Scholarly Technical Education Publication Series (STEPS) Vol. 1

Innovative Authentic Learning Practices for Technical Education


    Ms. Theresa Thang Tze Yan
    Deputy Divisional Director
    Educational Design and Technology Division
    Institute of Technical Education, Singapore
    [email protected]


Globalization and rapid advances in technology have direct implications on the pedagogy we use to train the new generation of knowledge workers and prepare them for employability and lifelong learning. In the past, students only need to learn about the technical knowledge and then apply their knowledge by learning to do through practice, typically in the classrooms, workshops or laboratories. The authentic learning pedagogy takes this further by enabling the students to learn to be a professional in their trade through applying their knowledge and skills in an integrated manner in environments that are either real world or simulated. To achieve this outcome, schools across Institute of Technical Education (ITE) are encouraged to design their curriculum, learning activities and learning spaces to support technology enabled, project-based and team-based learning. This paper shares two such projects to illustrate what it takes to achieve the desired outcomes of authentic learning.

Keywords: authentic learning, workplace task performance, project-based and team-based learning

Background Information on ITE

As the principal provider of technical education in Singapore, ITE is responsible for developing national-level certification and standards to ensure that Singapore’s workforce is competitive locally and globally. It was also established as a post-secondary institution under the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1992, and hence, caters to 25% of the secondary school leavers.

ITE’s mission is to create opportunities for school leavers and adult learners to acquire skills, knowledge and values for employability and lifelong learning in a global economy with a vision to be a global leader in innovations in technical education.

To achieve this mission, ITE adopts the “One ITE System, Three Colleges” governance and education model, for policy consistency and quality assurance while empowering the three colleges, namely, ITE College Central, ITE College East and ITE College West, to have autonomy in implementing programs that support their respective niche areas of excellence.

The various program options offered by the Colleges are:

  • Full time programs offer National ITE Certification (NITEC) and Higher NITEC certification.
  • Part-time programs will lead to a Master NITEC, Higher NITEC, PostNITEC or NITEC qualification. These are in addition to short courses for skills acquisition and upgrade.

Industry-based Training (IBT) is provided by ITE Approved Training Centers (ATC), Approved Training Providers (ATP) and Certified On-the-Job Training Centers (COJTC). International programs at Higher NITEC and NITEC international certification and customized programs are also offered with overseas partners.

The Pedagogy of Authentic Learning

Authentic learning is a means to connect classroom learning to workplace task performance. In this pedagogy, lecturers have to facilitate various stages of “learning to be” so that students can be transformed from amateurs to professionals.

To design quality authentic learning experiences for students, lecturers should consider the following nine design elements that can provide (Herrington & Oliver, 2000):

  1. Authentic tasks as they occur in real life that are ill-structured and encourage a multitude of solutions
  2. Authentic contexts that reflect real workplace operations
  3. Access to professionals who can demonstrate expert performances and model the right processes
  4. Interactions with others for multiple perspectives
  5. Collaborative activities to construct knowledge with peers
  6. Timely coaching and scaffolding by the lecturer
  7. Opportunities for reflection to consolidate learning
  8. Opportunities to articulate what they have learned
  9. Authentic assessment of competencies based on evidences of task performance

Educational Policy Measures in Place to Support Authentic Learning

The traditional method of training delivery has many limitations that constrain learning outcomes. For example, the layout of training facilities may not align with industry practices. Moreover, students lack the exposure to acquire life skills necessary to respond to dynamic circumstances in a real world environment. For industrial attachment, there are difficulties getting sufficient meaningful placements for all students. For these reasons, ITE Colleges have decided on a paradigm shift to the authentic learning pedagogy.

To embark on this new initiative, the ITE Authentic Learning Framework depicted in Figure 1, was conceived to guide all stakeholders including management, specialists and lecturers in their implementations. Workplace requirements dictate the design of the curriculum, training environment and assessment strategy. When these foundational elements have been set up, the lecturer can then proceed to design a learner engagement plan that will help students to progress from the basic stage of “learning about” to the next stage of “learning to do”, and eventually to the final stage of “learning to be” the professionals in their trade (Drake, 2007).

Figure 1: Authentic Learning Framework

For authentic learning practices to become pervasive throughout ITE, a shared understanding can be reached through lecturer capability development and proactive discussions with the lecturers at various communication platforms so that it can become part of ITE’s culture. Current practices are being reviewed and new authentic learning approaches are recommended so that innovations continue to drive excellence in the design, development and delivery of ITE courses.

Initiatives in Capability Development of Teaching Staff

The Total System Capability (TSC) initiative provides an integrated approach to develop ITE’s human capital through industry projects or consultancy work (Grant, Malloy, Murphy, Foreman, & Robinson, 2010). Under the TSC scheme, there are three levels of competencies:

  • Level 1 (Know): Lecturers have the knowledge and skills to fulfil their roles in the organization;
  • Level 2 (Do): Lecturers have the capability to apply their knowledge and skills in industry projects or consultancy work;
  • Level(Lead): Lecturers have the capability to lead othersin industry projects or consultancy work.

