The Building Blocks of Technology Integration

How do we effectively integrate technology into the learning experiences we are designing for our learners?

That’s a huge question, and one whose answer could have a large impact on education. Lots of research has been done in this area, but as an educator, scouring through a pile of research looking for the best tool or strategy isn’t always possible when trying to design one lesson plan or learning activity. This is where frameworks and models can come in handy.

“Standards, frameworks, models and theories are based on systematic (and peer-reviewed) research and offer ways to inform and guide K-12 teachers’ understanding and uses of technology in teaching.”

from Hamilton, Rosenberg and Akcaoglu’s critical review of SAMR

Frameworks don’t necessarily hand educator’s the answer to “should I use Tool A or Tool B?” on a platter, but a well-crafted framework can provide an educator with the variables they should be considering, or with a process to follow.

When it comes to technology integration in education frameworks, there are many to choose from, but two have risen to popularity: The Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework, and the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition (SAMR) framework. 

The Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework

The Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge Framework

The main premise of the TPACK framework is that there are three main components of teacher knowledge: content, pedagogy and technology. When implementing technology in educational contexts, an educator needs to consider all three components, and how all three components are inter-related.

I’m going to assume, with good faith, that an educator, by virtue of being an educator, already has a solid understanding of content and pedagogy, and skip over those sections. Technology, however, is newer, and constantly changing, meaning educators may not have the same level of knowledge and confidence in this area that they do with pedagogy and content.

According to TPACK, when it comes to technology, educators have to understand how the tech works in order to apply it effectively (ever had an instructor who spends more time troubleshooting than teaching?), be able to recognize whether technology is helping or hurting in the achievement of a goal, and be able to adapt to changes (including those dreaded system updates or disappearing products). They have to understand how various technologies afford or constrain the types of content that can be taught (Google Docs might be useful in a lesson about grammar, but probably isn’t all that helpful in a lesson about the order of mathematical operations), as well as understand the pedagogical affordances and constraints of a technological tool (the latest flashcard app might be great if your pedagogical method is drill-and-repeat, but not so useful if you’re trying to adopt an inquiry approach).

TPACK: Strengths and weaknesses

The TPACK framework directly addresses my number one EdTech issue: using technology for the sake of using technology. I’m beginning to feel like a broken record, but we so often get swept away by trends and gimmicks and forget about pedagogy and content. TPACK does a great job of reminding us of the importance of all three areas, reinforcing that content, pedagogy and technology all have roles to play, individually and together. Working in online learning, remembering and considering all three areas of the TPACK framework becomes increasingly important. People who are new to online learning, or who are creating an online course for the first time, often get so excited by the fact that they are able to offer content online that they forget all of their pedagogical knowledge, resulting in online courses that simply require a student to read, and maybe respond to a discussion question or two.

TPACK also, however, highlights for me the difference between an academic and a practitioner. This framework feels extremely academic, and beyond reminding me not to forget about pedagogy and content, doesn’t offer me a whole lot of support in implementing technology. While the framework informs me that having technology knowledge is important, it doesn’t provide me with any real guidance of what to think about. If I don’t HAVE technology knowledge, or don’t understand how technology influences pedagogy and content, this framework provides me with no real benefit.

The Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition (SAMR) framework

The Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition model

The goal of the SAMR model is to encourage educators to truly consider the impact that technology is having on learning. All technology is not equal, and neither is the impact that tech can have on tasks and outcomes.

The SAMR model classifies technology use into four categories based on how the technology impacts or changes the learning activities. Technologies that provide a substitution or augmentation for other learning activities are said to enhance learning. Technologies that modify or redefine the learning activity are said to transform learning.

  • Substitution: The technology provides a substitute for other learning activities without functional change.
  • Augmentation: The technology provides a substitute for other learning activities, but with a functional change
  • Modification: The technology allows the learning activity to be redesigned
  • Redefinition: The technology allows for the creation of tasks that could not have been done without the use of technology

The SAMR positives

The SAMR model feels much more practical than the TPACK model. In principle, it can easily be used to help an educator decide whether or not implementing a certain technology is worth the effort. Take, for example, an educator who typically has their students write papers using Microsoft Word, but is considering implementing Google Docs instead. This implementation would require consent and ensuring every student has an account. If the intention is simply for Google Docs to substitute for Microsoft Word, and students will still simply be expected to write, print, and submit their papers, it may be more trouble than it’s worth. But if the teacher is looking to augment the paper writing process by allowing collaboration between students, peer editing, and the ability for the teacher to easily check on paper progress, the effort involved in implementing the tech might be worth it.

Where tech can often be seen as some sort of knight in shining armour, the SAMR framework asks us to stop and more consciously consider the impact that the technology will have on the task and on the learning. If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m all for that.

