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Unpacking the SAMR Model: Overview & Substitution

By: The PAVE Academy


The SAMR Model, an acronym for the four stages the model outlines (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification & Redefinition) and was developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the founder and president of Hippasus, a consulting firm based in Western Massachusetts in the United States of America. This model identifies four different stages or degrees of classroom technology integration and how it can impact on students learning and over the next 4 articles, we are going to unpack each stage, what they mean and what they look like in the classroom.

One common error, however, is that this model is often seen as a ladder and that for true digital integration in the classroom, teachers should be looking at how they can transform their digital learning experiences so that they all sit at the top of the model in the “redefinition” level – this, however, is not the case. The SAMR Model is about identifying the most appropriate approach, and therefore the most appropriate “level” of the SAMR model to work towards when you are designing lessons that include digital content in your classroom. It can therefore be suggested that instead of thinking of the SAMR Model as a ladder as shown in Figure 1, maybe you think of it as a spectrum or a cycle, as shown in Figure 2.

The takeaway

Over this and the following articles, we will unpack the meaning of each of these different stages of the SAMR model and explore what they look like in the classroom. We will also provide some prompting questions that you can use for reflection to help you think about how you might explore incorporating the SAMR Model into your students’ digital learning experiences.

Stage 1


Substitution can be seen as the simplest stage of the SAMR Model, a fundamental replacement of traditional learning mediums with digital technology solutions to create efficient and economic strategies in the classroom. It can be argued that by employing digital solutions to lessons, teachers can increase student engagement in the learning while reducing the laborious physical tasks traditionally seen in classrooms, the pen and paper style tasks that sees teachers printing out endless copies of worksheets and then having to lug them around between classroom and their office for correction. Substitution can also be seen as an effective entry point for teachers to incorporate digital elements into their lessons – introducing “soft technology skills” into their classroom as a starting point for exploring the digital work in learning. Either way, when I hear people talking about the SAMR model, many speak of the first stage, Substitution with a grimace on their face. Digital technology education elitists think Substitution is a dirty word and that it is not true digital integration in the classroom, but both I and the SAMR Model disagree. . But before I start unpacking my thinking around this stage, let’s explore what it means.

If you look up the word substitute in the dictionary, you will find that it means “a person or thing acting or serving in place of another” or to something of that effect, with substitution being “the act of replacing one thing with another”, and with only this as the basis of understanding, I can see why some people argue that Substitution is not a legitimate form of digital integration in learning and that it is just a replacement for traditional learning processes. To put substation in context, a drama teacher has their class writing a practice journal. Traditionally the teacher had the students writing their journal in their class workbook and would hand them into the teacher for assessment and review, but has instead moved this element of the lesson to a Word Document and the student submits this document to the teacher via email for assessment and review. This is a direct substation and a prime example of how the substitution element has been applied moving a traditional writing task into a digital task. Another example is that as a part of a grade 3 research project on the Gold Rush, students are required to create a poster that outlines some of the key ideas that they have been learning, but instead of creating a traditional poster, the student creates a digital flyer that is submitted to the teacher via email.

Substitution doesn’t always have to be changing the ways in which the student engages in the learning activity, it can apply to the way in which teachers interact with students as well.

A year 11 Music teacher who assess students performances traditionally writes notes on a page and gives that feedback to the student at the end of the performance, but as an alternative, the teacher replaces the notes with an audio recording of their voice which outlines their feedback and this is sent to the student for review. Another example is a university lecturer who traditionally stands at the front of a lecture hall and speaks to a class for 30 minutes on the topic of economic development in 3rd world or developing countries, instead records the lecture and creates a podcast that was shared with the students and they “consume” the learning through this digital substitution. In all instances, the function and the background design of the task have not changed only the medium of how it is being delivered; substituting a digital medium in place of a traditional paper-based option.
In the examples provided above, the learning events designed by the teacher didn’t require the functionality to move any further than a direct teacher to student (or vice versa) transfer of information and therefore substation in this fashion is more than appropriate and this is the very reason why thinking of the SAMR model as a spectrum as opposed to a ladder is important.

If we revisit Figure 2 (shown above) we can see that the Substitution stage is depicted by a person rowing a boat across the surface of the water and this image (and all the others in that infographic) relate directly to the learning intentions outlined by the activity being set by the teacher. If the teacher sets a task that needs to demonstrate straight student understanding without any functional improvement, and they choose to use or substitute a digital tool like a Microsoft Word Document instead of a traditional workbook method then that is perfectly appropriate. It is the same as saying that if you need to travel from one side of the lake to the other, without needing to explore under the water, then a rowboat is the perfect tool to use to achieve that outcome. Yes, someone snorkeling, scuba diving, or driving a submarine can cross the lake too, but the added complexity is not required to get the functional element of the task done, and therefore it is not required.
What am I trying to say? Well, it is all about the design of the learning activity and what you, as the teacher is wanting to get out of the student for that lesson. Using a digital substation is perfectly ok if it helps the students to achieve the learning outcome that you want to achieve. Keeping with the analogy, if you want the students to just get from one side of the lake to the other then a rowboat is more than appropriate. If you want them to explore what’s under the water, then a rowboat is not going to cut it and we need to move into the other realms of the SAMR Model.


Substitution in the Classroom examples

  • Collecting student data through digital forms instead of traditional written surveys
  • Students typing their work instead of handwriting it
  • Students typing their work instead of handwriting it
  • Using quiz software instead of pen and paper style assessments
  • Uploading learning resources as a PDF for student access, as opposed to photocopying
  • Using an interactive whiteboard as opposed to a traditional whiteboard and saving the results as a document
  • Creation of a slide show instead of a poster
  • Collection & analysis of student assessment data in a spreadsheet instead of a traditional teacher grade book.

Questions that can drive your integration of the Substation into the learning in the classroom and can spark professional discussions with your colleagues.


What is the learning outcome that you are trying to achieve from this task? Can this same learning outcome be achieved with a digital medium?


What output do you expect to see from a student at the end of this learning task? Can the students achieve the same output using a digital medium?


What physical learning resources do you need to “create” or “collect” for the student to complete the task? Can you use a digital solution that cuts down on the physical resources needed?


What are some areas where the traditional method of teaching this lesson lacks in efficiency and economy? Can this be solved with a digital solution?


What existing learning activity that happens in your classroom could be easily transferred into the digital domain using substitution with little fuss or hassle?