PBL/Authentic Course Example: Peter Leong’s ‘The Akamai Consulting PBL Scenario’

Updated 10/10/13

Lani Peter Webinar

Week 5 Panel Discussion Webinar: Using Problem-Based, Real-World Activities in Online Classes 10/9/13, featuring Lani Uyeno and Peter Leong, moderated by Leanne Riseley.

The following 4:20 video of Peter’s hybrid graduate course, quantitative research in ed tech, was added to YouTube by ikaikamiles on 2/16/13.

Website for Akamai Consulting Group - Market Research Scenario. Click image to visit site.

Website for Akamai Consulting Group – Market Research Scenario. Click image to visit site.


I watched the TOMOOC video of this webinar this afternoon. Both presentations provided excellent examples of authentic course designs for blended classrooms. The panel format was dynamic, with Leanne asking questions and panelists responding with quick replies. The Q&A segment following the panel was, as usual, very good, with some very tough questions re online features of their courses.

In this quick review, I’ve chosen to highlight Peter’s course instead of Lani’s only because I began my web search with him and quickly found a brief 4:20 YouTube video and a website clearly describing his course. (See above.) I haven’t had a chance to research Lani’s course, and I apologize for this especially since Lani is an old friend and former department colleague. She was at Kapiolani CC many years before transferring to Leeward.

The overriding impression that I got from both panelists is that successful authentic courses require planning, planning, planning, tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. But it seems to be a labor of love, and the quality of these courses testify to that. Their excitement about what they’re doing is infectious.

For the students, the learning experience seems very realistic and engaging — but the key is that this realism and interaction takes a lot of planning. Still, watching the webinar, I got the impression that this is all doable. Peter and Lani take the mystery and fear out of the process and expose the process for what it is: an imaginative and exciting student-centered alternative to traditional teacher-centered approaches that’s fun for both teachers and students.

The learning outcomes, I’m sure, must be outstanding, with students getting a holistic, hands-on, personally relevant view of the skills and concepts they’re not only studying but constructing.

The issue of adapting these approaches to completely online courses was beyond the scope of this panel so I won’t go into it — except to say that I believe it can be done very effectively. However, that’s another story. As blended approaches, these two are outstanding. Once again, thanks, Lani and Peter, and the TOMOOC team.

Update from Leanne (10/10/13): Lani developed [two scenarios] for English Composition: Ka Hui Ho’okolokolo (https://sites.google.com/a/hawaii.edu/ka-hui-ho-okolokolo/home) and Halia (https://sites.google.com/site/haliamemory/)…. If you are interested in other PBL scenarios, a library of them are available at: http://learnpbl.com/scenario-based-tasks/

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Authentic Learning Isn’t More Common — Because It’s Too Common?

Leanne Riseley, in “Moving Toward Authentic Learning” (10/7/13), raises a question asked by Marilyn Lombardi in “Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview” (Educause, May 2007): “Why isn’t authentic learning more common?”

This is a good question because the approach has been around for a while — plenty of time to go viral. But it hasn’t, and perhaps its origins provide a clue. It began in the medical field and seems to thrive in similar highly technical settings. One of my writing courses is technical communications, and for this course I’ve naturally incorporated authentic features. In courses with less defined real-world counterparts, such as English and history, the incorporation may be tougher.

I don’t have a quick answer or even a good one, but I’ll take a shot and share a relatively long, twisting, and awkward one that may or may not be in the ballpark.

The theoretical underpinning for authentic learning is transfer. Schools are training grounds, and the assumption is that what students learn in classrooms will transfer to the real world. The obstacle to transfer is the gap between school and reality. Thus, the instructional issue is how to close the gap, and the assumption here is: the smaller the gap, the better the transfer.

From this perspective, on-the-job training, or apprenticeship, offers the smallest gap. In between lies a continuum of arrangements that are progressively removed from the real world. Thus, at the other end is a classroom in a school that has little in common with the authentic environment.

The question for schools, then, is how to close the gap — short of moving into apprenticeships. (It could be argued that apprenticeships aren’t fully authentic.) Authentic learning is the compromise. However, “authentic” in this context is a misnomer. This approach is actually a semi-simulation (or semi-real) or hybrid, part pretend and part real.

