Moving Your Courses Online: The Importance of Authentic Tasks

online learning speech bubble on pink background

By Seth Crandall |

As we transition to designing courses online, the most effective courses will focus on having the learner perform authentic tasks. In other words, focus on tasks and let that determine the content.

Are you in a position where you are taking your course or campus online for the first time? Perhaps you’ve been debating and cautiously probing at it like you would a mysterious plate of food, reluctant to take the first bite. As we take stock of the shifts in education there is a convincing enough reason to move courses online. Faculty, schools, and administrations are quickly needing to re-tool to the new online educational environment.

I recently had the opportunity to review some online courses that were part of a university’s MBA program. Generally, a module would go much like this:

  1. read a chapter,
  2. watch a video,
  3. respond to a graded discussion,
  4. take a quiz,
  5. sit through a live session,
  6. and repeat.

I’m guessing we’ve all been in a course that was more or less structured this way. The focus of these courses is on providing knowledge or content to the learner. Sure, you’ll learn something, but this course type can certainly be more engaging.

Authentic tasks are things one would do if one had a job, position, or role related to the subject of the course. If the course is accounting, the learners should be making balance sheets and filling in mock tax forms. If the course is on experimental design, they better be designing experiments. All courses have authentic tasks associated with them. I don’t know of an exception. When the focus of a course is on performing authentic tasks, everything in the course supports, prepares, and enables the learner to perform the task.

Let’s look at the example of moving a marketing course online; what would that look like if the focus is on performing authentic tasks? First, we need to identify an authentic marketing task, such as launching a social media campaign. The following steps will map out the learning sequence needed to get the learner to perform this authentic task.

1. Provide Content
  • Provide a snippet of content on the key principles of a social media campaign and provide context on why campaigns are important.
  • At this point, you could give the learner a short, ungraded quiz that is really a learning activity and not a quiz.
    This quiz’s function is to key the learner into the most important things they’ve learned about social media campaigns.
    It ensures that they pick up on the fundamental principles so that they can apply them later on.
2. Evaluate Examples
  • Show them examples, both good and poor.
    This is extremely important as learners need to have a vision of best practices and what to avoid.
  • Evaluate these examples against provided criteria.
    For example, they need to be able to explain why a social media campaign is effective or not.
3. Demonstrate Steps
  • The learner needs to see any applicable steps to creating a campaign. What do phases 1, 2, and 3 look like, etc.?
4. Practice and Formative Feedback
  • Using the demonstrated steps, they practice creating a campaign.
  • Perhaps they are given a mock company to use as context for their campaign.
  • The learner needs to receive formative feedback. It could be peer feedback, instructor feedback, or some other valid means. However, they need to understand what they are doing well and where they are missing the mark.
5. Receive Final Product & Summative Feedback
  • Using the formative feedback, the learner creates a final social media campaign and presents it to their class or a group.
  • They should receive summative feedback.

Analyzing the above example, notice that the learner is actively doing something to practice and perform the authentic task in most of the steps. Everything is building up to the learner performing the entire task at the end of the module.

This instructional pattern dictates what content will be presented. The content serves the purpose of supporting the learner in performing a valuable task making the learning more memorable and meaningful.

If you are in a position where you are transitioning online or simply tweaking your online course, evaluate your course with the steps and examples shared above and identify how you could improve. If you see that your course is focused on content instead of tasks, start by revamping one section of your course to a task focus.

Seth Crandall, Guest Author

Seth Crandall
Learning Designer