

In the pre-digital technology era, students were often limited to information found in their textbooks, the classroom encyclopedia set, and the weekly visit to the school library. Access to primary sources was extremely limited, if not impossible in most cases.

Thanks to the internet, authentic activities now often include access to primary sources including real (and even real-time) data and information. Students have opportunities to evaluate and select real-world source material to use in their projects.

Tools. Are the students using the same or similar tools as would be used in the real world?

Until recently, it was unlikely that a classroom had access to the same tools that people used in the real world. With the digital revolution, most students now have access to the same sort of productivity and content creation tools in the classroom as are used outside of the classroom. A student device most likely has a basic office suite (word processing, presentation, spreadsheet apps), browser, email client, and often sound, graphics, and video editing capability as well. Further, once a student device is connected to the Internet, countless online tools are available.

Product. Does the activity result in a valued product that can be shared with an audience outside the classroom?

In the real world, people spend time on activities that result in something of value to themselves or to others. Similarly, student activities that are more authentic often result in some tangible production that can be seen, discussed, and shared. The internet provides the means to publish student products out to a wide audience. Authentic products are valued. Inauthentic products are often graded and then tossed into the nearest trashcan.

If we consider these five aspects—particularly the authentic use of technology tools and access to primary sources—what does learning look like at various levels of technology integration?

The Authentic Characteristic at Each Level of Technology Integration

ENTRY LEVEL. At the Entry level, student use of technology (if any) is unrelated to the world outside of the instructional setting.

If technology is used, it is used for decontextualized school work. Perhaps the students are using a math tutorial in which they add pairs of two-digit numbers to sail a boat to a magic island. The drill software may have engaging graphics and sound effects, but one doesn’t sail a boat by adding random two-digit numbers.

Any classroom resources available to the students at this level are chosen by the teacher and are predominately textbook or textbook-like sources, whether digital or print. They are generally used without making connections to a real-world context or to the students’ personal lives.

ADOPTION LEVEL. At the Adoption level students begin guided use of technology in activities that may have some out-of-school connection.

Students may now be using technology in ways that have a connection to the real world, but that use is conventional and teacher-directed. Likewise, students may begin to access outside resources, but those resources are teacher-selected and limited in scope. For example, students may be directed to create a five-slide presentation using information and graphics from resources determined by the teacher. The focus of such an activity may be more on the procedural use of the presentation software than on the real-world content of the presentation. Student products at this level often tend toward cookie-cutter examples of technical competency, but such activities can be valuable stepping stones to more complex uses of technology.

ADAPTATION LEVEL. At the Adaptation level students begin the independent use of technology in activities that connect to the real world or their own lives. They also begin to have some choice in how they use technology tools and may have opportunities to explore the capabilities of these tools.

Students now begin to take ownership of their technology and digital resource use. As they explore and push the limits of a particular piece of technology, they are moving from a purely procedural understanding of the tech to a more conceptual understanding of its capabilities. With this increased understanding, the focus of the activity continues to shift from learning the technology to learning with the technology. The resulting projects are becoming more diverse as students discover favorite new features and more personalized ways of using their digital tools.

INFUSION LEVEL. The Infusion level starts to mimic the real-world experience of being presented a problem and having to determine which tools to use and how to use them to develop a solution.

At this level, students also have access to a broad range of real-world information, data, and primary sources. The teacher provides the learning context, but the students now possess the technical knowledge and resource access to pursue solutions in ways that are more meaningful and related to their personal interests and experiences, as well as to emerging topics. Students now value their own productions to a much greater extent because those products have become both more real and more personal. With students selecting the tools best matched to their intended activity, there will now be a rather wide range of response types and the focus of the lesson now is completely on the subject of the activity rather than the external details of technology use such as: Did you use a bulleted list? Is there an image on the title slide? Did you include at least 3 photos? etc.

TRANSFORMATION LEVEL. At this level, students use technology in innovative ways within higher-order learning activities that are connected to the world beyond the instructional setting.

An activity at this level has a real context, is a real task, uses real sources and tools, and usually results in a real product of some sort. Additionally, transformative activities may also exhibit the following characteristics of real-world problem-solving:

  • The context may be more interdisciplinary than most school activities.
  • The task may include more ambiguity and require a greater application of higher-order thinking skills.
  • The sources may include opportunities to engage directly with others who may be in different locations and may represent different experiences, cultures, and points of view.
  • The use of tools may be more complex and involve combining a number of different technologies used in innovative ways. Often, it would not have been possible to complete the task without the use of these tools.
  • The resulting product is more likely to be shared with a wide audience than most school work.

As in the real world, authentic tasks include opportunities for self-assessment and reflection, which will lead us to consideration of the fifth characteristic of meaningful learning environments. Goal-Directed Learning will be the final installment in this series.

To reference this post using APA format:
Winkelman, R. (2020, September 28). Authentic learning: Learning in a real-world context. [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

Roy Winkelman is a 40+ year veteran teacher of students from every level kindergarten through graduate school. As the former Director of FCIT, he began the Center's focus on providing students with rich content collections from which to build their understanding. When not glued to his keyboard, Dr. Winkelman can usually be found puttering around his tomato garden in Pittsburgh.