The real-to-school continuum leaves a lot of wiggle room in between, which translates to difficulty in assigning “authentic” to any strategy. In a sense, nearly all approaches are authentic to some extent. It’s similar to attempts to define “blended” learning. Since it’s difficult to imagine any course that’s not somehow connected to the internet, it’s probably safe to say that if a course isn’t fully online, then it’s blended.

Thus, an activity is authentic if students address problems or are exposed to readings or videos by or featuring practitioners in the field. We could argue that it’s not authentic because it’s missing real-world conditions, feedback, or collaboration, but the counter could be simulations, rubrics developed by experts in the field, and input from classmates in the role of practitioners.

If we question the absence of a finished product that’s shared with the public, we might hear that presentations were recorded and shared on YouTube or final reports were published in one of the school’s journals.

The point is that when a term such as “authentic” loses its capacity to discriminate, when it becomes too inclusive, it becomes less useful in the sense that it can be made to apply to almost any strategy.

Thus, to answer the question, I’d say “authentic learning” isn’t more common because people don’t know what it really means. On the one hand, nearly all learning is authentic; on the other, all learning, short of full engagement in the field, is not authentic. All that gray stuff, that terra incognita, in between is the problem.

Perhaps a better way to approach authentic learning is to say that it’s an attitude toward teaching that makes the most of the instructional environment to simulate real-world conditions. In this view, “instructional environment” is variable and comprises a wide range of factors.

OK, that’s my shot. I’d like to hear yours.

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Quick Review of ‘Examples of Authentic Online Learning Activities’

Greg and TOMOOC staff, mahalo for “Examples of Authentic Online Learning Activities” (10/9/13). As a writing teacher, I naturally gravitated to “Composition I” and “Introduction to Creative Writing.” I reviewed the projects with the template that I describe in “Remixing Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver’s 10-Point Criteria for Authentic Activities” (10/8/13).

Composition I

I. Plan
A. Roles: Social forecasting team (4 members) for the state of Hawaii.
B. Problem: Publish a paper in an anthology, Hawaii 2050. Narrow the topic.

II. Development
A. Open: Conduct a survey.
B. Networking: Consult with two experts in the field.
C. Sustained: semester long

III. Implementation (tangible outcome)
Multimedia presentation to the “public.”
Submission of research paper.
Publication of all the groups’ papers and presentations in an anthology.

IV. Evaluation
Phase 3 and 5 in the report.
Consult with instructor in phases 1-4.
Dear Diary entries in phases 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Introduction to Creative Writing

I. Plan
A. Roles: Small group of “emerging” poets.
B. Problem: Publish a poem in Ka Mana’o, LCC’s fine-arts magazine.

II. Development
A. Open: “Consult an expert or editor as to whether piece is ‘ready’ for the world”; “Consult ‘experts’ to select model works to read”; “Search for, and explore, unfamiliar publications and/or performances/readings.”
B. Networking: “Group action plan to help each other”; see IIA above.
C. Sustained: 3 weeks

III. Implementation (tangible outcome)
Post/perform poem.

IV. Evaluation
Week 2 group meeting with coach (“in-person or virtual”).
Peer feedback to/from classmates.
“Individual, small-group, and full-class reflections.”
Submit poem to Ka Mana’o.


I’m impressed with the creativity in both designs, which place critical real-world decisions in the hands of students and provide procedures for real-world input and feedback to aid in those decisions. I’m especially impressed with the outcomes, publishing to a real-world audience.

This is a far cry from students working in isolation, receiving input from teacher-provided resources and feedback from their teacher only, and producing outcomes that are read and evaluated, again, by the teacher alone.

The choice is a no-brainer.

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Remixing Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver’s 10-Point Criteria for Authentic Activities

I decided to remix the Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver criteria1 to better represent the phases and subphases in the overall process of developing authentic learning activities. This shrinks the list from ten to seven items, with the “extras” embedded in other items. The result, I think, is a more familiar and systematic problem-solving process.

I. Planning

A. Simulation of real world roles: “Authentic activities have real-world relevance.”

B. Problem definition: “Authentic activities are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.”

II. Development

A. Open approach: Authentic activities (1) “provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources”; (2) “can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes”; (3) “allow competing solutions and diversity of outcome.”

