Misunderstood and Misapplied: Putting SAMR in its Place

When I originally heard about the SAMR model, I did an Internet search for more information so I could deepen my understanding. There were plenty of visual metaphors and animated explanations. So many, in fact, that it was almost troublesome that something that seemed so simple would induce so much need for clarification.

Caution! SAMR is not a heirarchy

Was there something we didn’t “get” about SAMR? Or were we striving to apply it too widely in hopes it could serve as a “Swiss army knife,” guiding
us through various situations? I believe both of these are factors in why SAMR has been talked about so much — and criticized fairly sharply.


SAMR Misunderstood

What wasn’t necessarily obvious about SAMR were the assumptions that underlie its application. Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the creator of the SAMR model, explains the application of the model in terms that reaffirm its intent: for instructors to “evolve their practice” by incorporating technology in learning activities that were originally devoid of such technology. He even lets us know it’s “just fine” for instructors to start at the lowest level of his model. The language with which he speaks in this 2016 “interview” reveal many underlying assumptions:

  1. learning activities are originally designed without “technology”
  2. perfectly well-designed learning activities already exist
  3. the integration of technology (in the form of modern computer and Internet applications) is a goal
  4. higher order thinking skills should be the target of all learning activities

Many others have criticized the model for not considering context, for reifying a traditional notion of education, and for seemingly promoting a false hierarchy. I don’t want to re-hash those points here, but let me briefly address the assumptions above as they relate in this piece.

Open my annotated list of pieces critical of SAMR

First, the SAMR model assumes the existence of learning activities devoid of “technology.” This is important to understand because it reveals the nature of the SAMR model and shows the model is not intended as a process for initially developing learning activities. Steps such as the consideration of learning objectives would need to be present in a model of developing learning activities.

This leads us to the second assumption: A perfectly valid learning activity already exists. If it didn’t, we shouldn’t be trying to “enhance” it with technology. Rather, we should be developing an effective learning activity — with or without technology.

Third, the appeal of SAMR hinges on the presumed superiority of technologically-imbued learning activities. Of course technology can improve many aspects of a learning activity — and can even lead to pathways of new ways of learning. But so can any well-designed activity. In fact, there are some activities that hold highly desirable potential for social and collaborative learning that might work better in a face-to-face setting that relies on conversation, not web-based apps. This is one of the more troubling assumptions because arbitrarily posits “technology” in a place of superiority.

Finally, Dr. Puentedura seems to suggest that the goal of all instruction should be to engage the highest orders of thinking skills and that the path to achieving this is through using the SAMR model to reach the Redefinition level in revising learning activities. This simply is a gross misdirected focus on one area of the educational spectrum. It fails to realize the importance of fundamental skills, such as learning new words when acquiring a foreign language or even when learning a computer programming language. And if Dr. Puentedura would like to backtrack at this juncture and say his model was meant for other subject matters, that would be enough to write it off as an ad-hoc device that shouldn’t be applied to any other educational contexts.

SAMR Misapplied

SAMR was designed to be used when integrating technology into existing learning activities. Dr. Puentedura said so. The language of the SAMR model itself says so. And the absence of critical steps that would be included if the model were intended as a process for, say, developing learning activities from scratch, also imply this.

But we wanted it to be more. We wanted it to be the next Padagogy Wheel. Both Dr. Puentedura and Kathy Shrock developed models in which the “levels” of SAMR correspond to the categories in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

These two models should not be tethered together. SAMR is a relative measure of the distance between what your activity was capable of doing without technology to what your lesson can do when technology is incorporated. It relies on the arrogant notion that lessons with technology are superior to those without. It assumes technology opens possibilities “previously inconceivable.” The ugliest interpretation of this concept is that learning activities without technology are not capable of reaching the highest thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy, or certainly that the more you “evolve” an activity the more superior it is.

SAMR in its Place

Now that we know what SAMR can and cannot do, let’s think about who should be applying the model and in what situation. If you think about the underlying assumptions listed above, then one situation in which it makes sense to consider SAMR is when an instructor is converting their f2f class to an online or hybrid (mixed mode) class. In this situation, there are existing learning activities that will need to be interwoven with technological tools (the LMS, at the bare minimum). This is a perfect time to consider the advantages for both instructor and learner that can be accomplished through the informed use of technology. But I will still maintain that the fourth assumption (higher order thinking skills should be the target of all learning activities) is misinformed.

Moreover, SAMR seems to be a descriptive tool. It has broken down the ways we integrate technology in our learning activities and presented them in an easily digestible form. But using it to prescribe how we should use technology is not a good idea. Others have made eloquent arguments about SAMR’s flaws, so I just want to consider how an instructional designer might prefer to go about getting a faculty member’s course online, for example.

Instead of telling faculty to Substitute and then Augment, and so on, I would just want them to dream big. Or maybe let the students do that dreaming. A writing instructor could, for example, allow her class the option of writing a traditional paper or of presenting their ideas using an alternative modality. Maybe some would make PowerPoints, Prezis, diagrams, animations, videos, infographics, or who knows what! By not presuming the role and function and form of “technology,” we could achieve more than if we were guided by a myopic, biased model like SAMR. Would SAMR allow a student to perform an interpretive dance to explain cell division? A colleague of mine enjoys telling this true story of “the best presentation” she has ever seen. SAMR would have ruled out this option for this student. Because technology is superior. Because the instructor chooses the technology and how and when it is applied.

So what is the proper place for SAMR in the process of developing or revising course materials? It should absolutely not be used to prescribe any process of developing or modifying or revising or enhancing learning activities. So should it be used as a retro-reflective tool to measure all the work we’ve done and how we’ve improved our courses? No, not even for that. Because even then it imposes false steps (we don’t really take one step at a time and make our activities evolve through all four steps from Substitution to Redefinition) and a false prioritization. So where is the proper place for SAMR? At this point, perhaps the rear-view mirror is where SAMR can be best… appreciated.


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