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Revisiting SAMR in Education: Form Leads Function in the New Reality

Does SAMR continue to meet the need of describing the depth and breadth of change needed in education today?

By LeiLani Cauthen

Mention the terms “1:1” or “digital curriculum,” and the widely referenced SAMR model is likely to enter the conversation. Few other models are brought up as frequently with educators who are transitioning their schools to digital devices and curriculum. But does SAMR continue to meet the need of describing the depth and breadth of change needed in pedagogy?

SAMR is a model to help describe, inform and lead a process of change:

• Substitution

• Augmentation

• Modification

• Redefinition

What’s wrong with this, you say? Only just one tiny thing. It is used to describe change within the traditional school paradigm, whether that be an individual classroom with a teacher’s individual practice or a school or a district. It rarely considers contextualization against the new models of school being experimented with and created. Rarely does SAMR spark the conversation of changing the paradigm.

Practically speaking, this is a major and fundamental flaw

Why? Because the only reason education is motivated to transform in the first place is to catch up to outside expectations. In most instances, educators and administrators are not in sync with the workings of industry and consumer culture. The entire perspective of substitution up to redefinition for most viewers from the education industry is already—and only—contextual to education’s standing infrastructure. A teacher. A classroom with walls. A place. Or no place at all.

It would be easy to keep the view that these are the given barriers to the current educational environment. And that the freedoms to substitute, augment, modify and redefine are constrained within those barriers. Wouldn’t this make everyone’s job so much easier instead of throwing out the entire reference point and starting from scratch?

It’s been tried; you might say, to redefine the paradigm itself. But it’s so out-of-sync with the majority of education’s reality of what education should be that the notion to transform fully had to be reined in and the systems of the past restored to practice.

Maybe sticking to the status quo is better, yes? The answer is an emphatical, no. And not just no. Hell no. That type of thinking is old news.

Here’s the new news

The seeming energy-starved low-impact educational constructs of the past are being replaced with a distance anywhere-anytime potential freedom-land of learning that is all-consuming to youth. The super-engagement of games challenges what we think of as learning. The connectivity of the Internet makes learning possible literally anywhere and in many modes.

Literally from birth, learning occurs in everything we do. And now, we have the technology to build learning environments that will allow the natural progression of learning without the limitations of artificial milestones. Students can explore holographic worlds complete with machine-learning algorithmic builds to favor individual students.

The learning laboratories of the future are virtual or some combination of virtual with reality. They are more natural because they are autodidactic—self-driven-from-anywhere—while also capable of requiring basic standards.

Various vendors and even other schools are mastering it for digital distribution and mastering curriculum software. Learning will gravitate towards the best teachers and companies providing the most engaging and effective content.

Now that the Internet can provide a one-stop-shop for any type of curriculum or course possible, and students are graduating having never attended a physical-location school their whole lives from state-led online charters in multiple states, why should we even care about SAMR?

We need to be talking about the redefinition of function, SAMR inside a greater system that is untethering people from a physical location in work, in entertainment, in their education, in worship, and even in their relationships.

Form follows function, and the current educational forms are not aligned to new function. The real question in education surrounding SAMR is why we need the artificiality of an institution for learning. It imposes an artificiality of space, physicality, and time. With the Internet, we have conquered all three. When learning can be done directly, then the form of learning can be a 1:1 direct model with no intermediary of space and time and personnel. There are, of course, a few provisos.

For real redefinition, everyone needs to be scrappy in these new realities we are living and know what these are – blended, virtual, or something else entirely? The best of what you do needs highlighting. The highest skills need marketing.

In the Age of Experience, people will pay for higher value educational experiences, but only if they are above the otherwise expected experiences. Consumer society now expects and even demands a very high level of engaged screen learning. After all, we all live in a society infused with the likes of Amazon, Starbucks, Disney, Uber, self-check-out groceries, and self-driving cars.

Your use of SAMR will be for naught unless each individual and school takes a journey into the future to see which skills are irreplaceably human. Even with a holographic trip to China to learn about the culture and history, what good does it do for a student who does not have a teacher, a coach, a guide, and a mentor tucked in their hip pocket? Someone who can help them explore the interrelationships with their own lives so they can evaluate and make informed decisions? Consider, as just one example, Chinese exchange students in an American school or immigrants arriving in a new neighborhood. How does an American student honor them and their culture? What about the sense of time that the Chinese have?  They are predominantly Buddhist and believe they live again, and so built a long-enduring culture with great ritual and timelessness. How can the student consider that against his or her own culture? Human touch is not and will never be ubiquitously replaceable.

Mere questions posed could be online. It’s true, but that magical interaction with a leading figure, the teacher, does something to prove inquiry and answer are dynamic to an individual student. It’s no different than a live audience clapping for you. There is just no substitute for human leadership, but it must actually be human leadership.

The low-value activities of pointing-out next lessons, assigning units, testing, modifying learning paths are all being subsumed by new technologies, or they will be soon.

The machine won’t smile at you in quite the same way, though, no matter how many emoticons you download.

The high-value activities need solid definition so that true redefinition of the teacher’s role as a grand, Socratic-like leader and esteemed guide can be branded, implemented, and then utilized by institutions to hold unto themselves the otherwise escaping throngs of would-be students.

In a nutshell, SAMR is incomplete. To really implement it, consider the competition of the outside world, including new realities. In his book, Infinite Possibility, Joseph Pine talks about six different realities between what is purely “real” and what is “virtual.” Industry is already using all of them.

Here is a quick exercise

Write down the four levels of SAMR. Circle it and label the circle “Competition.” Draw incoming arrows on that circle that is bearing pressure from the outside. Then write down another word at the end of these arrows —“World.”

Now revisit SAMR with your new vision.

About the Author

LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning.  She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing, and market leadership in the high tech, education, and government industries.

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