Skip the Digital Substitution – Get a Higher Return on Investment

I was on a Google Apps message board and I saw a question that I had seen way too often, it was asking how someone could digitize a worksheet.  They just wanted to convert the paper worksheet into something their students could fill out on an iPad or computer.  They weren’t asking how to improve the learning experience, just digitize it.  This is a prime example of the Substitution level of SAMR where no new functionality or learning is happening.  While some would say this is a good place to start for some people, I am starting to believe that we need to start skipping the substitution level so we can actually get a return on investment of our time and energy.

Right now I am having some people do some work on my house.  We are doing a remodel of our shower and it is not only going to look better and function better, we are going to get more money when/if we sell our house.  This project is worth the time and the money we are putting into it because we are going to get something back.  There are other projects we can do in the house but they will not all result in a higher value house or a better functioning house, they just will change the looks of it.  They would not be worth our time or our money.

Apply this to learning how to use technology to improve our learning.  Taking the time and effort to digitize a worksheet or any other act of digital substitution is not really going to be worth your time or energy.  The student learning that will take place will not improve so it will be change for only change sake.  If you are going to change something and want to actually improve the learning, there are some things you can do that will have a much higher return on investment.  My top 3 are as follows:

  • Improve Your Feedback Using Digital Tools

Grades and scores are not effective feedback when we want students to improve their cognitive skills.  While they may be the quickest way to give some feedback, they are not going to give students much in the way of how they can improve.  Two students can get the same score or grade on something and yet have completely different things to work on in order to improve.  We need to make sure we are giving quality feedback instead of just quantity.

We can use digital tools to help improve the feedback we give to students.  We can use the tools built into a Google Doc to start a conversation and assist the student in improving instead of just giving them the answer.  Leaving comments that contain questions or suggestions are much better than just marking it wrong or right. We can use audio tools, like Kaizena, to leave audio feedback so more information can be given in a shorter amount of time.  We can even go a step further and use video tools, like Movenote or Snagit, to give even more information that can help the student learn.  The better the feedback we give to students, the more likely they are to improve and not need that same feedback again.  If you give quick feedback that is not effective, you will more than likely have to give that same feedback again and again.

  • Go Beyond the Textbook

Now that our students have access to all sorts of resources online, we can finally leave the textbook on the shelf and have our students use those resources that work best for them.  A textbook is static and limited in what it can do, it can not differentiate for different students and it is not interactive.  I was very happy to leave my textbooks behind when my students got access to digital devices as my science textbooks were not up to date, they still had Pluto as a planet and had no information about the process involved in that.  There was so much it was missing and it was only written for one level of student, and not my students as we did not live in Texas or California.  I spent the time, which did not have to be a lot, to curate resources for my students that would meet their individual needs and allow them to have some choice over what they used.

Curation tools make this a very simple task to curate resources for students and we can even teach students how to curate better for themselves.  Flipboard, Evernote, Symbaloo, Digg, and many others all allow you to curate resources and place them in a collection for students to use.  A lot of them, like Flipboard, even allow you to collaborate with others in the curation process to make it more effective.  There are also resources like that have free, digital texts for students to use if you still want a large collection that you can combine with your own curated resources.  You now have the resources at your fingertips that will place the textbook into the correct place for it, on the shelf as a resource instead of the only resource students have.

  • Give Students Choice

One of the most impactful things we can use technology to do is to increase student choice and ownership of their learning.  This means that they have options and can help direct their learning instead of everything being decided for them.  We still need to help students understand how to be effective learners and provide guidance but students should have more ownership of their learning and that starts by giving them choices.  Choice in how they learn and choice in how they show their learning are the cornerstones that can be integrated into every learning environment.  While we still may have structures in place for the whole school, it is the classroom level that we can focus our efforts on for now.

The one fear that I have heard the most is that some teachers do not want to have their students choose something that they are not the expert in.  This is why they stick to giving writing assignments or multiple choice tests as the only way to express their learning.  The thing is though, that if you give students the choice to pick how they want to express their learning, as long as they meet certain requirements or standards, they do not need you to be the expert on the tool that they choose.  There are so many resources out there to help students along the way, including other students, that they can choose a tool that you know nothing about as long as they understand that choice comes with the responsibility to keep learning and not get stopped when they run into an issue with the tool.  We can truly let our students show what they are capable of and let them include their own passions just by giving them the option and the ability to make that choice for themselves.


No matter what, we should never use technology just to say we use technology.  We need to make sure that we are spending our time and energy wisely and are focusing on getting a bigger return on investment.  Skip the substitution stage and look for better ways that truly improve the learning environment and experience for students.  You may even find yourself enjoying your classes more as this happens.

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