Authentic Learning Through Service Learning

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico

What is Authentic Learning?

Authentic learning is not equivalent to service learning, but service learning can provide the appropriate context for authentic learning. According to Mims (2003), authentic learning is a pedagogical approach that allows students to explore, discuss, and meaningfully construct concepts and relationships in contexts that involve real-world problems and projects that are relevant to the learner. Multidisciplinary approaches are also characteristic of authentic learning environments.

As a pedagogical approach, authentic learning has its theoretical foundations on situated learning theory, proposed originally by Lave (1988) and later elaborated by Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989). This theoretical position argues that in order for learning to be meaningful, it should take place in contexts that allow learners to use their knowledge and skills as if they were in real life. Learning is most often unintentional, and the activity itself, as well as the context and culture, serve as the nurturing environment for learning. Thus learners become involved in a community of practice, where novices and experts collaborate, reflect and learn together (Lave &Wenger, 1990), through social interactions and social construction of knowledge. As a pedagogical approach, it is structured around solving problems, preferably in real, complex contexts; problems that are ill-defined or moderately structured, as the ones encountered in everyday contexts. “Recent research in everyday problem solving in different contexts makes clear distinctions between thinking required to solve well-structured problems and everyday problems” (Jonassen , 2004, p. 4). Although Jonassen recognizes that ill-structured problems might not be taught at all, he suggests that learners should experience ways to approach them by using general intelligence and world knowledge. Although the design of authentic tasks might be seen as the main focus of this approach (Herrington, Reeves, & Oliver, 2010), it is the cognitive authenticity of the learning environment which is considered of prime importance for educational design (Herrington & Herrington, 2006).

I have found that authentic learning takes place when solving real problems in the complexity of reality. It occurs when our doing emulates consciously that of the experts in the field, when we use their tools, content knowledge, and skills, and when we solve problems and face situations that reflect the actual professional values and practices of the field. It is built upon collaboration and reflection, within a community of practice. According to Herrington and Herrington (2006) there are nine characteristics of authentic learning environments. These environments should provide for:

  • Contexts reflecting knowledge use in real life;
  • Real tasks and activities;
  • Access to experts and process modeling;
  • Access to experts and process modeling;
  • Collaborative knowledge;
  • Reflective thinking;
  • Articulation of tacit knowledge to make it explicit;
  • Coaching and scaffolding; and
  • Authentic assessment.

The Role of Technology in Authentic Learning

One could argue that if learning is mediated by technology, then it cannot be authentic. Based on personal experience, I do not believe this to be the case. Authenticity does not depend on the physical conformity of the learning context, but on how this context stimulates real problem-solving processes. As stated by Herrington and Herrington (2006), “Authenticity goes beyond mere relevance” (p. 3). We must capitalize on the power of new technologies when providing contexts for authentic learning. This can be done by a simulating scenario dealing with complex hypothetical problems, or a real scenario, dealing with complex real problems. Even virtual scenarios such as online courses, and virtual worlds as Second Life, can serve as contexts for authentic learning. Technology, when integrated appropriately into the design, can effectively facilitate these processes. Authentic learning demands that we transform our face to face and online teaching methods, changing our perspective on technologies. Technologies are cognitive learning tools, not just mere media for content transmission.

Making Authentic Learning Possible

This section illustrates the significance of authentic contexts for learning by presenting three examples.

One of my goals is to initiate students early into the community of practice. I consider it important for them to develop their own digital identities if they are to become part of the community of professionals who would impact the field of Educational Technology in Puerto Rico. Due to its loosely structured nature, authenticity provokes uncertainty and ambiguity. Students are not used to deal with these characteristics of real life in schools and universities (Herrington & Herrington, 2006; Jonassen, 2004). They are used to learning environments characterized by straight questions and answers; ill structured environments for learning are not known to most of them. When confronted with an authentic context for learning, they tend to resist the cognitive dissonance that ambiguity and uncertainty provokes. Thus, in order to facilitate their adaptation to this new learning environment I plan scaffolding processes, provide expert modeling, stimulate peer-based learning, stimulate collaboration, and provide for authentic tasks mediated through technology. I also allow myself to improvise, and I value and stimulate the same from my students. Whenever there is an opportunity, I try to integrate different levels of expertise within the learning tasks. I also try to integrate different levels of content knowledge, making it possible for students in one course to work together with those in other courses or to serve as mentors for their peers on the development of particular skills. I intend to follow Einstein’s famous quote, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Foundations of Educational Technology (EDU 600) and Human Learning and Instruction (EDU604) are the first courses in the program. Most students do not know much about Web 2.0 tools for learning. They know about FaceBook or MySpace, messaging and texting. Most have heard of Twitter, but do not have an account. They have Google e-mail accounts, but do not know about all the attributes of this platform. Most do not know of many other available digital tools. Following a progressive plan for developing professional knowledge and skills, I coach them on the development of their digital identities, and allow them to become familiar with the vast possibilities of web-based teaching and learning tools available. A sample of authentic learning activities follows.

Last semester, students had the opportunity to attend a presentation with three experienced instructional designers from Puerto Rico and other members of the professional community from different countries, while being exposed for the first time to an encounter facilitated by the Blackboard Collaborate platform. They interacted with educational technology professionals from Columbia, Argentina, and Peru, as well as other professionals from Puerto Rico. In 2010 we had George Siemens as a guest and main speaker for our graduate program’s 25th anniversary celebration. Students were asked to attend George Siemens’ talk (either in person or on-line), read about connectivism, and conduct a web-based discussion, using the VoiceThread platform. Advanced students offered workshops on the use of different Web 2.0 tools to new students. As they were registered in these two courses at the same time, group project activities were integrated. They conducted an open dialogue on three amazing topics dealing with digital literacy, digital divide, and digital violence on the 21st century and their implications for learning. The activity was transmitted via Stream TV on the Internet in an open form, with participation of an audience from different parts of the world.

