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What works in elearning (4/5):
Learning methods that work: Real-world contexts (Authentic learning)

Thursday 23rd April, 2020

The third learning method we’re exploring in our series on what works in elearning, goes straight to the heart of learning as it asks us to consider why we learn.

If the answer to any question we may ask is only a google-search away then what is the purpose of intentional learning? Do we learn for the sake of knowledge acquisition? Or do we learn to help us navigate the challenges of real-life?

Authentic elearning using a real world context for example in aged care Authentic elearning using a real world context for example in medication administration

Real-world contexts

Authentic learning - that uses real-world contexts, realistic decision-making and authentic tasks and activities - is a one of the most powerful learning methods that can be used in elearning.

In Jan Herrington’s 2005 paper on authentic tasks in elearning design, she outlines the characteristics that give authentic tasks relevance in learning.

They might be tasks that have obvious real-world relevance, or they could be tasks that explore the blurry edges and that provide opportunities for learners to grapple with real-life scenarios that are complex, ill-defined, require multiple perspectives and resources, reflection and collaboration.

Motivation can be tapped by using real-world problems

Context-relevant scenarios require learners to apply knowledge, critical thinking, problem solving and decision-making – and can be sustained over a period of time.

A learner’s intrinsic motivation can be tapped by using real-world problems, examples, case studies – activities they know they will be carrying into their lives, outside the virtual classroom.

In Will Thalheimer’s 2017 review of elearning effectiveness, he highlights a number of studies that have used real-life contexts.

Use scenarios that take the learner closer to the real-life application of their learning

From medical research simulations to gamified learning, using scenarios that take the learner closer to the real-life application of their learning delivers strong effects. Even the perceived usefulness and ease of use of technology (i.e. which makes it easy for learners to imagine themselves applying the learning in real-life), has an impact on its uptake and effectiveness.

Real-world contexts in aged-care training

In a series of elearning modules we developed for health workers in aged care, we applied an authentic learning environment with real-world tasks and activities in the medication administration.

The course not only used real-world examples, case-studies and activities but actual workers and residents from the health services were used in the scenarios’ photographs and voiceovers.

Elearning module example covering handwashing techniques Online training using a real-life scenario

While this provided obvious visual and auditory cues for workers to relate to the content, the complexities of real-world practice integrated into the scenarios gave learners opportunity to engage with decisions they would face in their everyday work.

How will the content be used in real-life?

The challenge for elearning designers then is to think beyond the content of the course to how that content will be used in real-life.

Far from being separate to the real-life interaction of traditional learning, elearning allows learners to go beyond the classroom and provides an ideal opportunity for authentic learning.


Herrington, Jan (2005) Authentic tasks in e-learning designs. Studies in Learning, Evaluation Innovation and Development 2(2), pp. 1–8.

Thalheimer, W. (2017). Does elearning work? What the scientific research says! Available at http://www.work-learning.com/catalog.html