B. Networking: “Authentic activities provide the opportunity to collaborate.”

C. Sustained effort: “Authentic activities comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time.”

III. Implementation

A. Standalone outcome: “Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.”

IV. Evaluation

A. Review: Authentic activities (1) “provide the opportunity to reflect” and (2) “are seamlessly integrated with assessment.”


The wild card that runs through this entire process and makes it manageable for teachers in a wide range of instructional environments is scalability. The process has to be viewed as downwardly scalable, based on factors such as grade level, subject matter or field of study, ability/achievement levels, teacher-student ratio, instructional resources, time frame, etc.

Two other characteristics of this process is that the phases aren’t discrete and the progression is recursive rather than linear. The phases overlap in many interesting and dynamic ways, and students will return to and revise earlier phases based on formative evaluations.

Online technology can be an integral part of all phases, but its greatest advantage is probably in IIB, networking. With the web, opportunities for collaboration are expanded beyond space and time limitations, and this advantage can be applied to all four phases.
1 Thomas C. Reeves, Jan Herrington, and Ron Oliver, “Authentic Activities and Online Learning,” HERDSA 2002 conference.

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Mshin: An Authentic Question at Last

Mshin, in “How to keep their attention during a video or voiceover?” (10/7/13), says:

I am having trouble paying attention and staying interested when having to watch the [TOMOOC] webinars. And if I, who am very invested to pay attention, am having trouble keeping interest and not being distracted, then I imagine this is a problem for the general student populace.

Mshin, trying to pinpoint the problem, says, “It is too slow for me most of the time,” and nails it. Sitting and listening for an hour as a lecturer moves from point A to point B is mindnumbing. One fact is that we, as educators, are excellent readers. And unless we’re reading a novel, we seldom ever begin at the beginning and slog through a book, one word at a time, from cover to cover. Even before we go to the contents, we go to the jacket blurbs, intro, or conclusion to see what’s new or “information.” We then go to the contents to find relevant sections and scan them for key paragraphs then sentences. In quick order, we get to the gist, the specks of gold hidden in the rubble of other material.

From there, if we feel it’s necessary, we backtrack to identify key background info. Again, we don’t read but we scan, knowing intuitively where and what the keys are. And we do this quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes, regardless of the size of the book. We use a similar process with articles. Given the transcript of a webinar presentation, we’d work the same way. In a few minutes we’d know what, if anything, is new and worth pursuing, and in a few more minutes we’d be able to pinpoint the key background info. If we’re watching a video recording instead, this process takes a lot longer. If we’re at the live presentation, we’re stuck in the presenter’s mindnumbing pace.

Thus, ironically, the simplest medium, text, is a lot more efficient and effective than a live or recorded presentation — at least for those with efficient and effective reading skills. (And maybe there’s the rub.)

Mshin says, “While someone is talking about a part that is on a totally different subject matter for me it is so tempting to toggle over to check my email.” Yes. With TV, we all turn off during commercials and do other things, or during portions where the content doesn’t interest us, we tune out and tune in to other things around us. To do otherwise would be insane.

If we were in a one-on-one conversation with the presenter, we’d begin with a question that matters to us re the general topic of the talk. If the response is useful, we ask more questions. If the response is a rehash of what we already know, we say thank you and leave. We don’t hang around for the hour-long presentation.

Back to Mshin’s question: “How to keep their attention during a video or voiceover?” The simple answer is “We don’t.” And the implication is that this isn’t the right question. Perhaps we ought to be asking, “How do we give students the information they need in a way that isn’t boring?”

If we insist on lectures, perhaps, as Mshin says, fear — fear of being caught dozing or checking email might keep them awake. Or jokes. Or moving randomly around the room or screen. Eye contact. Wild gestures. Costumes? Powerpoint! Or how about something simple like a digital text transcript — or even better, perhaps a clear, one-paragraph post-it-size summary of the gist of the talk with hyperlinks to relevant info.

As educators, we need to pick our battles. Do we use up all our students’ energy with hours of mindnumbing information consumption before they ever get to the front lines or do we simply toss them into the thick of the battle and say “Fight!”