The case studies below illustrate the TSC in implementation.

Case Study 1: Idealab

The School of Design & Media (SDM) at ITE College Central, set up the IDEAlab within the Design Excellence Center to develop lecturer capability and a student portfolio by immersing them in real-world projects (Tan & Teo, 2011). “IDEAlab” is the acronym for “Innovation & Design for Enterprise Applications” and “lab” represents the authentic learning environment of the Design Studio in which interdisciplinary teams collaborate on industry assignments. This authentic learning approach fosters the design thinking process (Discover Opportunities, Define Outcome, Develop Ideas and Demonstrate Solutions) as it seeks to develop in students the ability to systematically arrive at solutions to meet client requirements.

The rationale for IDEAlab is to immerse students into the authentic workflow of industry practices, giving them an experiential understanding of the real workplaces and the opportunities to develop industry relevant portfolios (Cambridge, 2010). By working alongside their students, lecturers also have to deal with the complexities of real world problems such as deadlines and resource constraints. This process will develop in them technical competencies that will keep them updated with current industry practices and standard, as well as pedagogical competencies that will enhance their effectiveness in curriculum delivery.

On the other hand, the physical layout of the Design Excellence Center was designed in such a way that the Design Thinking Pedagogy of “Discover, Define, Develop and Demonstrate” is reflected. The following are the different areas of the Center (See Picture 1):

  1. Discover Area is a Resource Space with books, materials for design works and computers for online research.
  2. Define Area has three unique spaces:
    • Design Pods for students to brainstorm for ideas and discuss design trends, etc.
    • Immersion Studio forInterdisciplinary Design and Business Programs
    • Consumer Research Room with a two way mirror to observe how consumers interact with the prototypes
  3. Develop Area is dedicated for commercial design and media production works for external companies.
  4. Demonstrate Area consists of Galleries to showcase high quality projects from Foundation Studies, Final Year projects and Design Thinking for Innovation. It has both permanent and seasonal exhibits (e.g. Campaignbased exhibition, product designs)

Picture1: Design Excellence Center at the Tampines Campus, College Central

Picture 2: Discover Area

Pictures 2 to 5 show the respective learning spaces that have been specially laid out and equipped to support the entire authentic learning workflow in Design Thinking.

Picture 3: Define AreaPicture 4: Develop Area
Picture 5: Demonstrate Area

Key features in the curriculum include group and project assignments to create end products that are needed by real clients (Soares, 2010). These features mirror how design teams work in the industry and help students to hone their research, communication and interpersonal skills as well as commitment to create quality products. Projects undertaken by DEC include logo and collateral designs, illustrations, website development as well as prototypes of conceptual designs for lifestyle products or services. Besides providing meaningful context for learning, such industry partnerships also provide suitable resources for innovative curriculum design and open doors to internships and placements.

IDEAlab started in 2011 with projects that aim to build lecturer capability in the following four Capability Clusters: Product and Industrial Design, Architecture and Space Design, Communication and Interaction Design, and Media and Broadcast Design. The current focus is on three growth areas, namely, Urban Solutions, Health and Wellness and Lifestyle Product and Services.

An example of such industry collaboration is the Pink Ribbon Experience at the Breast Cancer Center at Kandang Kerbau Hospital. Six lecturers, together with 41 students, are commissioned to develop the conceptual designs in the redesign of the treatment center to aid patients’ recovery. The design was satisfactory and the team was further commissioned to design the center’s website and launch video for an opening ceremony. Lecturers from the Interactive Media Design department set the design direction and led the student teams to complete the design work for the website. Lecturers from the Visual Effects department led student teams to create the scripts and storyboards for the launch video. The development work is then passed on to third party vendors.

Case Study 2: Mobile Device Technology Center (MDTC)

Authentic learning within an authentic context brings with it the complexity and unpredictability of the real workplace. Hence, traditional assessment methods are no longer suitable to equitably assess the competences of students. With this realization, lecturers in the NITEC in Electronics (Mobile Devices) department have developed a World-ready Authentic Assessment Methodology (WAM) framework that incorporates peer assessment and real customer feedback as part of the overall assessment of every student (Ng, 2011).

The WAM framework is applied to two specialization modules conducted within the Mobile Device Technology Center (MDTC), namely, Mobile Devices Technology Module (MDT) and Mobile Devices Management Module (MDM). The MDTC, residing in the School of Electronics and Info-Comm Technology at ITE College East, was set up based on ITE’s training specifications and incorporated the new authentic assessment metrics. See Pictures 6 and 7 for the layout of MDTC.

Picture 6: Entrance to Mobile Device Technology Center

Picture 7: MDTC set up that resembles a commercial service center

Each of the two modules has 15 hours for mini projects that will be replaced with WAM (Technical Excellence) and WAM (Customer Excellence), respectively. This 30-hour experience at MDTC is equally distributed among four zones (see Table 1) and every student has to take turns to apply their knowledge and skills in each zone to fulfil the WAM assessment requirements.

