Powerful Models for EdTech

SAMR too complicated? Try “learning how vs. learning about”.

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Harris

CREDIT Matt Harris EdD.jpgThe SAMR model has been around for a while now. It is a model that helps teachers understand to what degree they have impacted their teaching practice using technology. Schools have adopted the model as a means of teacher evaluation in edtech or as a model for professional development though it was never intended for such purposes. SAMR was designed to guide inquiry amongst teachers. It was meant to foster discussion about what was being done and what could be done to leverage technology to alter how thoughts and ideas were presented. It’s no surprise that schools have found the model complicated and difficult to operationalize.

Pockets of success, examples of good practice, and overall increases in edtech engagement are easy to document with this type of learning.

SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. Teachers are said to progress through the model the more creative they are in their teaching using technology. Lessons that fall in the S and A realms are said to be enhanced, whereas the M and the R are transformed.

It is a powerful model that has sparked incredibly rich conversations about pedagogy, curriculum design, and teacher attitudes towards technology. However, it suggests that schools should progress towards modified or redefined learning when assessment systems are not prepared for that. It also presupposes that teachers have the technical skill and empowerment needed to successfully use technology for learning. Thus, schools struggle with SAMR until they have a strong basis in Educational Technology skill development and evaluation in place.

So, I offer a simple alternative: “Learning How vs. Learning About.”

The concept first arose from academic research in 1-to-1 student laptop programs where researchers found that teachers fell into two categories: those who had strong enough technology skills to learn about curricular applications of technology and those who needed further support with the tools at hand. They found that schools that separated out their professional development into these two categories had a great impact on teaching.

How’s That

“Learning How” is an approach to support the second group. It focuses professional development, support, and training on the technical aspects of educational technology. Teachers learn the ins and outs of devices, applications, or online tools from a user experience, not from a teaching angle. An example would be training teachers how to use and manipulate spreadsheets. This training would cover the basics of data entry to semi-advanced topics of formulas and data visualization. After the training, teachers should understand how to use the program in general, not necessarily in their classrooms with students.

The goal of “Learning How” training is twofold. First, teacher should develop tangible technology skills. Second, they should feel supported in using technology. This second goal is arguably the most powerful as it aims to remove judgment from their entry skill level, it removes the pressure of using technology for academic purpose before they have a solid foundation, and it helps them develop an attitude of exploration with technology rather than one of trepidation. Done well, “Learning How” training can move large groups of teachers further along the SAMR ladder than anything else because supported teachers, who aren’t pressured, feel empowered and invigorated.

All About It

“Learning About” goes beyond the technology itself. It assumes teachers have a level of comfort and skill with a particular technology tool that can be used to focus on curricular or pedagogic applications. It centers on the instructional elements of Educational Technology while focusing on planning and execution of technology enhanced lessons. An example would be using spreadsheets to track weather patterns in a particular geographic area. This training would cover the curricular implications of using spreadsheet based modeling, show avenues for using spreadsheets to teach specific topics, and discuss methods for presentation and assessment. After the training, teachers should have an understanding of how to apply spreadsheets and data modeling to their classes and some curriculum that can be used immediately with students.

“Learning About” training is all about enhanced teaching and learning. It aims to build teachers’ pedagogic skills rather than building their technology fluency. These trainings get teachers to think about the application of technology and the potential to improve the student experience. It builds knowledge and ownership of edtech instead of focusing on skills and confidence. Oftentimes, these trainings evolve from teaching examples and suggestions to collaborative learning and generative discussions amongst empowered teachers. It’s what we strive for in edtech professional development.


Implementing a “Learning How vs. Learning About” is quite simple, especially when compared to a SAMR based program. With SAMR, professional develop must cover a range of ability and interest levels. Participants are usually evaluated, guided, and encouraged to progress through the SAMR ladder. As much time is spent on planning and evaluating as is spent of program delivery. With “Learning How vs. Learning About,” trainings are run simultaneously with participants self-selecting their group. Each type of training offers appropriate support for participants needs with teachers growing and progressing at their own pace. The administration time for such programs are minimal, leaving more time for instruction. Further, “Learning How vs. Learning About” instructors don’t need to be technology gurus or edtech experts. Instead teachers within the faculty who know a particular technology or are interested in leading a collaborative working team can deliver these programs with the same effect as an outside trainer.

With schools looking for return on investment for their edtech purchases and asking for measures of success for training programs, SAMR is the gold standard. When used right, SAMR can show clear progression for teachers in moving towards 21st century learning goals. However, with its complexities and administrative overhead a simpler system is often better. “Learning How vs. Learning About” can show similar growth and progression at lower costs. Pockets of success, examples of good practice, and overall increases in edtech engagement are easy to document with this type of learning. It is also easy to implement, simple to manage, and cheap to run.

Matt Harris, Ed.D., (pictured, above) is Deputy Head of School for Learning Technology at the British School of Jakarta, Indonesia. He also works as an educational consultant for schools and Ministries of Education in the Middle East, Africa, North America, Australia, and Asia. Matt has a deep passion for all things edtech. Contact him through mattharrisedd.com


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