Authentic learning and simulations

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1 Introduction

This wiki explores some of the links between authentic learning and simulations.

Emily M. Atkinson
Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Authentic learning

Authentic learning is a student-centered form of learning where students solve ambiguous problems with real-world significance (Lombardi, 2007; Maina, 2004; Rule, 2006). According to Herrington (2006), students participate in learning experiences, called authentic activities, which are close comparisons to the work of experts in real-life. Like the real-world, authentic activities involve collaboration on ambiguous problems which may have several acceptable solutions (Bennett, Harper, & Hedberg, 2002). Examples of authentic activities include role-playing, simulations, and case studies.

Authentic activities take place in authentic learning environments. Authentic learning environments can be created in both digital and physical settings (Lombardi, 2007). According to Herrington, Oliver, and Reeves (2003), learners who are accustomed to teacher-centered learning may have trouble engaging in authentic learning environments when first introduced to them. Before knowledge can be gained, a student must consider the authentic learning environment to be a suitable substitute for real-life. This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, a term originally described in the 19th Century by poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Herrington, 2006; Herrington, Oliver, & Reeves, 2003).

One of the earliest forms of authentic learning was apprenticeship, where students learned a trade from experts through hands-on training (Lombardi, 2007). Many schools and universities have instilled internship and apprenticeship programs to give students a chance to gain knowledge and workplace skills prior to graduation (Joyce, 2008). Providing students with the opportunity to work in actual work environments would be ideal, however, this opportunity may not always be possible due to limited access (Car-Chellman, Dyer, & Breman, 2000; Ferry et al., 2006). Also, placing students in a real-world environment may be dangerous or involve risk without adequate training (Ingram & Jackson, 2004; Lombardi, 2007).

3 Simulations and authentic learning

Digital simulations are often safer than real-life learning environments (Ferry et al., 2006), which is one reason why they may be appropriate for authentic learning contexts. According to Kirriemuir and McFarlane (2004), simulations are used for medical training to avoid injuring a real-life patient, for military training to safely practice for battle, and in business to ensure no money is lost. Students studying to become teachers can practice making difficult decisions with virtual children so their choices won’t have a negative impact on real-life children (Ferry et al., 2006).

Ingram and Jackson (2004) conducted a study evaluating the use of simulations in a physical environment for authentic learning. The students participated in mock job interviews, and events were simulated with actors who were students from the school’s drama course. The students reported that the simulated interviews did indeed offer a learning experience with value in the real-world and were therefore authentic.

Authentic learning can also occur within mainstream simulations games, which are digital simulations intended to entertain (Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004). Examples of mainstream simulation games include The Sims and Sid Meier’s Civilization. In The Sims, the player controls one or more characters through everyday activities, such as sleeping, eating, watching television, and interacting with other characters. The actions of the characters in the game resemble actions of people in real-life, and there is no single solution or proper way to play the game (Griebel, 2006). In the Sid Meier’s Civilization series of games, the player uses real-world problem solving to build, manage, and protect their empire from barbarians and competing players (Squire, 2005). Like in authentic activities, multiple solutions are acceptable in Sid Meier’s Civilization as “students can win the game several different ways, roughly lining up with political, scientific, military, cultural, or economic victories” (Squire & Jenkins, 2003, p. 9).

4 Integrating simulation games into authentic learning

According to Oblinger (2006), simulation games used as authentic activities must be incorporated into a course, and simply playing a game is not enough to facilitate learning. Squire and Jenkins (2003) suggest that students are motivated to seek out information from text books, maps, and other materials to assist their performance within a game environment. Ranalli (2008) used The Sims paired with additional material as an authentic activity to teach English as a second language to the students playing the game. The students’ responses to a questionnaire about the experience and the results from vocabulary quizzes demonstrated that The Sims can be used to teach English as a second language when used with supplementary material.

Not all simulation games would be suitable for teaching a second language, however, they may be effective at teaching other subjects or skills. Squire (2005) introduced the game Sid Meier’s Civilization III into a junior-high social studies classroom to teach history, geography, and economics. Squire (2005) found that only seventy-five percent of the students were willing to accept the simulation game as a suitable activity for learning. The other twenty-five percent chose to enroll in a more traditional history course, instead of continuing with the simulation, supporting Oblinger’s (2004) assertion that “not all games are good for all learners” (p. 4). Findings from Squire’s (2005) study revealed that some students struggled with the complexity of the game play which distracted them from their learning. Other students in the study, however, used their failures within the game as learning experiences, and improved their problem solving in later attempts at the game. According to Kirriemuir and McFarlane (2004), time spent learning how to play the game is one of the major challenges with using mainstream simulation games for classroom learning. In order for mainstream simulation games to be fully accepted into class room learning, Kirriemuir and McFarlane (2004) believe that parents and teachers must recognize the skills that can be developed from them.

5 References

Bennett, S., Harper, B., & Hedberg, J. (2002). Designing real life cases to support authentic design activities. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 18(1), 1-12. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Carr-Chellman, A.A., Dyer, D., & Breman, J. (2000). Burrowing through the network wires: Does distance detract from collaborative authentic learning? The Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 39-62. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Ferry, B., Kervin, L., Puglisi, S., Cambourne, B., Turbill, J., Jonassen, D., et al. (2006). Online classroom simulation: Using a virtual classroom to support pre-service teacher thinking. In A. Herrington and J. Herrington (Eds.), Authentic learning environments in higher education (pp. 135-161). Hershey, PA : Information Science Pub.

Griebel, T. (2006). Self-portrayal in a simulated life: Projecting personality and values in The Sims 2. The International Journal of Computer Game Research. 6(1). Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Herrington, J. (2006). Authentic e-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks. Paper presented at the World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and High Education, 2006. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T. C. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1), 59-71. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Ingram, K.W., & Jackson, M.K. (2004). Simulations as authentic learning strategies: Bridging the gap between theory and practice in performance technology. Selected Proceedings of the Association for Educational Communication and Technology (AECT) 2004 International Conference. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Joyce, P. (2008). Learning the real-world skills of the 21st century. Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers, 83(4), 25-27. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from ERIC database.

Kirriemuir, J. & McFarlane, A. (2004). Literature review in games and learning. Futurelab. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Lombardi, M.M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause Learning Initiative. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Maina, F.Y. (2004). Authentic learning: Perspectives from contemporary educators. Journal of Authentic Learning, 1(1), 1-8. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Oblinger, D. (2006). Simulations, games, and learning. Educause Learning Initiative. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Ranalli, J. (2008). Learning English with The Sims: Exploiting authentic computer simulation games for L2 learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 21(5), 441-455. doi:10.1080/09588220802447859

Rule, A.C. (2006). The components of authentic learning. Journal of Authentic Learning. 3(1), 1-10. Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Squire, K. (2005). Changing the game: What happens when video games enter the classroom?. Innovate: Journal of Online Education. 1(6). Retrieved February 4, 2010, from

Squire, K. & Jenkins, H. (2003). Harnessing the power of games in education. Insight. 3(1).(2-30). Retrieved February 4, 2010, from