Authentic Activities

Authentic Activities

Group of people networking around giant computer monitor


People seek formal education for a multitude of reasons but can be frustrated by the lack of transferrable skills it proffers. Online educators can bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world environments with authentic activities, which allow learners to gain skills that directly connect to professions. Including authentic tasks in online courses requires learners to “understand a topic stemming from a practical approach to solving a problem or creating a product or artifact” (Ruhalahti, Korhonen, & Rasi, 2017, p. 375). Said differently, authentic tasks allow learners to take decontextualized knowledge and utilize it in conjunction with their experiences to arrive at understandings transcending facts (Luo, Murray, & Crompton, 2017).


When it comes to classroom learning, the knowledge from a textbook does not always translate to real-world experiences, and not all professional development leads to “profound professional learning” (Teras & Kartoglu, 2017, p.1). Many adult learners find that the knowledge they acquire within formal educational settings is not directly applicable to their career paths. For example, an executive might be taught how to balance the company budget but not how to make the difficult decision of which department receives a budget cut. Although both types of knowledge are important, the budget-cut decision employs theoretical knowledge in an applicable context.

Saliently, then, online education enables instructors and learners to implement activities that are both meaningful and transferrable. Educators should consider how to integrate authentic activities to meet the post-educational needs of learners, considering the setup, collaborative nature, level, and complexity of tasks (Ruhalahti, Korhonen, & Rasi, 2017). In a truly authentic activity, “meanings are negotiated and therefore constructed by the learner” (Luo, Murray, & Crompton, 2017, p. 3). When executed correctly, an authentic activity provides a bridge from instruction to the experience of real-world scenarios.


Authentic activities should have the following six characteristics (Harrington et al, 2003):

  1. Authentic activities should be applicable to real-world contexts. The instructor should not take a task that would only be performed in a classroom and try to make it fit a real-world context; rather, they should construct a task that would be applicable to the world outside the classroom, considering learners' contexts and experience.
  2. Authentic activities should be flexible. Authentic activities should include multiple pathways for students to discover solutions and allow for flexibility in outcome. There should not be one way to complete an authentic activity, nor should there be one correct answer.
  3. Authentic activities should be complex. Authentic activities should involve multiple and diverse processes. They should not be focused on singular skills, but rather on subsets of skills that facilitate professional tasks.
  4. Authentic activities should provide opportunities for collaboration and reflection. Many real world tasks require teams to find solutions and reflect (both internally and externally). Authentic activities should, therefore, provide opportunities to self-assess and learn through collaboration, allowing knowledge to flow from multiple perspectives and sources.
  5. Authentic activity and assessment should not be separate. When authentic activities are integrated correctly, the activity and assessment blend into one another, allowing for assessment to occur not just once, but as an iterative process where students acquire knowledge and develop skills.
  6. Authentic activities should produce usable and meaningful deliverables. Completing an authentic activity should not be done for the sake of doing something. It should rather create a product or deliverable, which might take the form of a portfolio or skill set (e.g., interview skills) (Teräs & Kartoglu, 2017).


Below are examples of authentic activities from different disciplines. Each of these activities accesses multiple skills, bridging the gap between the online classroom and professional world. The list includes one type of authentic activity per discipline; it should go without saying, however, that there are many other exciting possibilities for authentic activities.

Computer Science

Activity: Design an app. Working individually or with a team, learners will utilize code to build an app. This app could be a response to a prompt or more open-ended in design.

Transferrable Skills: Coding, teamwork, creating business models, budgeting, marketing


Activity: Redesign an assessment. Using educational theories, learners will redesign an assessment in order to assess students more holistically. While redesigning, learners should take care to write clear directions and align standards and outcomes.

Transferrable Skills: Integrating standards and outcomes, analyzing outcomes, writing clear directions, aligning standards and outcomes


Activity: Hire a candidate. Groups will observe a position, determine requisite skills, and use gathered information to interview and assess a potential employee. Upon finding an employee, they will extend an offer and draft a contract.

Transferrable Skills: Writing job descriptions, assessing resumes, conducting interviews, writing an offer letter, writing and implementing contracts


Activity: Design and pitch a product. Learners will assess a need in the market and design a product to meet it. They will use business principles to create a marketing campaign and distribute the work, all while staying in budget.

Transferrable Skills: Designing a product, developing a marketing plan, assigning team roles, budgeting for projects


Activity: Construct a case. Students will analyze a case using strategies from the course. They will use legal techniques to create an argument and evidence to support the argument. The final project will be a case presentation with teams on opposing sides.

Transferrable Skills: Understanding a case, employing legal logic, formulating an argument, collecting and organizing evidence


Activity: Role-play a counseling session. In a group of three, two students will act out the counselor/patient relationship while the third observes. The counselor will ask questions that help them to assess the patient, give advice, and set goals. A post-role-play self-assessment will be used for improvement.

Transferrable Skills: Developing interview skills, building counseling relationships, facilitating counseling assessments, goal-setting, practicing reflectively

Try It!

Implementing an authentic activity does not require a complete redesign of your course: it is possible to take an existing activity and make it authentic. Take a look at a course you are currently teaching and ask yourself the following questions about your activities and assignments:

  1. Do they require skills that learners are expected to demonstrate in the professional world?
  2. Do they incorporate multiple skill sets taught in the course?
  3. Do they result in a deliverable (or multiple deliverables) that facilitate career advancement for students?

Review the Standards section and identify changes that you can make to one of your assignments to increase authenticity.


Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T. C. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1), 59-71. doi:10.14742/ajet.1701

Luo, T., Murray, A., & Crompton, H. (2017). Designing authentic learning activities to train pre-service teachers about teaching online. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7). doi:10.19173/irrodl.v18i7.3037

Ruhalahti, S., Korhonen, A., & Rasi, P. (2017). Authentic, dialogical knowledge construction: A blended and mobile teacher education programme. Educational Research, 59(4), 373-390. doi:10.1080/00131881.2017.1369858

Teräs, H., & Kartoglu, U. (2017). A grounded theory of professional learning in an authentic online professional development program. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7), 191-212. doi: