Unit 4: Assessing the value of tools

The concept

S.T. Gill, Nuggeting Eagle Hawk Bendigo | State Library of Victoria Picture Collection

In the race to keep up with new online resources, and the often relentless external pressure to adopt the next big thing, sometimes we forget to ask the most obvious question: why are we using these tools?

We all know it’s impossible to stay abreast of every new tool and even difficult to find time to master those important to our work. But do we have to explore every new tool?

It might feel that way, but the answer is no.


Excitement around Web 2.0 in education and libraries over the past decade has led to some confusion about how we choose to teach and learn. Instead of beginning with the task or a problem we have to solve, we’re encouraged to start with the tool.

Let’s use Twitter in the classroom! It’s great! Yes, but is it the best tool for the task at hand? Is it doing something that couldn’t be done any other way? For example, Twitter can create international learning networks for students where they ask academics, experts and peers questions and glean valuable information from the Twitter stream. But it might not be the best tool for a primary school writing lesson…

Just as you can use bricks, wood or hay bales to build a house – all with very different results – you can also choose how you combine conventional and web based tools to complete a task or solve a problem, especially if you’re using them with students. The question is choice, and the criteria we use to make those choices.

This post from Will Richardson asks if modern personal computing devices augment education.  He argues that without transformative teaching, technology in schools is like having a piano in every classroom but all students can play is Chopsticks. He also quotes Alan Kay, computing pioneer and researcher at Viewpoints Research Institute:

We want to start with the teaching and learning of old and new “powerful ideas”; create much better human-computer environments that allow for authoring, sharing and representing the new ideas; create new user-interfaces that can help children and adults “learn and do” the new ideas; and, invent new, fundamental computing technologies to serve as the raw material for the next stage of the computer revolution.

Innovation in teaching and learning comes from the complexity and pedagogical rigour of  tasks set by educators, not simply through the use of Web 2.0. Recent technologies do empower us to give students challenging, motivating and real world tasks but they can only ever be as good as we make them. The tool, whether it be a mobile, iPad, an app or paper and pencil, is still just a tool.

The process behind choosing how we apply new teaching and learning tools is at the core of educational planning. So how do we use technology in an innovative way while being mindful of time constraints, best practice and the ever changing nature of the web? How do we future-proof our thinking? And how do we best equip our students to make the same kinds of choices in the future – in the classroom and beyond?

Assessment tools

In this unit we’ll be looking at three frameworks for evaluating web tools – SAMR, TPACK and a ‘category’ model. Although designed for educators, these models inform any use of technology, be it educational, professional or personal.

This video of Ruben Puentedura, creator of the SAMR model, gives an overview of the three frameworks. (It runs just over 12 minutes, so make yourself comfy.)


SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. This assessment model focuses on how technology changes a task and the impact that then has on student outcomes. Each web tool could fit into more than one of SAMR’s categories as the key to changing the learning is not the tool itself but the way it’s used.

Substituting a web tool for a conventional learning tool has little or no impact on the task performed by learners. For example, using an iPad for word processing doesn’t change the nature of a writing task.

Augmentation makes functional improvements – for example, checks spelling, includes images and text, makes a task quicker or more efficient but again the task is essentially the same.

Source: Ruben R. Puentedura Ph.D, SAMR and TPCK in Action, 2011 http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/archives/2011/10/28/SAMR_TPCK_In_Action.pdf

The interesting part of the framework is the transformative stage – Modification and Redefinition. When a learning task is ‘modified’, the heart of the task remains the same but the learning looks different. For example, a simple writing task includes tables and charts from Excel, hyperlinked images and text, and then is emailed to the teacher. This level begins to improve outcomes for students.

Finally at the Redefinition level the task is redesigned to take full advantage of the unique possibilities technology affords – social media, digital storytelling, collaboration. For example, a small group with participants from different schools collaborates on a writing task in real time using Google docs.

Bear in mind that web tools don’t fit into specific levels of this model – the task defines the learning. Blogging could be an augmentation exercise if the blog is set to private and marked by the teacher. But a blog used to connect to local community groups or students in other schools working on similar projects redefines the task.


Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org

TPACK is a framework for planning that gives equal weight to content knowledge, pedagogy and technology. You may know how to play the guitar (content knowledge) and how to teach music (pedagogy) but you may not know how to use Garage Band to record and edit what you play (technological learning).

The idea behind TPACK is that you can’t ignore any one of the three areas when planning curriculum. Content, technology and pedagogy must all be taken into consideration at every stage.

The dashed circle around the Venn diagram (above) labelled ‘Contexts’ indicates that TPACK looks different in different learning environments – primary, secondary, higher education, or adult training.

Category model

This as yet unnamed model from the creator of SAMR, Ruben Puentedura, looks at five different categories of web tool.

  • Social – tools that allow us to share with others including Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and Pinterest
  • Mobility – tools that take advantage of mobile technology and its ability to create content directly linked to the physical environment
  • Visualisation – tools that take abstract ideas and give them a concrete form like graphic organisers and timeline generators
  • Storytelling – digital storytelling, audiovisual and multimedia tools and anything that  lets you tell a story and potentially create interactivity
  • Gaming – tools that add ‘stakes’, that is something to win or lose in order to motivate the learner.

This model doesn’t however cover the enormous range of organisational tools available online, so we’ve added this category to our aggregated list.

We’ll use these categories to explore different web tools in the Unit 4 assignment.

Go to the next task – Evaluate an online tool

Go back to the Unit 4 overview.