Opinion | Technology in School

What the SAMR Model May Be Missing

By Paul Emerich France     Oct 18, 2018

What the SAMR Model May Be Missing

Personalized learning technologies can, ironically, make the learning experience less personal, less human. That perspective is rooted in my experience teaching in Silicon Valley, using some of the same digital apps and tools that are popular in classrooms today.

Despite my criticisms and sour experiences, I don’t believe that all education technology is bad. When designed and used appropriately, these tools can, in fact, help to make learning experiences more personal for students, in a way that humanizes the learning experience.

To guide us in building and implementing technology thoughtfully, I’d like to build upon a framework that is already popular among many education technologists.

A Crash Course in SAMR

Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the SAMR Model aims to guide teachers in integrating technology into their classrooms. It consists of four steps: Substitution (S), Augmentation (A), Modification (M), and Redefinition (R).

The SAMR Model
The SAMR Model. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the lower steps of this model—Substitution and Augmentation—technology integration is seemingly less sophisticated. Word processing software or tools that provide access to information digitally, like PDF annotators, generally fall into these categories, as the technology substitutes or augments the learning experience, allowing for some functional improvement in the task without a fundamental change in the task itself.

The latter two steps of the model—Modification and Redefinition—are categorically different. Here we see technology used in a sophisticated manner that either modifies tasks significantly or redefines them to achieve something unimaginable. Google Docs is an excellent example of this: by allowing learners to collaborate and communicate with one another through a web-based word processing document, time and space are no longer factors in a collaborative enterprise, as the technology removes those barriers for students.

The problem with many personalized learning tools is that they live mostly in realm of Substitution or Augmentation tasks. While there may be some functional improvement with regard to delivering content and collecting assessment data, there is little to no redefinition of the learning experience, which still sees students simply consuming and regurgitating materials, albeit through more efficient digital means.

Others, however, could argue that the learning experience is, in fact, redefined. By individualizing content and allowing students to “go at their own pace,” the learning experience is modified significantly, allowing children to scamper off on their own paces, and in theory, getting what they need in any given moment.

But this brand of personalized learning has its limits. In extreme cases, over-reliance on technology to individualize instruction can result in kids being placed in front of computers, siphoned into silos with few opportunities to build agency and connection with teachers and classmates.

When SAMR Isn’t Enough

It is plausible to say learning can be significantly modified with personalized learning technologies. But it is also defensible to argue that they don’t, given the proliferation of tools that merely automate the dissemination of content and materials for student consumption.

It’s in moments like these that we see the SAMR model, while laying an excellent foundation, isn’t enough. When considering which technologies to incorporate into my teaching, I like to consider four key questions, each of which build upon strong foundation that SAMR provides.

1. Does the technology help to minimize complexity?

Technology’s superpower rests in making complex tasks a great deal simpler. This is the intention behind a great deal of personalized learning technologies, which oftentimes individualize instruction on the students’ behalf, using assessment data to determine which activities are appropriate. Doing so minimizes the complexity of the role an educator plays, because they are no longer making decisions about content, but instead allowing the technology to take over that responsibility.

But this method of personalizing learning is neither beneficial for students nor educators. Teachers must be involved in the process of assessing and assigning new content to students. Google’s suite of education tools, for instance, minimizes the complexity of aggregating assessment data without taking the educator out of the process of assessment. Google Forms and Google Drive alone offer ample opportunities for aggregating assessment data and organizing student work. What’s more, when this is done collaboratively online, kids can play a role in the process of collecting and reflecting on assessment data, not only minimizing the complexity of assessment but also bolstering their autonomy by making them partners in the process of curating their own portfolios to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

2. Does the technology help to maximize the individual power and potential of all learners in the room?

The rationale behind a great deal of personalized learning technologies is that, once complexity is minimized for the user, then teachers are freed up to use their time for other, more important tasks. Whether it’s conferencing with students, analyzing assessment data, or even taking some time for self-care, technology is intended to help us become more powerful and increase our potential as teachers and learners.

But we mustn’t do this at the expense of quality learning. Tools like Google Drive can help students build autonomy, but there are other apps that help make our students more powerful—just not in the way you might think. I prefer to use Popplet and iCardSort regularly in my classroom—flexible tools that allow my students to demonstrate their thinking through concept mapping and sorting words and ideas. In essence, it allows them to personalize on their own behalf.

