Authenticity as a driver

What makes our students tick?! What makes any of us tick?! If you’re looking for the simple answer, the cliché in education is that students respond to marks. But is it that simple? Is it good enough to model the ways we teach, learn and assess around this simplified view of learner motivation? Of course not, and in reality, we know it’s not true. Equally, we know that the factors that motivate academic staff are complex too. So how can we enrich the learning and teaching experience so that it recognises our human qualities more and motivates all of us in all that we do?

We observed a change in the relationship between students and staff whilst evaluating a simulation in which they were involved, one that we have facilitated for several years. We wonder if these signs indicate a useful direction that might influence engagement models in other modules.

The role of technology in teaching and learning

Our work involves identifying and evaluating new and emerging technologies that may be valuable to support learning, teaching and assessment; however, our attention is captured, not so much by the shiny metal of the new technology, as by the opportunity such hardware and software suggest for promoting, or accessing, an engaging learning experience.

According to Jonassen et al. (2003), effective technology-enhanced applications are usually active, constructive, intentional, authentic and collaborative. And at Sheffield Hallam most of us are signed up to ideas such as learner-centred, and autonomous methods of teaching. Perhaps such ideals can be captured in the one word: meaningful. And if you want another word, why not “fun!”

So, I suppose you can say that our particular remit involves finding creativity in the design of meaningful and fun pedagogy; pedagogy that is often characterised by an appropriate dose of 21st century technology.

Staff and students establish new ground rules

With this context in mind, we thought it would be worth sharing an example of a module with which we have been involved for some years: Visualisation Case Studies. On the face of it you might expect that the cold edge of technology would dominate the teaching in such a module; in fact the opposite is true. For a number of years the students in this module have taken part in a cross institutional simulation where they act as IT consultant developers for real world clients. The clients are academic staff around the university. The simulation exemplifies authentic learning. Herrington and Oliver (2000) suggest authentic learning displays the following characteristics: a real life context that reflects the way the knowledge is used; authentic activities; access to expert performances and the modelling of processes; multiple roles and perspectives; the collaborative construction of knowledge; reflection; articulation; coaching and scaffolding; and authentic assessment. Others (e.g. Rule 2006) have referred to the open-ended nature of the activity and the social discourse that surrounds it.

If the abstract transformation of pedagogy seems complex, the simplicity evidenced in real change can be startling, as is the case in the simulation referred to here where student groups were given a one or two line brief together with the contact details of their academic client. Reflecting on how the assignment kicked off, one student explained, “we were all so excited about getting started on the project.”

Interdependence and loyalty

We carried out interviews with students and staff who worked together as consultants, developers and clients in this simulation and were struck by the interdependence, the mutual respect, the enjoyment that all parties discussed as they reflected on working outside of their usual, traditional roles. On several occasions statements were made that clearly describe and explicitly refer to ‘friendship.’

Out of friendship comes an acceptance and willingness to go one step further. When the students were asked about their engagement with the module’s assessment criteria, the message was that it was very open-ended and perhaps not as important to them as they thought it might have been at the outset of the module. One student even declared, “We never found out how we were being marked on this.” In reality the criteria was in the Blackboard module, but their immersion in the assignment had meant they lost sight of this as they responded to their client’s two line brief in developing a sophisticated 3D visualisation.

Students appreciated the good relationship and the opportunity to talk freely, whilst the client acknowledged that they, “treated me with informal respect … joking with me.”

“That was really one of the benefits of having a client…” – the students could escape the artificial constraints of traditional assignments designed to exemplify theory. The students and staff both referred ‘loyalty’ and the need to trust each other. One student explained that everyone in his team, “wanted to produce something for him. We felt a responsibility to him… He was so enthusiastic about the project.” They also knew that, “he would be benefiting from it for years.”

One client appreciated the quality of the resource that he had access to: “I very much saw myself as a client. Privileged client – no payment.” He described the professionalism of the student team, noting, “They helped me in constructing what I wanted.”

The students, in return, felt valued, especially when the academic client had promised to acknowledge their contribution in an academic paper he planned to submit.

The students also indicated that they were driven by the opportunity to develop their portfolios with real world examples. They realised that, come the interview, they would be able to talk about design as a team negotiated, iterative process involving clients who were excited, but essentially hitherto ignorant of what could be achieved. The energy imparted in the interviews we conducted was indicative of the confidence and ideas that the project work had instilled. The students talked to us as professionals.

As in previous years, this year’s students had accepted and relished the opportunity to take responsibility for their academic clients’ genuine needs. And the academic clients had not only received the work they had commissioned, but had experienced for themselves a mutually beneficial relationship that was driven by real need, imagination, and interest from all involved.


We have witnessed a readiness, on the part of students and academics, to discover a more meaningful learning and teaching relationship and experience in this work. But this is not so unusual: the same message can be heard in concurrent work around the use of Digital Voices – for example in the spread of audio feedback practice. New technologies and media can be part of a new mix that enables closer involvement as a learning community.
Andrew Middleton and Richard Mather, Academic Innovation

Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000) An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48, 23-48
Jonassen, D.H., Howland, J., Moore, J., and Marra, R.M. (2003) Learning to solve problems with technology. Second Edition. New Jersey: Merill Prentice Hall
Rule, A. (2006) Editorial: the components of authentic learning. Journal of Authentic Learning, 3 (1), 2006, pp. 1-10 . Available online at:, last accessed: 1/29/2009


One response to “Authenticity as a driver

  1. Pingback: Do we want sustainability in education? « academic innovation: crucible

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