SAMR is far from perfect

That being said, SAMR seems like far from a perfect framework. As noted in Hamilton, Rosenberg and Akcaoglu’s critical review of the framework, the four categories are ill-defined, and are therefore likely to be interpreted in different ways by different people. Because of this lack of strict definition, the framework’s utility is diminished. As someone who has often worked with strategic plans, I know how easy it can be to argue that an idea fits a specific category. In the case of SAMR, a teacher who is invested in implementing a particular technology may find ways to make it fit the modification or redefinition category, even when others, who are less attached, may place it in the substitution or augmentation category. Interestingly, when the authors of the critical review provided an example of the redefinition level, I found myself questioning whether I would have also defined that specific use of technology as redefinition (spoiler: nope).

The main criticism of SAMR, which the authors of the critical review come at from a number of different directions, is that it only focuses on the technology, and doesn’t include any other elements that are important in teaching, such as context, pedagogy, and learning outcomes. While this is an accurate point, I’m not sure it’s a valid criticism. While I value the inclusion of those elements, should we not be able to assume that teachers aren’t going to forget about the basics of teaching when implementing technology?


When I look at the two frameworks, TPACK and SAMR, it actually seems like they complement each other well. My major criticism of TPACK is that it’s not very concrete and doesn’t really provide any guidance on the technology itself. Meanwhile, this is SAMR’s strength. A major criticism of SAMR is that it doesn’t consider the context or pedagogy, but this is where TPACK shines. If we could merge the two frameworks, and have SAMR as a subset of the technology part of TPACK, we could have the best of both worlds! Admittedly, it would still be imperfect, but it seems like a step in the right direction. 

A different approach: The digital learning ecosystem

The digital learning ecosystem

Shortly after reading about TPACK and SAMR, I came across the Digital Learning Ecosystem framework while reading about digital equity. This framework immediately resonated with me, and I think it’s superior to both TPACK and SAMR.

The digital learning ecosystem “provides a holistic perspective of the mutually interdependent variables shaping a technology-enabled learning environment” (see textbook chapter). Similar to TPACK, the framework emphasizes that when using technology, an educator needs to think about factors beyond just the technology. However, the factors presented via the digital learning ecosystem are somewhat different than those in TPACK, and are presented in more depth. 

The digital learning ecosystem starts by placing learners at the centre of the ecosystem, emphasizing the important role that a learner’s previous experiences, content knowledge, skill level, technological literacy and emotional state can play in the outcomes of a learning activity. The framework also looks at outcomes as a broader concept than simply academic achievement, considering outcomes across four domains: academic, affective, behavioural and cognitive.

The framework then identifies two major spheres on influence that can shape the learner’s experience and outcomes: the technology and the learning context. While TPACK more or less stops here, the digital learning ecosystem then goes further, dividing each of those spheres into three categories. When it comes to technology, educators need to consider:

  • Infrastructure (i.e. bandwidth, services, storage and data hosting)
  • Access (i.e. the hardware required, time, place and frequency of access)
  • The specific features of a digital tool (i.e. how the content is presented, stored and revisited or how information is manipulated and shared).

When it comes to the learning context, educators need to consider:

  • The learning community (i.e. pedagogical values, norms and cultures, parent involvement, grade level, teacher experience)
  • Goals and objectives for learning (i.e. mastery of basic skills, higher order skills, or tech skills; influence learner behaviour, make or build something, explore interests)
  • The actual activity that learners engage in (i.e. content consumption, creation or sharing; use of interactive simulations or games).

Why the digital learning ecosystem takes the cake

There are so many reasons why I prefer the digital learning ecosystem over TPACK and SAMR.

  • It centres the learner. Since the work of an educator is all about the learner, it only makes sense that they should be a part of any framework about learning. And yet, they are often left out.
  • It incorporates elements of equity. The fact that the digital learning ecosystem requires us to consider the characteristics and experiences of the learner, addresses access and infrastructure, and incorporates consideration of the learning community, all make it more likely that an educator will consider and address digital equity issues when incorporating technology into their practice.
  • The digital learning ecosystem replicates the major positive of TPACK- the reminder that just because you are using technology doesn’t mean you can all the sudden forget everything that you know about education (i.e. pedagogy, content, context, and outcomes). While the digital learning ecosystem takes a slightly different approach to outlining what those other important factors are, the emphasis on non-tech factors is still strong.
  • The digital learning ecosystem also addresses the major drawback of TPACK- its lack of practical, useful information and tools for an educator. By breaking the spheres of both technology and context into three sub-categories, and providing examples of what to think about within each of those sub-categories, the framework provides practical considerations for educators, removing the framework from simply existing in the academic realm.
  • The digital learning ecosystem is an empirically grounded framework that was developed by identifying “the most critical elements as revealed in the research as they pertain to learning outcomes for students using technology.” Knowing that the framework wasn’t simply created by an academic living in a vacuum (as the author’s critical of SAMR seem to indicate SAMR was) makes me much more comfortable using the framework in my everyday practice. 


As an educator, frameworks can often feel academic, and like they don’t actually fit the context of the every day work that we do. All three frameworks here have something to offer: reminding us not to forget about content and pedagogy when introducing technology, asking us to think more deeply about the impact of the technology, and considering factors related to equity when incorporating tech. Only one of these frameworks offers all of those things at once: the digital learning ecosystem.

I know what I’m going to be putting up on my office wall.

Featured image by Caleb Angel on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

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