Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching

Considering technology use with SAMR

Note: It seems this post is required reading for a group of students using Google Classroom. I’d love to know what the class is saying about SAMR. Feel free to leave a comment.

Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentadura based on his observations and study of a statewide laptop initiative in the us state of Maine, the SAMR model has become a popular, though frequently misunderstood, benchmark for considering the incorporation of technologies in education. The chief point of misunderstanding comes from a mistaken belief that the levels constituting this taxonomy can be entirely distinguished by differences in the learning content or its delivery or that a particular technology or tool automatically places one at a particular level in the taxonomy. Of course, both of these elements may be part of the story, but as we have seen with the Cubic Learning model, considering only the content dimension (either when considering content delivery or the use of a particular tool) only tells part of the story – and oversimplifying the SAMR model to focus primarily on content delivery obscures this model’s broad applicability as a guide for educators.

For example, one very popular interpretation casts the differing levels as different kinds of coffee-based drinks, with ‘substitution’ being represented largely by a change in the kind of cup: a coffee cup presumably with home-brewed coffee being replaced by a disposable cup of purchased coffee. The trouble is that the supposedly advanced ‘redefinition’ level is simply the same thing – coffee – with whipped cream on top. While cream is a yummy addition, it doesn’t fundamentally change either the nature of the substance nor its delivery. The task required to generate the cup of coffee, with or without additional flavouring and whipped cream, is fundamentally unchanged. Furthermore, the process of drinking the coffee is absolutely unchanged. The coffee is still coffee, so it has not been redefined. If we think of the use of learning technologies in terms of these four cups of coffee, we have changed only superficial aspects of the activities, but the tasks required to get there remain the same, as does the final product.

Another popular interpretation of SAMR depicts the different levels as differing depths of exploration in the ocean. This is a much better representation of SAMR, especially because it includes the basic definition for each level in the graphic. However, the learning task represented at each level remains the same: the student is just looking around. Whether the student is standing on the shore or gazing through the window of the submarine, she is just looking. She may learn to snorkel, scuba dive, or pilot the submarine, but those largely technological choices do not fundamentally result in any increased agency for her as an explorer nor in any radical change in her relationship to 

the ocean or what she’s making. At every level, she remains merely an observer. Unless we can peer into the submarine and find the student busily collecting samples, filming the flora and fauna for a new comparative study, or carrying out experiments that increase in complexity at each level, the task is still the same: to look around exactly as she did on the shore.

Rather than trying to simplify SAMR to make it easy to grasp at a glance, it might be better to have a few questions to ask when determining how technology in the classroom can change what students can accomplish and what skills they can acquire.


At the lowest level, we substitute one technology for another. Nothing else changes. The new tool simply replaces an older, possibly obsolete tool. Students master the use of the new tool but the learning task remains the same. For example, if students have used pen and paper to write an essay and we introduce a word processor, we are replacing the pencil with a keyboard and the paper with a screen. If we do not take advantage of other features the word processor offers, we are reaping only the most basic benefits of technology in the classroom, which is simply for teachers and students to stay ahead of obsolescence. And since the learning task does not change, nor the relationship between the learner and the subject area, the chief benefit is likely to be administrative or facilitative rather than centred around learning.

The key question that distinguishes work at the substitution level: Does the technology introduce a new tool for an activity or project the class was already doing in a way that does not fundamentally alter the outcome or product of the work or the overall instructional design?


At the next level we start using features that make new technology advantageous when carrying out administrative tasks. For example, electronic distribution of content and collection of student work through an online management system augments the efficiency of the process. Papers don’t get lost or wrinkled, the text is easy to read, the documents are portable and accessible from anywhere. However, the task the students are performing has not changed. The product is only different in form but not in substance, so the only real learning change, as in substitution, is focused on the tool. Students learn how to access content and submit work, but the product they are submitting is the same. New skills are specific to the tool and the process. The learning task has not changed in substance, but only in efficiency or ease of completion.

The key question that distinguishes work at the augmentation level: Does the technology introduce efficiencies or facilitate the activity or project in ways not possible with the older technology, yet without significantly altering the outcome or product of the work or the overall instructional design?

