Authentic Learning & Technology

Authentic learning is an approach to teaching and learning that has students working on realistic problems, to gain new knowledge and skills in context, rather than listening to lectures and memorizing vast amounts of information to be reproduced on tests.  Students construct their own meanings from their work and produce products and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school.  It is real work for a real audience. 

Authentic learning promotes higher-order thinking and the integration of knowledge rather than strict subject area constraints.  It rewards depth of knowledge rather than surface knowledge.  And it encourages students, working alone or in a collegial team, to build on ideas connected to the real world. 

The concept of authentic learning is relative; nothing is completely authentic or totally divorced from reality.  Most teachers already do some authentic teaching, even if they are just using word problems from the book and trying to add meaning to the abstractions that must be mastered.  

In an authentic learning setting, students often start with an ill-structured problem to explore and seek one of many possible solutions.  But real-world problems rarely have obvious solutions and students don’t start out with all of the relevant information to solve them.  While they work on the problem, its definition might change and any decisions will be based on the best information available.  A final step may be presenting the results to an audience of those who will actually use the information. 

Just as in the world outside of school, technology serves as a tool, helping people solve problems.  Technology is used to gather, organize, and analyze information.  A zoo’s staff might walk around with portable computers to record data on the status of the animals under their charge.  Students, too, can gather information outside the classroom to bring in for analysis.  A professional making a presentation to colleagues or customers may use multimedia to make her points.  So, too, a student reporting on the Depression of the 1930’s in history class will bring in visual images and data to accompany his presentation to the class.  Technology becomes a tool to meet the needs of individuals—students or professional—and help them accomplish important tasks. 

Portable technology (e.g. the laptop computer) allows students to engage in sophisticated data gathering outside the classroom.  At the same time, the power of multimedia computers in the classroom allows educators to provide authentic microworlds for problem solving within the confines of the school.  For example, complex science simulation programs allow students to manipulate factors affecting climate and ecology.  These programs attempt to provide the same ill-structured problems found in the real world.

Practical Examples
In classrooms around the nation, students and teachers are using technology to help accomplish authentic learning tasks.  

In a project based on the “Pit and the Pendulum,” high school math students determine whether Poe’s story is mathematically sound.  They use graphing calculators and computers to create and experiment with model pendulums.  They conjecture, analyze data, study quadratic equations, explore curve fitting, and finally build a pendulum to test their theories.  

The Jasper Woodbury videodisk series, produced by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University, provides kids with a “macrocontext” for solving authentic problems.  The focus of the series is mathematics, but the adventures of Jasper lead to many other areas such as ecology or history.  Each video tells a story 14 to 18 minutes long that ends with one of the characters posing a problem.  Students then have to consider subtasks and pose possible solutions.  In reality, and in the Jasper series, there are many possible solutions to these problems.

A nearby river was the focus of an interdisciplinary, technology-based writing project for high school students.  They gathered information on the history of the river and its effects on the community by interviewing residents, taking samples of river water and vegetation, measuring the width and depth of the river at various points, and tracking air and water temperature.  Using computers, students charted and graphed results, developed a database that pointed to periodic changes in the river, and produced a final report for the community.

Research Evidence
Microcomputer-based laboratory experiments improve students’ knowledge of science concepts and processes, and also encourage the application of multiple modalities in authentic science experiences, according to the research of Linn and her associates.   Science students learn more efficiently when they can watch the science event and its real-time graphic representation simultaneously. 

Telecommunications projects in science help students develop both specific science concepts and global awareness while using computer tools.

Authentic writing with computers is an effective way of learning language mechanics.  When combined with the use of telecommunications, such as a cooperative development project, improvements show up on both holistic assessments and standardized tests, both for writing quality and for attitudes.  Low-achieving writing students, especially, benefit from participating in telecommunications-based writing projects.

How-to’s & Tips for the Trade
As these examples portray, students can use technology to make meaningful connections between their school experiences and the real world.  Students work alone or collaboratively as active learners discussing ideas and progressing toward specific goals.  The student is both thinker and doer; the teacher acts as facilitator—and technology makes much of this possible.

