How class tech is like grocery shopping

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How class tech is like grocery shopping

We want to get the most out of our class technology the same way we do our grocery budget. Here are some ways to get the most bang for your tech buck. (Public domain image via

We want to get the most out of our class technology the same way we do our grocery budget. Here are some ways to get the most bang for your tech buck. (Public domain image via

Using tech in the classroom can be like shopping for groceries.

We shop with a list and a budget. We want to check off as many items on the list with the cash we have on hand.

If we’re careful, savvy shoppers, we can fill our shopping cart pretty full with what we have.

If we buy impulsively or carelessly, our cupboard will be a little more bare than the could have been.

In the end, whether it’s groceries or tech use, we want to get the most bang for our buck. In the classroom, sometimes it’s tough to know whether we’re leveraging technology to its potential.

I remember in my early years thinking that laptops in front of all of my students throughout the room was a good thing no matter what. However, some of the tasks they were doing were glorified, techy “drill and kill” tasks, just done on technology.

That opened my eyes to the idea that technology didn’t automatically improve learning in the classroom. I just didn’t have any way of evaluating how well it was being used.

Then I learned about SAMR, a model for evaluating tech use in the classroom, and my mind was blown. SAMR has been around for a long time. Much has been written about it, and educators have put their own unique spins on it (or created their own tech use models).

It’s still what I go back to time and time again.

What is SAMR?

The SAMR model. (Via

The SAMR model. (Via

If you’re not familiar with SAMR, here’s a quick overview:

  • It provides a range of tech use so you can self-assess how much technology is changing the game in your lesson.
  • It ranges from substitution, where technology hasn’t changed or improved your lesson at all, to redefinition, where it has let you and your students do what’s inconceivable without it.

To stick with the savvy shopping analogy, SAMR is kind of like a website where you can check the prices and quality of groceries so you get the best value.

What do I need to know about it?

I’ve learned a lot about SAMR through trial and error, reading blog posts about it and having conversations about its use. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

To get the most out of the SAMR model, here are some things worth considering:

1. You don’t have to reach redefinition all the time. When I first learned about SAMR, I wanted lessons where redefinition was reached every time. (I’m a bit competitive, so to me, that seemed like “winning.”) Redefinition is the level where you’re getting the most and best use out of your technology. However, it’s really hard to reach redefinition. It’s also not necessary to reach that level to have great lessons.

2. One person’s redefinition might be another person’s modification. When categorizing lessons in SAMR, there’s some gray area. It’s pretty clear if you’re trying to decide whether a lesson is at the substitution level vs. the redefinition level (two opposite sides of the spectrum).

3. It’s more like a swimming pool than a ladder. This was a mistake I’ve made. The SAMR chart even makes it look like a ladder. But the swimming pool analogy is much better. In many pools, there’s a shallow end and a deep end. You can get wet and test the water in the shallow end. It’s safe there. But some of the most fun activities require deeper water. The coolest stuff (like diving boards and water slides) are in the deepest part of the pool. You have to decide in what part of the pool you want to swim. Plus, you can swim in one part for a while and then go to another part when you’re ready for something else.

The biggest SAMR hurdle

I think the biggest struggle teachers have in implementing tech meaningfully is moving from the SAMR augmentation level to the modification level. Here’s why:

Moving from augmentation to modification is rough because you’ve got to start over. You can’t just plug some tech into an existing lesson to fancy it up.

It requires “significant task redesign.” And significant task redesign isn’t easy.

img_0727-2That’s because you have to blow your lesson up and start from scratch with its core values and objectives. When we create something totally new, we forfeit our comfort. Our familiarity. Our experience with what works.

But it’s exciting. This is where the magic happens. Where the lessons your students will remember are created. We can’t let our fears stand in the way of something amazing.

You’ll notice that there’s a dashed line between augmentation and redefinition in the SAMR model. Officially, it divides the whole model into two parts: enhancement and transformation.

I tend to think that dashed line is more like a 10-foot tall chain link fence with razor wire on top. It’s not crossed by the faint of heart.

How to cross that hurdle

Here are some ways to get across it:

  • Get crystal clear about your goals. Evaluate your previous lesson and think long and hard about things like this: What do you want your students to get from this lesson? What skills do you want them to exhibit or practice? How can you tell that they’ve learned? What does the real world expect from them?
  • Know the superpowers of your tech. Know what makes your apps, sites and digital tools great, what separates them from the rest. When you know what they do best, you’ll be better able to pair them up with what you want to accomplish.
  • Brainstorm lots of ideas. This might seem like overkill, but coming up with lots of potential options opens your mind. Those trains of thought will open up new thinking that you wouldn’t get if you only considered one idea. You’ll often end up with a better product if you imagine several first.
  • Keep the four C’s in mind. Those are communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. They’re the 21st Century skills that employers will covet in the future. The more we can squeeze those in (or arrange our activities around them), the better positioned our students will be to thrive in that uncertain, unknown future.
  • Always refer back to your objectives. If you create a cool new activity and you really like it, check back first to your objectives, your overall goals, your standards first. Double check that you’re reaching the finish line on the right course! If necessary, kill your darlings — the activity that you are in love with that doesn’t accomplish what your students really need.

Need some ideas? I wrote a post about 10 ways to reach SAMR’s redefinition level. Check them out, and if you have other ideas that can be added to the list, please write them in a comment.

Technology isn’t a silver bullet to solve all of education’s woes. But it is a powerful tool. It’s like tools in the hand of a carpenter. Without them, a carpenter can build little. But with the right tools, he/she can create marvelous structures that weren’t possible otherwise.

Be that classroom carpenter. Be a savvy teacher grocery shopper. Our students’ future will be brighter if we do.

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