Crossing the ‘dotted line’

The two lower levels of technology use are about avoiding obsolescence and improving efficiency. They are mostly administrative in nature, benefitting students only insofar as they may be able to use the technologies or technological skills they’re learning after they leave school. At these levels, the new technologies have not been used to change or expand how students interact with content or demonstrate their learning.

On the other hand, the upper two levels in the SAMR framework can only be attained if the learning tasks students are performing are significantly changed by the use of technology. In other words, any technology that is mostly for teacher use cannot be considered when aiming to transform learning activities. The dotted line separating the lower levels from the upper levels marks the inflection point at which technology moves from teacher control and efficiency to student control and agency.


In this first level above the dotted line, the task students have traditionally carried out before the introduction of new technology is changed, but it has not completely disappeared. For example, let’s look at the traditional in-class student presentation. In the past, students could present their information to the class using a poster as a visual aid to accompany their prepared remarks. Later, students substituted slides and a projector for the paper poster, but the process and outcomes were largely unchanged: static content arranged in a display that relied on spoken or printed explanations. If we now replace the use of slide presentation software with a video editing tool, we modify the task. Students must now use a combination of images, motion, sound, and narration to present their information in a format that allows for wider distribution and multiple views. There is still a significant trace of the original in-class presentation task, but the student must exercise judgment in creating a video that can, on its own, deliver all the necessary information. In addition to the subject matter of the video, the student must consider the effectiveness of the images on the screen combined with audio (dialogue, narration, sound effects, music) and must develop new fluencies that extend beyond the tool itself.

At this point it is important to point out that making a video doesn’t automatically modify the task significantly. To do so, we must consider what goes into the video and what purpose that content serves. If the “video” is a sequence of presentation slides with a narration replacing a live in-class presentation, we have substituted the poster for the slides, and the video for the student standing in front of the room – leaving the projects at the substitution level (or perhaps the modification level since they bring in the efficiency of digital distribution). Despite the new format, the student did not have to make any decisions regarding a creative representation of the information. The end product is not very different from the original, and the process though now more ‘technological,’ is also largely unchanged. Of course, this substitutionary assignment would also likely produce a fairly uninteresting video.

However, if the student reimagines the project, considering all of the strategies for communicating that can be accomplished through video, and if the student works to align music, editing, and effects to produce a desired impact, the project will have changed substantially. Consider the difference between a standard report and a Ken Burns documentary. The need to create compelling video that would hold an audience’s attention even drove Burns to invent the pan-and-zoom effect over old photos for which he became famous – and that is now named after him. This was no mere substitution nor a simple augmentation; Burns’ documentaries represent a modification that could only be carried out through advanced use of the technology to do more than capture efficiencies. In addition to learning how to use a new technology, therefore, students at the modification level engage differently with the content, with their learning community, or with the environment. In other words, modification extends the dimensionality of one or more of the Cubic Learning dimensions. What students produce at this level is different in substance, not just in appearance, from what they produced at the lower SAMR levels.

The key question that distinguishes work at the modification level: Does the project produced depend on the technology to modify the learning task in ways not possible with older technologies or approaches while also retaining some aspects of the original task even as it alters the outcome or product of the work or the overall instructional design?


At the redefinition level, the original task prior to the introduction of technology has almost completely disappeared and the new tasks are dependent on the new technology. Let’s revisit the traditional in-class presentation example. Creating a video still retains echoes of the original task – for example, it’s still largely designed to be a self-contained artefact that works to inform an audience. The video, however, can become part of a larger scheme. For example, students might all be working on videos with topics related to one another. The students could then coordinate their efforts so that their products could be assembled into an informative collection. The videos could be displayed on a website with additional resources for learning about the topic, and the website could include interactive elements, such as a discussion forum where visitors can ask questions and leave feedback that would be curated and responded to by the students.