3. Will the technology help us to do something previously unimaginable?

Too many teachers live in the Substitution and Augmentation steps of the SAMR model, causing them to become what I like to call “app-tastic.” You might be app-tastic if you look at your devices or classroom website and see that it is littered with tools for the consumption of content. Apps that merely promote the consumption of information, whether through standardized or individualized tracks of learning activities and instruction, are not doing anything previously unimaginable; they are, instead, only trying to minimize the complexity of content consumption.

In the modern era, education should no longer focus on the utilitarian need of content mastery. Learning also needs to transfer to authentic contexts. And in order to achieve this, we can call on a more nuanced pedagogy that incorporates technology in a meaningful and transferable manner.

In many cases, the internet can be our greatest resource here. Just this past year, my students were studying the city of Chicago and specifically the neighborhoods in the city. In order to get them acclimated with the neighborhoods, we used Google Earth to do a walk-through of the neighborhoods, using Project Zero’s See-Think-Wonder routine to get our brains activated. This type of digital field trip was previously unimaginable, made possible only by the technology.

4. Will the technology preserve or enhance human connection in the classroom?

This is the most important question, and the one I believe SAMR overlooks. When redefining learning experiences, we cannot do so at the expense of human connection. The most powerful technologies known to human did more than simply minimize complexity or do something new and catchy: they enhance communication, making it easier for individuals to connect with one another. Think of groundbreaking technologies like the printing press, the telephone, or even the internet and personal computer. All of these inventions are revolutionary because they made the world a smaller place.

Social media is a modern-day breakthrough in human connection and communication. While there are clear consequences to social media culture, there are clear upsides as well. Seesaw, a platform for student-driven digital portfolios, is an excellent example of a tool that enhances human connection. It’s a regular occurrence for my students to ask to share pictures or videos through the tool, because they want their parents to see what they’re working on. They want to be validated for the hard work they’re putting in.

A Critical Advocate for Edtech

It is possible to advocate against personalized learning technologies and still be an advocate for education technology, I assure you. It’s critical to remember that it’s not the technology itself that personalizes learning: it’s how the tool is used in the classroom. My hope is that, like me, you can use these four questions to determine which technologies help to make learning personal, and which are not only a waste of money—but a waste of time and energy.

Opinion | Technology in School

What the SAMR Model May Be Missing

By Paul Emerich France     Oct 18, 2018

What the SAMR Model May Be Missing

Personalized learning technologies can, ironically, make the learning experience less personal, less human. That perspective is rooted in my experience teaching in Silicon Valley, using some of the same digital apps and tools that are popular in classrooms today.

Despite my criticisms and sour experiences, I don’t believe that all education technology is bad. When designed and used appropriately, these tools can, in fact, help to make learning experiences more personal for students, in a way that humanizes the learning experience.

To guide us in building and implementing technology thoughtfully, I’d like to build upon a framework that is already popular among many education technologists.

A Crash Course in SAMR

Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the SAMR Model aims to guide teachers in integrating technology into their classrooms. It consists of four steps: Substitution (S), Augmentation (A), Modification (M), and Redefinition (R).

The SAMR Model
The SAMR Model. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the lower steps of this model—Substitution and Augmentation—technology integration is seemingly less sophisticated. Word processing software or tools that provide access to information digitally, like PDF annotators, generally fall into these categories, as the technology substitutes or augments the learning experience, allowing for some functional improvement in the task without a fundamental change in the task itself.

The latter two steps of the model—Modification and Redefinition—are categorically different. Here we see technology used in a sophisticated manner that either modifies tasks significantly or redefines them to achieve something unimaginable. Google Docs is an excellent example of this: by allowing learners to collaborate and communicate with one another through a web-based word processing document, time and space are no longer factors in a collaborative enterprise, as the technology removes those barriers for students.

The problem with many personalized learning tools is that they live mostly in realm of Substitution or Augmentation tasks. While there may be some functional improvement with regard to delivering content and collecting assessment data, there is little to no redefinition of the learning experience, which still sees students simply consuming and regurgitating materials, albeit through more efficient digital means.

Others, however, could argue that the learning experience is, in fact, redefined. By individualizing content and allowing students to “go at their own pace,” the learning experience is modified significantly, allowing children to scamper off on their own paces, and in theory, getting what they need in any given moment.

But this brand of personalized learning has its limits. In extreme cases, over-reliance on technology to individualize instruction can result in kids being placed in front of computers, siphoned into silos with few opportunities to build agency and connection with teachers and classmates.

