Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Authentic Tasks or Task-Centered Instruction?

I recently read an excellent article by Jan Herrington, Tom Reeves and Ron Oliver about Authentic tasks entitled Authentic Tasks Online: A Synergy among Learner, Task, and Technology (2006). This article begins by saying that the most common online learning tries to break down information into digestible chunks and distance education needs to be seen as part of a synergistic system.

The authors believe that the authentic tasks model will fill this need for synergy. They give some guidelines for authentic tasks, outlining what an authentic task is. When I first read this, I realized that the authentic tasks outlined in this article are somewhat different than the whole-task approach we have been working on in our higher-education institution. We work with Dr. M. David Merrill to follow First Principles of Instruction (2002), converting traditional lecture-based classes into task-centered ones.

Authentic tasks seem more drawn out than the tasks Merrill talks about in First Principles (2002), but I think the distinction is blurred somewhat. Either way, the tasks that we have been implementing in higher education class are usually shorter in length (1-2 weeks to complete) and the tasks mentioned by Herrington, Reeves and Oliver (2006) can take a whole semester to solve, or no less than a third of that semester.

Among the definitions of authentic tasks listed in this article, several stand out to me:

Authentic tasks are ill-defined, students have to define the tasks and sub-tasks to complete, also they are open to multiple interpretations and solutions.
Authentic tasks provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different theoretical, practical perspectives. students must distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.

The items above require that students must choose their own methods for solving the problem, and they must examine the task from differing perspectives. This is perhaps the furthest departure from what we are doing with our classes. In our approach, heuristics and rules of thumb are provided for solving a problem and students are taught how they might go about solving the problem themselves. Pitfalls with our approach may include decreased authenticity of the task (people in the "real-world" don't have someone showing how to do a problem, they are just asked to do it), and a lack of creativity of solutions (students will solve the next problem in much the same way as the first).

Pitfalls with the authentic tasks method stem from it's sink or swim approach. Students will have little guidance on where to start (although often the technology provides affordances), or what process to take in solving the problem.

Overall, I still think that it is best to scaffold students' performance with some guidance for completing the task or they may fail. Without this guidance, it is easy for a student to become frustrated and give up on a complex task. Perhaps vanMerrienboer's 4CID model (1997) is a good middle ground, tasks are kept complex, but are scaffolded only as much as students need and this scaffolding is removed as student performance increases.

The article also mentions:

Authentic tasks can be integrated and applied across different subject areas.

In dealing with the realities of higher education we have not been able to integrate differing subject areas to a very high degree. But in our approach, we have successfully combined English as an International Language instruction with Biology. I see no pitfalls with these approaches except perhaps that students will become confused, but only because they have been taught within the confines of subject areas for so long.

Also, authentic tasks would be very difficult to implement on a full scale in our outdated education systems. There is a very strong mentality that information should be broken down into manageable chunks and then fed to students. The whole system of education, from colleges, to schools to programs to courses to credits follows this approach. If things like authentic tasks are going to take off, this mindset will have to change and the idea of courses will have to go away.

Another pitfall with the authentic tasks approach is that we are asking students who are novices to do what professionals do and to produce professional work. I like the high expectations that this conveys, but students are not experts. They will not produce completely professional work unless it is in a very narrow topic area. At the same time, many undergraduate students do not take their education seriously enough to produce work at this level.


Herrington, J., Reeves, T. C., & Oliver, R. (2006). Authentic Tasks Online: A Synergy among Learner, Task, and Technology. Distance Education, 27(2), 233.

Merrienboer, J. J. G. V. (1997). Training Complex Cognitive Skills: A Four-Component Instructional Design Model for Technical Training. , 338. Educational Technology Pubns.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First Principles of Instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43.

1 comment:

  1. Some of the Problem Based Literature shows that students learn just as much (or a little less than) traditional instruction methods, but that they retain much more of what they learned in PBL.

    The hardest part with PBL seems to be coming up with appropriate tasks or problems for students to solve. Another important part to consider is that students should be focused on (read assessed on) the process they go through, not necessarily the resulting solution. Project-based courses differ from PBL in that aspect, where it is the final project that is graded, not the process that the students go through.

    With some students or content areas, however, more structure/scaffolding may be required than others. So the answer? It depends!