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Learning Library Blog SAMR in the COVID-Era: Climbing the Ladder With Purpose
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SAMR in the COVID-Era: Climbing the Ladder With Purpose

By Marc Cicchino
November 1, 2021
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Anyone who has tried to measure the success of a 1:1 program using the SAMR model knows that climbing the SAMR hierarchy — from the bottom rungs of substitution and augmentation to the holy grail of modification and redefinition — can sometimes feel more like climbing a Stairmaster than a ladder: You put in the effort but stay in the same place.

We find ourselves asking questions like:

  • Is redefinition all that it’s cracked up to be?
  • Is redefinition still redefinition after those practices have become business-as-usual?
  • We did it! Now what?

At Northern Valley Regional High School District in Bergen County, New Jersey, we’ve been 1:1 with laptops for nearly a decade, and over the years, we have continuously wrestled with questions such as these when considering the most meaningful way to continue growing our instructional technology program. I’d like to share some insights we’ve gleaned from the process of working through these challenges, revamping our program goals and objectives using the ISTE Standards as a roadmap, and trading our Stairmaster for something far more meaningful.

What’s your purpose?

If we were to extend the SAMR ladder metaphor, the first logical question to ask might be the one we’d pose if we noticed a colleague carrying a physical ladder: “Hey, what do you need that ladder for?”

We can imagine perfectly reasonable answers to this, too: perhaps a small boost to grab something from a shelf just out of reach, or a huge lift to get a cat out of a tall tree. But if that colleague were to march into the middle of an empty field, prop up that ladder and climb it without any intelligible reason for doing so, we’d be right to be concerned.

The SAMR ladder is similar in that it’s imperative to consider its purpose, or as Simon Sinek puts it in his popular TED Talk, “Start With Why.” Instead of climbing for the sake of climbing, we must begin by considering why we’re climbing, where it is that we’re trying to go, or what problem it is that we’re trying to solve. 

If we begin by considering our purpose — perhaps the target standard, the intended learning outcome or the lesson objective — rather than the novelty of the tool, technology can surely get us to the top of that tree, up to that shelf or over that fence. Without a purpose, we’re on a ladder in a field.

I do not mean to suggest that we should pump the brakes on innovation. On the contrary, I believe that we can and should innovate with greater enthusiasm and intensity than ever before, but driven by purpose and necessity rather than bells, whistles and aimless novelty.

In more practical terms: We shouldn’t ask our students to produce videos just because it’s cool, easy and “redefines” the traditional research presentation. But we should ask our students to create videos if doing so fosters engagement, promotes mastery through the creative process, enables students to employ their strengths on a project or reinforces learning through the manipulation of multiple modalities. We can consider just about any digital tool or practice through this lens, and when we do, redefinition is sure to be impactful and far more likely to be worthwhile.

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Ask better questions

Once everyone is trained and well-versed in video-creation tools, and once the option to demonstrate learning via creative video production becomes business-as-usual, does the once awe-inspiring transformation of the traditional research project into a docuseries still qualify as redefinition?

Rather than offer a yes or no, consider that this question is, again, neglecting purpose. Is your “why” to use video-editing software to redefine a learning task for redefinition’s sake, or is your “why” to enhance some facet of the learning?

If your objective is the latter, then it doesn’t matter whether or not tried-and-true video projects are still at the upper rungs of SAMR; you’ll get the cat out of the tree. But if your objective is the former, you might be on a ladder in a field.

Better questions to ask might be:

  • What is this project’s purpose, and is the technology that’s being used helping to achieve and enhance that purpose?
  • Why is technology being used the way it is? Is it still effective?
  • Is there a better way to accomplish this that we weren’t previously aware of or that we didn’t previously have access to?

If we’re still interested in considering whether the activity qualifies as redefinition,we can first consider that the SAMR model uses traditional and technology-free tasks as the baseline. In that sense, yes, a learning task that qualified as redefinition five years ago is still redefinition today.

But we would be remiss if we didn’t also consider that redefinition is in the task, not the tool:

  • If software like iMovie were used to enhance what was already possible in an existing comprehensive analog film production studio, the task might be augmenting, rather than redefining the learning. 
  • If students were previously asked to do skits in front of the class, and now they’re using iMovie to create video-shorts that are filmed over the course of several weeks and edited with various cut scenes, clips and effects, the task might be modifying rather than redefining. 
  • If students are being asked to use iMovie to develop comprehensive and media-rich projects that include video interviews with family members, footage of field-area experts and documentary-style voice-overs, all to be published and shared online to an authentic global audience, the task would be truly redefined in a way that is not conceivable without technology.

But the thing that continues to matter most is the why.

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What’s next?

Once the utility of the SAMR model becomes clear, it can be used in conjunction with other models, such as TPACK, to ensure that effective teaching and learning prevails as a shared and enduring focus.

One way that we have accomplished this in Northern Valley is by conducting walkthroughs that assess the happenings across hundreds of classrooms using both the SAMR and TPACK models. This has provided us with a lens to think more critically about technology integration in individual lessons, as well as across larger groups such as entire departments, buildings and the district as a whole.

But even more impactful has been our process and philosophy of purpose-driven innovation.  One of our most recent problems (because problems often make for greatpurposes), and our corresponding solution, is as follows:

The problem (our purpose): The pandemic has significantly reshaped the makeup of our classrooms. Students were synchronously connecting to their classes from home, and while we’ve largely been able to make this work with videoconferencing technologies (teachers use their laptops to Zoom students in, teachers share their screens via Zoom while projecting to the front of the room, etc.), the challenging logistics of expecting students to see the math being modeled on an aging electronic whiteboard persist.  In short, our electronic whiteboards are busted and our remote learners can’t easily see them.

The redefinition (our solution): Instead of making a pricey push to replace or upgrade every whiteboard in the district, we narrowed our focus to the departments that were truly facing this challenge. Then, we asked better questions:

  • What is this project’s purpose? Our purpose is to ensure students who connect remotely to their classes can get a commensurate learning experience as those in the physical classroom.
  • Why is technology being used the way that it is? The sudden shift to hybrid and remote learning has required us to retrofit older hardware into the new, COVID-era learning environment.
  • Is there a better way to accomplish this that we weren’t previously aware of or that we didn’t previously have access to? iPads have come a long way since our initial investment in interactive whiteboards. Perhaps they can offer us a purposeful and innovative solution that wasn’t previously available.

We obtained six iPads and styluses for a three-month pilot, during which teachers used these devices in lieu of their electronic whiteboards. They found that they were able to readily share their iPad screens using built-in functionality in Zoom, as well an operating system that allows an iPad to be an extension of a Mac desktop. Teachers found that they could easily move about the room, no longer tethered to the whiteboard, while modeling math problems and making annotations for all of their students to see, whether in-person or remote. They could record screencasts of their lessons with a press of a button, making it easy to rapidly share and archive instructional videos. 

We started with why, and we found an innovative and significant cost-saving solution that is currently being scaled up to full implementation. Redefinition followed suit; we got the cat out of the tree.

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Marc Cicchino, Ed.D., is the director of innovation of Northern Valley Regional High School District in Bergen County, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor of research and writing at Rutgers University. He has published research on game-based learning and problem-based learning, and has a continued interest in all facets of student engagement. This includes student-centered pedagogy, the purposeful integration of instructional technology and the intersection of neuroscience and learning.