#LearningScience – Why Learning Technology Fails To Deliver ROI

Today i am sharing a new section from the Learning Science work: this piece is not specifically about the Learning Science, but about why adoption of new learning technologies is often constrained, both in conception and practice. Sae and Geoff are both big fans of this framework, and bought it to our writing workshop. Exploring ‘Substitution’, ‘Augmentation’, ‘Modification’ and ‘Redefinition’, the SAMR model helps to explain why technology innovations in L&D too often produce disappointing Returns on Investment.

First popularised by Ruben Puentedura, the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition (SAMR) model is a simple, yet powerful way to think about the adoption of technology into any non-technology process.

It provides a lens you can use to do an audit on the learning technologies in use in your own organisation, to understand whether you and your learners are getting the maximum benefit from them (or not!), and to give you clues on how to fix it!

The model works for many types of technology adoption, but was originally envisioned specifically for learning technology, and probably remains one that we use the most often in our work.

It steps through 4 phases of technology adoption.

In the lower stages, the technology tries to replicate or enhance an existing human process, and in the latter stages, the process itself has been transformed and adapted to make optimum use of the technology. 

When we first adopt a new technology, we tend to SUBSTITUTE the new tools into old processes. For instance, when e-books first appeared, people substituted their paperbacks for e-tablets that digitally recreated the experience, and early e-learning tended to resemble a large scale lecture (stream of video), or a book (a “page turning” course). 

As we become more confident in our knowledge, and sophisticated in our approach, we may AUGMENT the original experience: for instance, adding search and digital highlighting capabilities to our e-book, or syncing bookmarks with the cloud.

In the case of e-learning, courses might include more complex interactivity and richer modes of learning.

However, in both this ‘augmentation’ case and in the ‘substitution’ case, the new technology provides only modest value over the original experience and may even be more costly or cumbersome than the legacy experience it replaced.

This is the stage where learning technology adoption often stops: it’s comfortable, and the human tasks being augmented reap some benefit (even if it’s modest) from the new methods over the earlier approaches.

This is OK, but if you are looking for a more radical transformation and to get maximum value from your investments in the new technology, then it’s worth considering the next steps.

At the MODIFICATION level, the activity in which the technology is used is significantly redesigned. In our e-book example, this might look like e-textbooks with embedded multimedia, instructor interactions, embedded social forums, and reading-level adaptation.

The training seminar they’re meant to support is changed from a traditional face-to-face meeting to a ‘flipped classroom’ style course, with a reduced amount of in-classroom time and a greater amount of self- and peer-driven learning. 

Learning platforms at this stage will almost certainly have left behind the concept of structured courses, and tracking course completions. They will be supporting knowledge sharing, working with study groups, sharing insights, etc. (Of course, this could manifest in various ways in practice, but our point from this illustration is that processes are substantively evolved to take advantage of the new capabilities afforded by the technology.)

Note that at ‘modification’ changes may be to ‘stop’ doing things, to leave something behind, not simply to add something in.

Finally, at the REDEFINITION level, the technology supports new tasks that were previously incon­ceivable.

Imagine an adaptive, multimedia e-textbook that also serves as an on-the-job reference manual, not only providing instructional information and just-in-time support but also enabling discussions and contextualised peer on-the-job mentoring and embedded augmented reality overlays (instead of simple images) that can be used in real performance contexts.

This is where the true innovations in workplace learning technologies and employee empowerment will be happening. It’s also a tough place to be, as your work and impact will be increasingly decoupled from the safety of known domains (the book or even the traditional e-book). This is the domain of revolution – as well as the domain of greatest ROI and market differentiation.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

The moral of this story is simple: to reap the benefits of innovation, an Organisation can’t simply replace one part of its L&D system with a new widget and hope for improvements.

Rather, we need to change the design of the given activity as well as the context surrounding the activity itself – perhaps affecting broad evolutions (or revolutions) across the Organisation. 

Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition – SAMR – provides a helpful framework to think about how you are using technology and where your constraints in mindset and opportunity lie.

It’s definitely a mistake to get stuck at the ‘S’ level. Aspire to climb the ladder towards ‘A’ then ‘M’. Each step will bring additional benefits. 

(And getting all the way to ‘R’, in practice, is not always achievable. But it’s the right aspiration)

Don’t use tomorrow’s tech to replicate yesterday’s methods.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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