Of Starbucks, Misunderstanding SAMR, and the Freedom to Innovate

The edtech acronym SAMR is often seen as a progression for the evolution of technology in pedagogy and learning: Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. My own adoption of this acronym as a lens through which to view how I appropriate technology into my educational philosophy and pedagogical practice was hindered by the faulty assumption that this acronym is progressive or linear, as if any initial attempt would necessary start with substitution and with time and practice would progress consecutively on through to the goal of redefinition, though many do indeed see it as a progression.  Here’s the problem with viewing SAMR merely as a progression: it stifles the freedom to innovate.

Not all teachers teach the same. They do not teach the same discipline, the same students, with the same skill set, or according to the same purposes and outcomes. The first reaction to SAMR, therefore, is understandably to see it as yet another fad. A novelty that is not rooted in a philosophy of education that is universally applicable and which  transcends the perpetual reiteration of technology.  If this is you, hear my plea–the benefit of the SAMR paradigm is in its inherent freedom. It is not a hard and fast logical progression which fences in and constrains a teacher’s freedom to teach according to the need.  Just the opposite.  Before I elaborate, though, let’s get on the same page about the meaning of the acronym.

Ruben Puentedura, an educational consultant on transformative applications of information technologies to education, is credited with originating the SAMR acronym.  He defines them as (PDF):

  1. Substitution: Enhancement, wherein technology acts as a direct tool substitute, with no functional change.
  2. Augmentation: Enhancement, wherein technology acts as a direct tool substitute, with functional improvement.
  3. Modification: Transformation, wherein technology allows for significant task redesign.
  4. Redefinition: Transformation, wherein technology allows for the creation of new tasks previously inconceivable.

Beverly Brown, a technology integration coach and columnist for EdSurge, offers the cleverest analogy for the SAMR elements: Starbucks coffee. Now, I’m not one to go in for fancy flavored coffees. I prefer my coffee brewed and black. I could, however, choose to substitute my favorite ceramic mug with an Oklahoma Baptist University travel tumbler. A perfectly fine and perhaps appropriate change, but I haven’t really changed the contents of the mug. I could augment my coffee with ice because, let’s face it, hot coffee on an August day in Oklahoma may not be the best option. I could also augment with a little cinnamon like Beverly Brown suggests, but like I said, I don’t go in for that fancy sort thing. In both cases, you could argue that I’ve enhanced my coffee experience. But have I really transformed it?

Starbucks Coffee
Starbucks Coffee

To modify my iced black coffee in an OBU travel tumbler, the barista may recommend some whipped cream and cocoa for a mocha. My coffee would then have certainly been transformed through modification. Again, though, I don’t go in for that fancy sort of thing. If I did, though, I could probably order at pretty much any coffee shop anywhere. A Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage, though? Now that is only available at Starbucks where my black coffee in a ceramic mug can be transformed and redefined in a way that would never have been possible anywhere else.

But here is where so many go astray in their understanding of SAMR. A pumpkin spice latte is not an inherently better option than a caramel mocha, an iced coffee in a travel tumbler, or a cup of black coffee in a ceramic mug.  My coffee doesn’t not necessarily improve just because it has been through the SAMR progression. The level of appropriation of technology into the educational environment should be determined by the need, not by the acronym. SAMR does, however, lay the rails on which the integration of technology can be placed. It provides a framework.

Understanding SAMR not as a linear progression in the inherent value and quality of one’s pedagogy but rather as a framework in which educators can more easily and purposefully select and apply the level and type of technology integration provides much more freedom for educators to work their craft.  It provides freedom to innovate, or not to innovate, according to the particular need of the moment.

Now that that’s settled, next up: Is redefinition even possible?