Table 1: Experience Distribution by Zone

Picture 8: Supervisory & CRM Capability Building

Before students proceed to the MDTC, they would have covered foundational knowledge through classroom-based activities. At the MDTC, students are exposed to authentic practices with real customers and more complex tasks. Hence, they have to think on their feet, work well with other teammates, and be effective in their communication. Students are given opportunities to reflect on their performance based on peer and supervisor feedback. (See Pictures 8 and 9 for training in progress)

Picture 9: Mobile Device Servicing Capability Building

To ensure valid, fair and reliable authentic assessment, appropriate instruments with clearly defined performance criteria must be communicated to the students and applied consistently. Table 2 compares the instruments used in traditional assessment strategy and world-ready authentic assessment methodology.

Table 2: Traditional Assessment Strategy vs. World-Ready Authentic Assessment

The WAM framework consists of the following components:

  1. Constructivist Assessments: Clearly defined taxonomic levels and rubrics are used to grade student’s ability to select an appropriate solution and complete the necessary tasks in order to resolve the problems presented by the customer (Dannelle & Antonia, 2005).
  2. Peer Assessments: Peer evaluation encourages active discussion among a community of learners and can be a powerful social motivator for students to perform well (Roberts, 2006).
  3. Report Writing: Evaluation is based on how well the student has thought through his/her choice of solution to a problem by carefully considering the various options available to him/her. Students are encouraged to reflect and make recommendation for improvement where applicable.
  4. Performance-based Evaluation for Self-directed learning: Evaluation is based on observations that include a student’s commitment to the group goals, participation in discussions, meeting deadlines, providing and receiving feedback, quality of work and the number of complaints received (Burke, 2005).

Initial feedback from students who have undergone training at the MDTC was encouraging. Students who were surveyed agreed that WAM has benefited them because the assessment design and criteria actually gave them a clear understanding of the learning objectives and in turn determined their performance at the center. They also felt that they were better prepared for the workplace than before and appreciated the opportunities for reflections, feedback and recommendations for areas for improvement.

Major Challenges in Adapting Authentic Learning Practices and How ITE Addresses them

Several challenges confront the implementation of authentic learning practices, one of which is changed mindset, especially among older lecturers who are used to the traditional mode of training delivery. Another is the huge investment in overhauling existing training facilities, so utmost care has to be taken when conceptualizing the design for the set up to ensure positive learning outcomes. Lastly, for real changes to take place, specialists from cross-functional divisions, namely, curriculum, assessment, educational development and learning technology support, must take up the challenge of working hand in hand to provide a holistic and systemic solution.

To address these challenges, a cross-functional committee comprising of representatives across academic divisions conduct periodic reviews of ongoing authentic learning projects. These reviews provide critical learning points on the effectiveness of particular authentic learning approaches and the relevance of particular authentic learning environments. The critical success attributes of exemplary projects are highlighted so that academic departments in the Colleges will gain insights and possess the know-how to further extend authentic learning practices to other courses.

Furthermore, review exercises when conducted with external experts; provide opportunities for lecturers to keep abreast with the latest development and requirements in their respective industry. An example is the case for nursing where METI mannequins provide simulations that require nursing trainees to respond appropriately to the different medical conditions of their “patients”. Doctors from Changi General Hospital participated in the peer reviews of all the scenarios developed for the training sessions for validity and clinical accuracy. The doctors’ feedback is a form of knowledge transfer to ITE lecturers.

Besides building up their domain capability, lecturers also have to consider how authentic learning pedagogic approaches can be better organized to achieve optimal learning outcome. Examples of good practices implemented as a result of such consideration include the reflective learning approach adopted by the nursing and aerospace courses to support deep learning and authentic assessment.

Future Plans

The journey of implementing authentic learning practices in ITE has only just started. There are variations in the quality and scope of current implementations. It is instructive for ITE to continually document and share best practices learned from successful projects to inculcate shared understanding and promote a culture that can sustain the application of the authentic learning pedagogy.

Future plans include formalizing the Authentic Learning Framework as ITE’s unique pedagogy that guides all academic processes. A support system consisting of professional development courses, consultancy, help resources and evaluation tools will be set up to assist academic departments in designing and implementing authentic learning in their courses. Concurrently, specialists from the curriculum and assessment divisions will review existing curriculum and assessment strategy for better alignment to the new pedagogy

Sharing sessions on best practices and knowledge transfer will be promoted by a community of advocates at various platforms such as ITE’s Annual Teachers’ Conference and International VTE Conferences. Training courses with authentic environments can also be showcased to the public, starting with the new HQ and College Central campus by 2013. Such showcases can inspire both lecturers and students to be engaged in this innovative method of teaching and learning.


ITE believes that the authentic learning pedagogy not only motivates students to learn but also provides a way to adequately prepare them for their industrial attachment. When interns are ready and can contribute right away, this creates a positive impression of ITE students and paves the way for future placements.

Authentic learning approaches are more holistic, enabling students to gain technical, methodological, social and personal competences. These competences will help ITE students to graduate successfully and be assured of employment and subsequent career upgrades through lifelong learning.


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