In this example, the students are not only concerned about their own individual video and  its content. The entire class has had to coordinate their efforts to ensure the quality of the end product. The videos and all other elements of the website will have an audience much larger than the class and a function that requires a much higher level of fluency and knowledge. The project requires that students make creative and organisational decisions to ensure the website is suitable for an audience beyond their own school. What was once a simple in-school project has been transformed into a real world learning tool for anyone with a web browser to see. This means that the projects will demonstrate a much deeper content level, with students not merely delivering information they found in their research, but creating new information. They will have to operate at least at the level of cooperation in order to merge their projects successfully. And finally, their projects will no longer be restricted to the generic world of the classroom, but will be released into either a controlled or a genuine environment. Acting at redefinition increases the dimensionality of each of the Cubic Learning dimensions, generating significantly more opportunities for participation and learning.

As new technologies emerge, new tasks are possible. And with every new possible task, we must ask how the new task fits into our instructional design. What will students learn by carrying out this task in the context of a project? If the answer focuses largely on the tool and how to use it, then we’re not really at redefinition – we’re at augmentation. To rise further on the SAMR continuum, we need to think deeply about how the new tool could transform our instructional design. Consider 3d printing, one of the most coveted technologies of the moment. Everyone wants a 3d printer at her school, and understandably so. It’s amazing to be able to make your own objects out of plastic, watching that little nozzle go around and around and seeing shapes slowly take form. The potential for creativity with 3d printing seems infinite.

However, we must not equate making plastic shapes with the redefinition of learning. Imagine an entire class downloading and printing model heads of Nefertiti from Berlin’s Neues Museum website. What do the students gain through this activity? Holding a small plastic shape won’t help students better understand the significance of Nefertiti’s rule, nor will it necessarily help them appreciate the artistry of the sculpture or its cultural importance. Now, imagine a very different activity. Instead of downloading something to print, imagine every student designing a new object such as a lego piece that doesn’t yet exist that would allow students to build a particular structure. The process of designing the piece and ensuring that it fits within a larger design while also fitting with existing lego pieces is an outstanding learning activity. Students might explore structural engineering or aesthetic design, or they might use this piece to build an object that solves a problem in their school or local community. In other words, this new activity is truly redefining what can be done in the classroom, all thanks to 3d printing technology.

While we might initially be deceived by the use of an exciting new technology, downloading ready-made shapes and printing them is simply substitutionary. It is no more sophisticated than downloading and printing an image we find online. In this case, instead of printing ink on paper, we’re printing shapes in plastic, but the fundamental task students perform is unchanged: they press ‘print.’ For technology to redefine teaching and learning, we should aim to access resources outside the classroom, reach an audience beyond school, create artefacts (either physical or digital) that don’t already exist, and connect students to the real world. In short, technology should increase the dimensionality of learning in the community, content, or context dimensions – and ideally, in all three.

Rather than resorting to coffee cups and scuba equipment, it might be more beneficial to think about SAMR by referencing what each level represents in very unambiguous terms. Substitution focuses on learning how to use a new tool while carrying out the same tasks as before. It may be necessary to settle for purely substitutionary activities when learning a new tool, but the goal should be to explore additional benefits the tool may afford its users. Augmentation makes tasks more efficient. For example, it is a bit easier (or maybe a lot easier) for teachers to read typed text than messy handwritten documents. Taking advantage of efficiencies in administrative tasks is an excellent way for teachers to free up time for other endeavours. Modification means that the tasks students are doing is mostly different from what they did before new technology was introduced, and the difference is directly connected to the learning of something other than the tool. Some of the processes may be different, but the product students create still has a close connection to what they did prior to introducing new technologies. Redefinition means that the tasks and processes students are following are really new and different. Students create products that bear little resemblance to what had been done in the past, and these new products are only possible with and enabled by the new technology.

The key to effective technology use in the classroom is to focus on the task, not the tool. To evaluate how technology is being used in the classroom, ask yourself a few important questions:

What are the students doing?
What are the students making?
What are the students learning?
How is technology making this possible?
How is this different from what was done before?

If the only thing that has changed is the technology, the tool, but everything else is the same, was the technology worth the expense?

Author: bealeiderman

I am an instructional coach and instructional designer working in Central Virginia.

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