Make your eLearning More Authentic

Have you noticed that our culture is beginning to value authenticity over authority?

We’re tired of being told. We want to be asked.

We’re tired of overly-complicated wordsmithing. We want clear and concise information.

We’re tired of not knowing. We want to be kept in the loop.

Authenticity is what we all crave. Where authority requires us to stand on a platform, behind titles and accomplishments, authenticity asks us to take a seat in the circle and make something extraordinary happen.

This focus on authenticity is transforming the way we work. Bruce Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, explains the shift:

From around 1950 until maybe as late as 2006, organizations have been able to get away with mass communication and one-sided blurting. No longer. We are ALL the media. We all have networks. We all have cameras and video and newspapers at our disposal. We have the memory of Google on our side. (Olson, June 10, 2009)

While business leaders in our recent past avoided transparency at all costs, today professionals are stepping up to be relevant to its customers.

The same desire for authenticity is in the classroom. Professors who’ve opened up to students find that they don’t lose their student’s respect. Students who’re asked to take personal initiative in the learning process make relevant connections to the content.

Both teachers and learners are asked rather than told, giving and receiving clear and concise information, and everyone is in the loop.

Here are some examples of how instructors are bringing authenticity to class, along with some thoughts on how to integrate them into an online classroom.

1 Give an Assignment Choice

Michael J. LaGier, Ph.D., a professor at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, wanted his students to discover how microbiology is relevant to societal issues. In his microbiology course , he allowed his biology and nursing students to choose their own assignment: “Find and summarize a microbiology news story paragraph.”

He set up a few criteria to guide the assessments, including the requirement to cite the source (no more than two years old) and to describe something they didn’t know before reading the article.

LaGier found an increased interest in microbiology topics (like vaccine development and resistance to antibiotics). He reported he even learned something new during the presentations of his students!

One Idea:

  • Have students create a short drama from a poem or essay.

2 Be more Than a Brain—Include Your Heart

Patricia H. Phelps, EdD., from the University of Central Arkansas, says it took years as a college professor to realize teaching well meant she needed more than a brain—she needed a heart and the courage to invest in the learning process with her students.

Now Phelps shares her own mistakes with her students, asks for their feedback, and uses her own vulnerability to bestow on them a sense of safety and room to develop. She designs simulations, creates games, and uses small-group activities to enable students to grasp concepts.

Phelps describes how authenticity has changed what happens in her classroom: “I learned to be comfortable with myself…I lectured less and students talked more…I invested more of myself in teaching.”

One Idea:

  • Address students by name and include a personal (genuine) greeting when communicating digitally (discussion forums, comments on rubrics, email, etc.).

3 Stop Asking Vague Questions

We’ve all done it. After a lecture on a topic, we fold up our notes and ask: “any questions before we move on?”

Do we actually expect our students, who already suffer from ‘know-it-all syndrome’, to speak up and further the (probably boring) conversation? And if a student has a question, what makes us think they would have the moxie to ask?

Pete Watkins, adjunct and associate director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Temple University says we need to stop with the vague questions. Instead, we should adopt the what he calls the “muddiest point” exercise. This exercise gives students a few minutes to write about what they still find confusing or unclear about the topic/concept.

The benefits of the exercise are exceptional:

  • Students write privately, so there’s no fear of asking a “dumb” question in front of peers.
  • You communicate to your students that it’s okay to not know everything, and “…confusion is normal and expected in the learning process.”
  • In five minutes or less, you can have a clear picture of where individuals are on the learning scale for the topic.

One Idea:

  • Assign groups a topic/question and ask them to research for understanding; then present their findings as a Top Ten List. Perhaps even have them design an infographic or do a short Top 10 video.

4 Tell Your Stories

Chita Espino-Bravo, assistant professor at Fort Hays State University, writes about one reason students won’t participate in class: “…students feel inadequate or like they do not know anything about the topic.”

She found that opening up to your students by sharing a story from your own experience gives students a reason to trust you, helps them find a connection with the topic, and provides a model for sharing their own story.

One Idea:

  • Expect a dialog in your discussion board forums—and foster it when it happens. Reply promptly, and genuinely. Include stories to hook your learners whenever possible.

5 Encourage the Desire to Discover

When was the last time you were excited to learn about something? Chances are that enthusiasm was born out of a desire to actually discover more about the topic of your study.

It’s that desire to find out that kicks active learning into gear. Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D. writes that it’s not enough to gather strategies and techniques for active learning—it’s time to get past the techniques and get to the real stuff where students are confronted with a concept or problem that they have to do something about. “When you’ve got an artifact in front of you, there’s motivation to deal with it.”

Weimer shares an analogy that sheds light on students and what gets them learning:

“Think for a moment of what happens when you give most any of those millennial students a new electronic device. Usually, without the instructions and no attention to technique, they start playing with it to see how it works. Do they mess up and make mistakes? Do they give up or worry about looking stupid? Do [our courses] look anything like this?”

One Idea:

  • Ask students to publish a weekly blog post on a topic of their choice that is related to the course.

Final Thoughts

Authenticity is making its way back into the workplace and classroom, and it’s important we teach our students how to be authentic by leading by example. How do you take authenticity into your classroom? What happens when you step down from the platform and take a seat in the circle? Let us know in the comments.



Espino-Bravo, C. (2015). Using Personal Stories to Engage Students in Conversation. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

LaGier J. (February 2018). Using Assignment Choice to Promote Course Relevancy. Faculty Focus. Retrived from:

Maryellen Weimer. (February 28 2018). Deeper Thinking about Active Learning. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

Olson, M. (2009, June 10). Authenticity vs. authority [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Phelps, P (2010). Transforming Your Teaching Style: A student-centered approach. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

Watkins, P. (February 26 2018). “Everybody with me?” and Other Not-so-useful Questions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

Author: Gwen Hersha, Assistant Professor & Instructional Designer

Gwen is fascinated with teaching and learning and loves designing ways of "doing it better." She finds joy in the everyday practicality of life: writing, teaching, gardening, and trying new things.

2 thoughts on “Make your eLearning More Authentic”

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