Here are some strategies to guide you in creating technology-based, authentic learning experiences for your students:

•  Work with your students to identify meaningful projects within your school’s curriculum framework.  Help students focus on large concepts and guide them towards determining appropriate outcomes for each project. 

•  Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative.  Students are motivated by taking responsibility for their own learning and by constructing knowledge based on their own ideas.

•  Have students work with raw data and primary sources along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials.  Learning becomes more meaningful to students as they make connections during the process of gathering, analyzing and drawing conclusions about information. 

•  Once a task is chosen and students determine what resources they need, encourage contact with the larger community by letter, telephone, fax, and electronic communications such as on-line services and the Internet.  Technology-based research can be specialized, current, and enable students to obtain resources outside the school site. 

•  Have students make use of technology for data collection, information management, problem-solving, decision-making, communications, and presentations.  For example, science students performing hands-on investigations can use technology-based tools such as database-search programs, spreadsheets, and graphing software to help then integrate and synthesize information.  For a project on the stock market, students can collect information from an on-line service and use a database to organize it.  Electronic mail enables students to work collaboratively with peers in other locations to write and assemble the pieces of a multimedia presentation.

•  Be alert for opportunities to introduce experiences that might contradict initial hypotheses; students learn as they engage in resolving discrepancies.  Move toward high-order thinking skills by guiding students to technology-based tools to classify, analyze, predict, or create.  

Technology You Can Use
Laptop computers help students undertake authentic tasks from start to finish.  Students can collect and organize information while on a field trip.  Elementary students on a visit to the local power plant can write down the information as it is presented by the tour guide.  By having the computer hold the ideas and materials from the field, students can go over them again and again, reinforcing their learning by further access to their  first-hand information.

High-school science students can use the modem on their computer to pull down pictures of events on Jupiter from one of several on-line services or the Internet and analyze the data, just as professional astronomers are doing.  By using one of the new multimedia computers designed for video input, students can videotape the explanations of what they have concluded about the impact of comet fragments on Jupiter, and incorporate them as QuickTime movies in multimedia documents and presentations.  They can do “authentic” science rather than just reading about it. 


Brasell, H. (1987).  The effect of real-time laboratory graphing on learning graphic representations of distance and velocity. Journal of Research in Science Teaching  24(4), 385-395.  Linn, M. C., Layman, J. W., and Nachmias, R.  (1987).  Cognitive consequences of microcomputer-based laboratories: Graphing skills development. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 12, 244-253.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1993).  Designing learning environments that support thinking:  The Jasper series as a case study.  In T .M. Duffy, J. Lowyck & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.) Designing environments for constructive learning.  New York:  Springer-Verlag.

Fine, C.  (1991)  Research on the National Geographic Kids Network.  Oak Brook, IL:  North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.  Riel, M. (1989), The impact of computers in classrooms, Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 22, 180-190.

Lebow, D. G. (1994).  Authentic activity as a model for appropriate learning activity: Implications for emerging instructional technologies.  Canadian Journal of Educational Communication, 23(3), 231-244.

Riel, M. (1990).  Computer-mediated communication: A tool for reconnecting kids with society. Interactive Learning Environments1(40) 255-263.  Riel, M. (1992).  A functional analysis of educational telecomputing: A case study of learning circles. Interactive Learning Environments, 2 (1), 15-19. 

Spaulding, C. and Lake, D.  (1991-1992).  Interactive effects of computer network and student characteristics on students’ writing and collaborating.  Cited in Riel, M. (1992).  Approaching the study of networks.  The Computer Teacher, 19 (4), 7-9, 52.


Prepared by:  Rockman et al,  605 Market Street, Suite 305,   San Francisco, CA  94105

Phone: 415/543-4144    Fax: 415/543-4145    Internet:

©Rockman et al   Permission to reproduce for nonprofit educational use is granted, provided this publication is credited.

This publication is sponsored by the Department of Education/State of Indiana and the Corporation for Educational Technology under a personal services agreement.  The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Education or any other agency of the State of Indiana.