The “jump in first and figure things out later” approach may sound crazy, but it won’t be boring. Students aren’t stupid. Heck, we were all once students. (And some of us still are.) They’ll quickly search for or devise weapons to win. And they’ll value anyone who can help. Since they’re all in “real” (OK, “authentic”) danger, it’s in everyone’s interest to work together and find the best possible weapons to, first, survive, then win.

The question, ultimately, may be, “How can we make learning so authentic that adrenaline takes over and learning becomes indistinguishable from living?”

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TOMOOC Fishing in Week 4

Tanya, in Week 3 catch-up/ thank you’s & Techie Questions about Voice Messages (10/3/13), tested Veronica’s ideas re audio feedback on student papers/projects. She tried TurnItIn’s “new voice message tool,” “Adobe Pro’s voice embed tool,” and ScreenCastOMatic. Re the last, she says, “I’ve tried both ScreenCastOMatic options of QuickTimePlayer and WindowsMedia MP4s and AVI files. I’m also experimenting to find out if Laulima/Sakai limits the size of the attachment sent via Messages.  I think it does.”

Thanks, Tanya, for doing this! It saves me and others who are interested a lot of time and effort. My feelings re audio in this role is torn. On the one hand, I realize it does give a more human “face” to comments, but I’m not totally convinced that text doesn’t do the same, though in a different way via tone, persona, etc. On the other hand, part of the review process is to create a log of past performances to guide future growth and to measure growth, and for this, text is very efficient. The result is a performance continuum (or record) rather than isolated bits of feedback. I’d think audio comments, even if only a few minutes long, might take time to review — for the teacher as well as students. For example, I can scan a text transcript quickly for info I need, but searching a video or recording is a hassle. Thus, even if the technical issues could be worked out, audio recordings may not be worth the extra effort they require. When the purpose is to convey info on problems and strengths in a student’s paper, perhaps the best medium is the one that’s quickest, easiest, and most effective. However, this decision may be a matter of teacher preference, and buy-in may be a critical factor in student success.

Sara, in Week 4 Activity Post — 10/3/13, says, “I find that students don’t know how to think critically.” In the context of her post, I understand where she’s coming from. However, I don’t think she means that “students don’t know how to think critically.” Of course they do — but maybe not in the areas and in the ways that we deem important in our fields of study. The fact is, the vast majority of human beings are excellent critical thinkers. The key, for teachers, is to tap into that natural ability by helping students connect it to the teacher’s topics. Students may need to learn new labels for what they already do, and they may need to learn how to refine their thinking, but we shouldn’t forget that teaching is often reminding students about what they already know and showing them how to transfer prior learning to newer contexts. In short, ignorance is relative.

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A Gift from Pat — Vanessa Paz Dennen

Pat, in “Did we miss the point” (Online Learning, 9/30/13), shares an excellent resource on online discussions with a decided emphasis on online: Vanessa Paz Dennen’s “From Message Posting to Learning Dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion” (Distance Education, 2005). According to Pat, “The article has specific examples of what is being discussed and how it was being used in the discussion forums.”

Following are excerpts from Dennen — with my comments in italics:

Vanessa Paz Dennen

Vanessa Paz Dennen

The research question for this naturalistic study was: “How does the design and facilitation of different types of asynchronous discussion activities impact student participation in terms of quantity, quality, timing, and nature of messages posted?”

Asynchronous discussions are unique to online learning. There is no traditional instruction method that is truly an analogue to asynchronous discussion, and thus this medium needs to be examined closely in order to generate knowledge that will help online instructors learn and make informed decisions about how to design and facilitate asynchronous course interactions.

Interaction requires “two discussants.” Just because students were composing and posting messages within these classes did not mean that they were engaging in dialogue. In order for dialogue to be present there needed to be evidence of at least two discussants who were communicating in response to each other.

Feedback and assessment are not necessarily the same. Assessment here refers to the assignment of a grade; feedback is a related issue, although feedback and assessment are not quite the same thing. An instructor might provide feedback without assessing a grade, and a grade may be assessed without providing any other feedback than the numerical or letter rating.

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