SAMR: A Model for Assessing How Technology Affects Education (which I think obscures the most important use of technology in education)

Updated Summary: The SAMR Model provided one insight: there are new things to be done not just new ways of doing the old things. But, in its hierarchy, it erroneously devalued the enormous power of doing some old things in new ways. In this, it was just an insight, it should never have claimed to be a model.


Do you know the SAMR Model for assessing the impact of technology in the classroom? It’s a popular model and while it illuminates some points, I think it obscures some others. It’s interesting to use it to evaluate VocabularySpellingCity’s impact on learning both because of what the SAMR Model highlights and because of what the SAMR model misses.

To summarize, the SAMR model emphasizes that technology can be used not just to automate and augment current practices but it enables who new possibilities.  I’d totally agree with this.  But in emphasizing the possibilities of whole new approaches, it skips the revolution that could happen from some really significant uses of technology to substitute and augment.

Today, our track record on getting kids to a successful level of literacy by third grade is tragically low. Tragic because the life outcomes for students who are not effectively reading by third grade is tragic.  Getting the resources and technology to the lower grades to give the students the foundational literacy skills they need is, I think, the greatest challenge.  I’m totally absorbed and committed too. There is a lot of value in using technology so that the preliterate students have the technology to build the skills that they need.

Sound It Out: Sound Letter Correspondence

Example of How Technology Can Build Critical Sound Letter Correspondence Skills at the lower levels of SAMR

What is the SAMR Model?

SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. It’s a model that helps teachers reflect upon the use of technology in the classroom. It was developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura.

Dr. Puentedura believes that the way technology is used in the classroom can be broken into these four different categories comparing the educational practice with technology to traditional educational practices. Puentedura creates a hierarchy or scale of four categories. On the low end of the scale (Substitution), learning tasks use technology but the task and learning are essentially the same with or without technology. On the higher end of the scale (Redefinition), tasks use technology for educational processes that could not have been realized without technology.

The Four Levels of the SAMR Model

Substitution is the use of technology in a way that is functionally the same as traditional methods. For example, a substitution level activity might involve students printing out a worksheet from the computer, filling it out, and handing it in to the teacher.

Augmentation is the use of technology in a way that offers some functional improvement on traditional methods. On this level, students might use a form or program to complete a worksheet task on the computer and submit it electronically.

In Modification, the use of technology allows for a significant redesign of the students’ task. A project at this level might enhance a traditional writing project by making it an audio/visual presentation that is made and played for an audience.

Finally, Redefinition presents learners with a task that would be inconceivable without the technology. This level allows for collaborative projects. For example, one class might collaboratively make a documentary video, researching and producing different parts and contacting outside experts to help.

How Would VocabularySpellingCity Position on a SAMR Analysis?

At VocabularySpellingCity, games and activities fit into a number of different areas depending in some part on how they are used.

Substitution – There are some activities in which VocabularySpellingCity simply substitutes for nontechnical solutions. Before, teachers had to print out lists and give them to students to study. A teacher can now just say that the students will find the words on the teacher’s home page on VocabularySpellingCity. In both cases, the students receive lists from teachers.

Augmentation – While the process of taking a spelling test or vocabulary test on VocabularySpellingCity appears the same as when the teacher was reading the list (which would be Substitution), the educational impact of receiving immediate feedback on correct and incorrect answers, moves it to the Augmentation category. A vital element in learning is timely feedback and focused study. With VocabularySpellingCity’s technology, students can take formative tests, get immediate useful feedback on their errors and what words they need to study, and continue studying until they have it right. The studying itself can use technology since TeachMe reads and shows the word, letter by letter, which evokes two learning modalities. This individualized student-centered learning process did not exist without the use of technology. When the student uses the phonics activities in which each sound can be individually highlighted and heard, the learning task is both augmented and modified.

Modification – A large number of VocabularySpellingCity Premium teachers deploy the ability to allow students to create, save, and study their own personal lists. I hear from many teachers that they tell students that as they read, they should make a list of words that they encounter that they don’t fully understand or which they find interesting.

While this educational task could have been assigned and accomplished without technology, hence substitution, the capabilities of VocabularySpellingCity for the student to study independently include the ability of the student to hear:

  • the new word spoken by a person
  • said in a sentence
  • broken down into its sounds  with the corresponding letters highlighted
  • segmented into syllables

These capabilities moves this task of students having personalized word lists to either an augmentation or modification level. The technology to cover these steps in learning would take too much teacher time to have been feasible without technology. Also, with VocabularySpellingCity’s technology, the students can be held accountable for learning these words either through having them take tests or write original sentences for each word using the Sentence Writing Activity.

What Does SAMR Leave Out?

The SAMR model is an analytical tool making the point that technology opens up new possibilities and should not necessarily be used to recreate the same education tasks but with technology. However, I believe the emphasis on the structure of hierarchy obscures the significance of increases in productivity which make personalized learning feasible.

In using VocabularySpellingCity’s technology, teachers see significant gains for their students for many tasks which the SAMR model would suggest are just substitution. But, the substitution often allows the student to learn on their own as if they had 100% of the teacher’s focus. Yes, a teacher could read a word sound by sound to a student, just like VocabularySpellingCity, but in the real world of limited resources, students can receive this personal attention from a teacher at best for a few minutes a day (or week) and not necessarily when they need it.

VocabularySpellingCity creates productivity gains through putting many capabilities into the students’ hands. The SAMR model tends to obscure the impact of this by focusing on the question of whether the task is new, not on the immediacy and control by the student.

Three Questions for Educational Tasks that Use Technology that are Obscured by SAMR:

  • Will the technology engage and motivate learners? If students are motivated to work, they’ll learn necessary material that much faster.
  • Will technology increase learners’ productivity? Increased productivity leaves more learning time for other types of tasks.
  • Will technology save time for teachers? Teachers who have less busywork can spend more time engaging with students.

At VocabularySpellingCity, we take these questions seriously when we consider how technology is improving learning. Here’s what we’ve found:

  • Games and activities on VocabularySpellingCity engage students and motivate them to practice. They don’t put it off; they choose to do it first. And studies show more practice leads to greater success.
  • The immediate feedback students receive while playing the games leads to higher productivity. This frees up more classroom time for other learning activities.
  • Teachers save time with VocabularySpellingCity’s grading and recordkeeping features. What a boon to have more time with students!

Though these questions and factors might not be considered in the SAMR model, I believe they are important ways that technology is improving spelling and vocabulary education today.

My Takeaway

SAMR is an interesting way to think about learning activities that include technology, but in primarily concentrating on the task differences with and without technology, the model has left out considerations in the use of technology with today’s learners.

P.S.  The SAMR model also overlooks the productivity gains for teachers which is a topic for another day but I would like to say that I think increasing teacher productivity is an important part of the equation. There is something wrong with teachers having to manually grade and record routine exercises. Yes, the computer does exactly the same as what the teacher does in terms of grading a vocabulary assessment, recording the results, and returning the info to the student but still, it’s 2015 and surely computers should be substituting for teachers on these essentially administrative tasks. And students learn better when the feedback is immediate and when the activity feels gamified.


The SAMR Model and VocabularySpellingCity

6 thoughts on “The SAMR Model and VocabularySpellingCity

  • July 7, 2016 at 4:17 am

    I will be presenting Spelling City in a workshop and was looking for ways to use it for incorporating higher learning skills. You just made my job easier….and I love how you relate it to the SAMR model. I hadn’t thought about it before, but you are so right about the instant feedback and putting learning in the students’ hands. Motivation and being in control of their own learning are very powerful tools. I hope you don’t mind if I use information in your article for my presentation! Thank you so much!


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