Teaching online is always a moving target. If a particular technique or tool worked well in one class, it doesn’t mean it will work well in the next. Technology, student needs, and course materials change often, sometimes incrementally and other times in leaps and bounds. Also, it seems that the more technology evolves, the expectations of students grow as well. Oftentimes, we can get swept up in the magic of a new tech toy and forget to determine if and how it will actually benefit students.
Dr. Ruben Puentedura, former faculty at Harvard and Bennington College, and the founder of Hippasus, an educational consulting firm, introduced a model called SAMR to describe the path technology adopters often take as they develop their strategies in teaching and learning with technology over time. SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. The model looks like this:
The lower section of the model is the “Enhancement” stage, where technology is used to enhance what used to be analog measures. In moving the analog exercises into the digital realm, the path of innovation typically follows this continuum. The easiest tasks to do are at the lowest levels because the only thing that changes about the student’s tasks or your instructional strategy is the medium in which it happens. The highest section is the “Transformation” stage, where the fundamental nature of the work is changed due to the influence of technology, which enables new tasks to be created. Without technology, tasks in the transformative stage are impossible. For example, thirty years ago, asking college students to produce videos would have been a difficult task. Nowadays, if a student has access to a computer, they can produce videos for free, instantaneously. Widespread and inexpensive access to video production tools has fundamentally changed the nature of the tasks we ask of our students. So where do you and your instructional strategies stand on the SAMR model? How are you progressing?
The lowest level is Substitution, which refers to the simple task of substituting a technology-based solution for another. When you upload your syllabus as a Word document on to a course site, instead of printing individual copies, you are performing a substitution. Similarly, if you have students type out an assignment on a word processor, then print it out and hand it in to you, they have performed a substitution. Even using an e-book, which allows you to mark up your book and insert comments, is a substitution for using a highlighter and sticky notes on a paperback copy. Here’s a tricky one: synchronous online class meetings might seem to be a pretty high level task because they are impossible without computers and accompanying software, however, it is a substitution. Rather than attending a face to face class, you are attending a class online, where your instructor gives a lecture, and you raise your hand, comment on things and ask questions about readings and assignments. You are, in fact, substituting a face-to-face class for an electronic, live class. The only thing that has changed is the meeting location.
Augmentation offers some functional improvement over the old analog model. Online quizzes usually fall into this category. The ability to take a quiz that can be automatically graded, have randomized questions and answers, and provide aggregated statistical data instantly are marked improvements over the days when we had to manually compile our own statistics. Similarly, if you give students an assignment where they had to write on a word processor and submit electronically, they are completing this at the augmentation level rather than substitution because all-online creation and delivery of materials allows for some enhancements, such as online markup and grading.
The dotted line in the middle is a tough boundary to cross, because it indicates a movement beyond just enhancing traditional classroom activities into a realm where the tasks are reliant upon technology and the educational experience is transformed by the tasks themselves. Rather than the task being the medium through which learning can be attained, the task is the educational experience in and of itself. It is worth noting that the majority of activities you may do in an online class will be at the lowest two levels. Many things we do with an LMS are wonderful, and make the phenomenon of online teaching possible and really quite enjoyable for students and faculty, but if we look carefully at the activities, most are not fundamentally that different from what we did in our face to face classes before these options were available. So, on to Transformation!
The third level of the SAMR model is Modification, where technology allows the nature of the task to change significantly, and to be redesigned to fit a potentially different, richer outcome. The explosion of blogs and wikis over the past decade has made peer review and collaborative writing the norm rather than the exception, and it has transformed the notion of a writing assignment from something a student completes alone in a dorm room to a collaborative exercise wherein students can critique one another before the writing is turned in, putting the onus on the students to perfect their own techniques for one another and means that the fundamental writing questions an instructor will be asked will often be student-directed. The ability to tag and hyperlink rich media and Web resources to text transforms the reading of materials produced this way into a multi-modal experience where words and meaning can literally jump off a page.
Redefinition is the highest level, and is the most difficult to attain. At this level, the task is the experience, and to do is to learn. Let’s get back to that video example from earlier. Using computer technology that is widely available (and built into most computers these days), students can produce multimedia ranging from audio to screencasts and full-motion video. If we believe the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” we can use available video technology to tell quite a story in a shorter time. What was formerly a strict writing assignment could now easily take the form of a digital story or short film, where pictures and audio can have just as much or more impact than a written assignment. Couple that with the Web’s ability to share things everywhere in the world at once, and we have the possibility of international collaboration with students in other places, to share other perspectives on the same material. The classroom where students wrote on paper has now become one where they can create impactful multimedia and no longer has walls; the world is the classroom and their studio.
Take heart. It’s not essential to do everything at the highest level. You still have to post your syllabus, like it or not, and this will probably never be a transformative learning experience for your students. Still, it’s worth looking through your class, and identifying two kinds of activities.
- First, find the activities that you enjoy teaching the most, and see if there are ways you can expand those into the transformative realm, or at least take them up a rung.
- Then, go look for the activities you enjoy the least, that never work quite right no matter how much you wish they would.
Those are also great candidates to push forward on, as they can move from being the activities you hate to activities you look forward to. You don’t have to do it all at once either; try picking one for your next class, and another for the next. It will take a lot of time and thought, but the experience for you of designing, and for your students of doing, are tremendously valuable. You’ll know you’re done when you can’t recognize what you do in your current course compared to what you used to do.
Things are going to get a little messy if you go this way. But I promise you, you will enjoy the process, and the output from your students a whole lot more.