In Models of Teaching (EDU 640), students decided to work on designing a blog in WordPress to complement the course in Moodle (the learning management system adopted by the university). They were expected to approach the content as experts would do it. Three criteria had to be met by the design. First, the blog would have as its main goal to serve train teachers on the use of selected models of teaching from those studied throughout the course; second, it should be interactive; and, third, it should integrate different types of digital resources. The final version of the blog was used by the next group of students, and original authors served as mentors for new students on how to use it, even though they had already finished with the course.

The Seminar in Educational Technology (EDU 791) runs almost totally online. The strategy is as follows. We select a main theme and work around it from different perspectives. Each student proposes a subtopic to explore, based on their own personal interests. Each one elaborates an essay and poses his or her essay for discussion as a forum in Moodle. Students then suggest readings and lead the discussion. Last semester, students participated in a public forum with a special guest as a final activity, each one elaborating on their particular topic. This final activity was open, where students, faculty members and experts got together as a community of practice. Students had to behave as experts in front of experts.

Making Authentic Learning Possible through Service Learning

The National Service-Learning Clearing House (2012) defines service learning as “…a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities” While other strategies, such as internships and cooperative education, are also experiential and include a classroom component, they generally do not focus on service to the community. The emphasis on civic responsibility makes a difference.

Through the Community Engagement Center at Sacred Heart, students come to know the needs of special community projects and community-based organization. They then decide which special project or organization to support through their course group project. Students take charge of the learning environment by themselves.

Most of the service-learning experiences take place in two particular courses. The first course in which it all started, Process and Product Evaluation (EDU 618), emphasize on formative evaluation of learning products. It requires students to design and evaluate the first prototype of an educational electronic material to be produced. The other course, Design of Educational Experiences (EDU 613), requires them to address a particular educational/instructional need and elaborate a learning design following a given model. They study different types of models, but choose the one to follow as appropriate.

Both courses provide for reflection on practice and upon their practice, which is crucial for service learning. Thus, following Mezirow’s theory of adult learning (2000), critical reflection is stimulated. Questions are used to foster increasing levels of reflection: content reflection, process reflection, and premise reflection. Reflections are shared, making this process open to the collision of ideas, feelings and perspectives. These reflective experiences are facilitated by means of Moodle’s tools, such as tasks, forum discussions and chats. Learning experiences include the use of Second Life, blogs in WordPress, videoconferences via Skype, Wikis, and a variety of other Web 2.0 tools. As Moodle does not allow others to access students online within the platform, blogs are used to facilitate communication with organizations and other experts in the field. Blogs are used as spaces for open reflection, communication, collaboration, peer-based learning, reinforcement, and connectivity. Through these blogs, students are connected to the world, and the results of their efforts are considered as important contributions for these organizations.

Service-learning group projects promote learning in real social contexts. They promote learning by doing and learning by design. The end results of students experiences are subjected to public scrutiny, for students have to make a final presentation to personnel from these community-based organizations and other members of our faculty.

Throughout the course of the past four to five years, students have worked with many different projects and organizations. Among these are: Ámbito Educativo, a video production project for intermediate school students on different subject matters; INIPRODEH, an organization promoting human rights; ANDA, an association providing legal advice and support to communities in favor of environmental rights; National Park Services, the federal office in charge of preservation of our historical sites; Museo Histórico de Vieques, the museum in the Island of Vieques in charge of preserving their historical heritage; and others.

Service-learning empowers students. In one particular case, students had to produce a newsletter for the organization of friends and relatives of prisoners; they learned about a publishing tool on their own to achieve their goal. This is an example of motivation at its best! They took initiatives for learning because it made sense to them. Others worked on developing scripts for TV educational programs; still others worked on producing instructional modules on topics such as tolerance, human rights, and our historical heritage.

Final Thoughts and Some Suggestions

Dudley Herschback, a Nobel Prize winner, once stated: “You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.” Within an apparent disorder (ill-structured environments), students will turn inevitably to self-organization, bringing order into disorder. The initial chaos provoked by authentic learning environments can be successfully overcome by students if we provide for cognitive and affective support through scaffolding, modeling, coaching, and reflection. Students manifest their satisfaction with this approach.

“Definitively, theory is good, but going through practice is much better, and the combination of both is perfect!” —Yahaira Reyes

“It was really interesting to learn by doing…integrating the experiences of others… transferring what was learned in class to my own work space… and for the students that I will impact from now on.” —Blanca Santos

“It was fascinating!” —Idelia Medina

There might be other effective ways of learning, but authentic service learning makes a real difference. Students find a social purpose in what they learn. While learning, they make a significant contribution to their immediate community. So, let us embrace uncertainty and ambiguity into our teaching and learning. Let us embrace error as an opportunity for learning. Let us embrace the complexity of reality as it is, and allow our students to learn as well. Let us coach our students through becoming experts in a field of experts. Let us coach them on developing awareness and social consciousness. Let us support them on their efforts for change. Let us embrace authentic service learning as an alternative teaching method.


Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Mims, C. (Winter, 2003). Authentic Learning: A Practical Introduction & Guide for Implementation. Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, 6(1), Raleigh, NC: NC State University. Retrieved from

National Service-Learning Clearing House Home Page (2012).What is Service-Learning. ETR, Associates. Retrieved from

Herrington, J., Reeves, T.C. & Oliver, R. (2010). A Guide To Authentic E-Learning. NY: Routledge.

Herrington, T. & Herrignton, J. (2006). Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education. Hershey: Information Science Publishing.

Jonassen, D. (2004). Learning to Solve Problems: An Instructional Design Guide. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in Practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate Periperal Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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