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A Guide to Authentic e-Learning by Herrington, Reeves & Oliver

The blog first appeared on the LINE website on September 2nd 2010.

For a book dedicated to the promotion of audience engagement and highly immersive scenarios, it is strange that A Guide to Authentic e-Learning is about as exciting as a party political broadcast. And like a lot of politicians, this book makes bold promises based on an insignificant amount of evidence.

The Guide is certainly not thin on examples. In fact, far from it; every page is stuffed full of references old and new. Scholarly theories, backed up by other scholarly theories. But the whole way through the book, the real results and success stories that I most craved to see were sadly lacking.

The authors spell out a clear definition of authentic e-learning from the start: ‘Immersion online in an inventive and realistic task that provides opportunities for complex collaborative activities’ and to their credit, they never deviate from this. From beginning to end, the book is full of both educational and workplace examples, ranging from last year to thirty years ago, from legal studies and business management to interactive history lessons and language courses. The wealth of examples is undoubtedly impressive.

Possibly, the best use for this book is as historical reference. Not only does it provide intricate details of the past, but also it provides ample references for further subject related reading.

The social history of the last thirty years is particularly well documented, especially the attention to the transformation of knowledge-sharing over this period. The authors correctly point out that information is increasingly easy to acquire, opening knowledge pools previously known by only a few to the masses. This is a situation derided by Keen in his Cult of the Amateur, 2007 but happily, like Donald Clark, the Guide fully embraces it.

For the main part, as uninspiring as the book is, it’s hard to disagree with the theories presented. They all make rational sense. The nine characteristics for authentic learning designs, devised by Herrington & Oliver in 2000, are as relevant a decade later as they were for centuries earlier.

Authentic learning designs:

1. Provide authentic contexts that reflect the way knowledge will be used in real life
2. Provide authentic tasks
3. Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes
4. Provide multiple roles and perspectives
5. Support collaborative construction of knowledge
6. Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed
7. Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit
8. Provide coaching and scaffolding by the teacher at critical times
9. Provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks.

The Guide then gives numerous real-life examples where these authentic characteristics have been used in e-learning within organisations. But, in all cases, I found myself asking ‘show me a case where an organisation has increased its learning efficiency or has delivered a significant return-on-investment as a result of its uptake of authentic e-learning’.

This never came, aside from a slightly apologetic section near the end that highlighted the difficulty of reporting the efficacy of such programmes. But perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps the lack of results is more indicative of the lack of assessment within businesses or educational environments themselves. The lack of evaluation in organisational learning is much lamented by many, not least Donald Clark! But I know at LINE, we encourage our clients to measure the outcomes of their learning programmes. After all, if L&D teams are proving their initiative’s fiscal success, they’ll prove the integrity of their job role within the organisation. But I also know from experience with our clients, that due to time and other conflicting constraints it isn’t always so black and white.

There’s an interesting point made near the end, that has been echoed recently in a blog by LINE’s own Steve Ash that companies aren’t measuring the success of their L&D initiatives in the right way, choosing to focus, too readily, on statistics concerning number of passes, fails, and entrants, for example.

The Guide refers to a programme evaluation by Siemens in 2006, which sums up a collective concern for L&D departments:

“Much like we used to measure ‘bums in seats’ for program success, we now see statistics of ‘students enrolled in our LMS’ and ‘number of page views by students as an indication of success/progress. The underlying assumption is that if we just expose students to the content, learning will happen.”

Despite this though, real results do exist. Towards Maturity released a report on behalf of Becta earlier this year showing various examples of business success using learning technologies in the workplace. Similarly, LINE have their own results to boast including Ford car sales personnel who had taken a sales training course, sold 2.4 more cars per year than those who hadn’t. Or the Identity and Passport Service, who proved a after employees had taken a blended learning programme created by LINE.

When writing A Guide to Authentic e-Learning , Herrington, Reeves and Oliver, could have spent less time painstakingly researching other academic theories, that agreed with their own polemics, and more time finding the real-world results of their countless examples.

If you read a guide to Rome, you’d want to know why you should go and see the Colosseum, not just the fact it’s there.