Authentic Education

The phrase “authentic assessment” has made the rounds in the past few years; the idea is that you test people on what they will actually be doing with the knowledge they gain. If that doesn’t make sense (for instance, if you teach a non-majors course), you test them on what they could be doing if they actually had a job in the appropriate field.

A step up from that is making the entire course “authentic,” treating it less like a half-year-long training seminar and more like a half-year-long internship or apprenticeship. Many “professional” majors, such as hotel management or nursing, do this regularly. Fields that are less hands-on rarely do, and even majors like Computer Science rarely have students doing the sorts of things that professional programmers do. I know that a lot of upper-level courses do, but I’m talking about starting this sort of thing from day one. Before day one, really.

One of my favorite anecdotes in this area comes from Shutesbury, Massachusetts. Shutesbury is a small town, just 1800 people. Median household income is above the median for the whole US, but below the median for the rest of Massachusetts. You couldn’t call the place “rich.” It has no major industry beyond logging. The elementary school only has about 150 students. Yet in this small town with very few resources, one science teacher has managed to create a course that involves fifth- and sixth-graders in real-world science.

I got to hear a talk from this teacher when I was at UMass Amherst. The class really blew me away. Here were kids under 12 years old conducting wildlife surveys and groundwater tests and getting real results. There I was at UMass, teaching lousy canned labs to 20-year-olds, who got results that meant nothing. What was this “college” thing for?

One issue with this approach is that it requires greater oversight and involvement from the teacher or professor. You can’t pull this off if you expect a single professor to teach 150 students. (I imagine that in industry one likewise would not have one manager in charge of 150 trainees.) Instead, you need to organize smaller groups and get a little more involved than you would in front of a lecture hall. It still seems doable to me, especially with TA support.

The article is very good, and provides a lot of inspiration and some good starting points. It also talks about the importance of support from one’s colleagues. I highly recommend it.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on March 2, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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