When SAMR Isn’t Enough

It is plausible to say learning can be significantly modified with personalized learning technologies. But it is also defensible to argue that they don’t, given the proliferation of tools that merely automate the dissemination of content and materials for student consumption.

It’s in moments like these that we see the SAMR model, while laying an excellent foundation, isn’t enough. When considering which technologies to incorporate into my teaching, I like to consider four key questions, each of which build upon strong foundation that SAMR provides.

1. Does the technology help to minimize complexity?

Technology’s superpower rests in making complex tasks a great deal simpler. This is the intention behind a great deal of personalized learning technologies, which oftentimes individualize instruction on the students’ behalf, using assessment data to determine which activities are appropriate. Doing so minimizes the complexity of the role an educator plays, because they are no longer making decisions about content, but instead allowing the technology to take over that responsibility.

But this method of personalizing learning is neither beneficial for students nor educators. Teachers must be involved in the process of assessing and assigning new content to students. Google’s suite of education tools, for instance, minimizes the complexity of aggregating assessment data without taking the educator out of the process of assessment. Google Forms and Google Drive alone offer ample opportunities for aggregating assessment data and organizing student work. What’s more, when this is done collaboratively online, kids can play a role in the process of collecting and reflecting on assessment data, not only minimizing the complexity of assessment but also bolstering their autonomy by making them partners in the process of curating their own portfolios to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

2. Does the technology help to maximize the individual power and potential of all learners in the room?

The rationale behind a great deal of personalized learning technologies is that, once complexity is minimized for the user, then teachers are freed up to use their time for other, more important tasks. Whether it’s conferencing with students, analyzing assessment data, or even taking some time for self-care, technology is intended to help us become more powerful and increase our potential as teachers and learners.

But we mustn’t do this at the expense of quality learning. Tools like Google Drive can help students build autonomy, but there are other apps that help make our students more powerful—just not in the way you might think. I prefer to use Popplet and iCardSort regularly in my classroom—flexible tools that allow my students to demonstrate their thinking through concept mapping and sorting words and ideas. In essence, it allows them to personalize on their own behalf.

3. Will the technology help us to do something previously unimaginable?

Too many teachers live in the Substitution and Augmentation steps of the SAMR model, causing them to become what I like to call “app-tastic.” You might be app-tastic if you look at your devices or classroom website and see that it is littered with tools for the consumption of content. Apps that merely promote the consumption of information, whether through standardized or individualized tracks of learning activities and instruction, are not doing anything previously unimaginable; they are, instead, only trying to minimize the complexity of content consumption.

In the modern era, education should no longer focus on the utilitarian need of content mastery. Learning also needs to transfer to authentic contexts. And in order to achieve this, we can call on a more nuanced pedagogy that incorporates technology in a meaningful and transferable manner.

In many cases, the internet can be our greatest resource here. Just this past year, my students were studying the city of Chicago and specifically the neighborhoods in the city. In order to get them acclimated with the neighborhoods, we used Google Earth to do a walk-through of the neighborhoods, using Project Zero’s See-Think-Wonder routine to get our brains activated. This type of digital field trip was previously unimaginable, made possible only by the technology.

4. Will the technology preserve or enhance human connection in the classroom?

This is the most important question, and the one I believe SAMR overlooks. When redefining learning experiences, we cannot do so at the expense of human connection. The most powerful technologies known to human did more than simply minimize complexity or do something new and catchy: they enhance communication, making it easier for individuals to connect with one another. Think of groundbreaking technologies like the printing press, the telephone, or even the internet and personal computer. All of these inventions are revolutionary because they made the world a smaller place.

Social media is a modern-day breakthrough in human connection and communication. While there are clear consequences to social media culture, there are clear upsides as well. Seesaw, a platform for student-driven digital portfolios, is an excellent example of a tool that enhances human connection. It’s a regular occurrence for my students to ask to share pictures or videos through the tool, because they want their parents to see what they’re working on. They want to be validated for the hard work they’re putting in.

A Critical Advocate for Edtech

It is possible to advocate against personalized learning technologies and still be an advocate for education technology, I assure you. It’s critical to remember that it’s not the technology itself that personalizes learning: it’s how the tool is used in the classroom. My hope is that, like me, you can use these four questions to determine which technologies help to make learning personal, and which are not only a waste of money—but a waste of time and energy.

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