Redefining Learning Without Computers

Repurposing available tools in new and innovative ways to transform learning

We’ve all had those days when technology doesn’t cooperate, leaving that innovative lesson plan we’ve worked so hard on to fall apart. I crafted a differentiated lesson using a popular web-based educational technology (ed tech) software for a drawing unit. Enthusiasm quickly dissipated when 32 of my 36 students couldn’t even access the Internet.

As I reflected on this disastrous day of teaching, I was reminded of an ed tech reality that presents a popular dilemma: using netbook laptops does not necessarily produce learning in the classroom, using expensive tablets and LMS systems do not guarantee learning in the classroom, and teachers cannot simply substitute technologies for traditional instructional methods and expect results. Results come from transforming instructional learning experiences to engage students on deeper levels and give significance to content.

Obstacles in Ed Tech

Reflecting on days like the one above has motivated me to share a positive experience that illustrates how it’s possible to weave technology into classrooms to achieve mastery and engagement. The following examples illustrate that despite roadblocks we too often encounter, teachers can successfully integrate technology to transform instruction.

Many educators do not realize that any tool repurposed to achieve a more efficient and engaging learning experience is educational technology. A piece of paper repurposed for use as an argumentative brochure is technology. A whiteboard used as a hands-on “chalk talk” symposium is technology. Educational technology does not have to involve high-end computers or tablets—any device used for instruction can be repurposed as new technology. Having a misunderstanding of educational technology is common, often causing hesitation and a general sense of overwhelming pressure.

Fear and failure are inevitable as teachers expand their instructional repertoire. Educational technology is no different. Take for example the collapse of my LMS drawing unit. Innovative, yes, but successful in reaching and engaging all of my students, definitely not.

With American schools spending billions of dollars on classroom technology, the fear of failure cannot handicap teachers as they plan their learning experiences. Educators need to buy in to the idea that through the use of technology (computers as well as whiteboards), they can meaningfully redesign and redefine learning to further engage and connect students to the world around them.

Transforming lessons using educational technology is ideal. But what if your school doesn’t have access to computers, multimedia software, cameras, wireless Internet, or resources on ed tech? Redefinition is still possible.

Redefining Learning without Computers

By transforming ed tech in our classrooms, we can completely redesign learning experiences, making them more meaningful for our students. To support this shift, Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model presents a way to weave all levels of ed tech seamlessly into our curriculum. The end goal for the SAMR model is to redesign instruction by providing students higher levels of understanding through educational technology while making connections to 21st century learning skills. The model is a laddered progression between substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition. No rung of the ladder is necessarily bad to stand on; teachers will spend time on each step no matter how ingrained technology is in their curriculum.


In October 2016, six teachers in my building had committed to collaboratively organize a Community Night event that led to redefined learning experiences throughout the grade levels. These projects represented a diverse sampling of technology in the classroom: there were multimedia PSAs created using computer technology and animation platforms, five-foot tall painted murals, and 213 ceramic bowls created with the intent to raise money. Not every teacher used traditional technology to showcase student learning; teachers repurposed available tools in new and innovative ways, redefining the educational experience for our students.

Science Fair

To showcase sixth grade student success and mastery of science curriculum, students worked in pairs to create a project relating to content. This project required students to substitute books for digital research to expand content knowledge, modify poster boards to illustrate their learning through visual media, augment the Google Drive system to collaborate with their peers digitally, and supplement traditional invitations with tweets sharing information about the event.

In other words, the science teacher used various forms of technology to create a completely new task that was previously inconceivable and provided greater learning than a test. The majority of these projects used repurposed materials found in a science lab to prove their findings; expensive technology, again, not necessary.

Hunger PSAs

To engage the eighth grade class, teachers focused on reading articles and doing math activities on the statistics of hunger locally and throughout the country. To extend learning beyond the confines of an assessment’s rigid structure, students created public service announcements focused on hunger issues, connecting course content to meaningful real-world issues. Teachers redefined iMovie and other web-based technology to provide a project that was previously inconceivable without access to technology. Students’ PSAs and other multimedia projects were displayed on a projector during Community Night.

Empty Bowls

The hunger epidemic is an unwanted guest in the homes of many of our district’s students. To reduce and eliminate hunger in the community, the students and I organized an Empty Bowls Fundraiser to raise money to donate to the local food bank. Empty Bowls ( is a community-based service project in which students create a bowl out of clay, then host an event where family, friends, or people from the community come and purchase a bowl. With the purchase of a bowl, they will be given a meal of soup and bread, and 100% of the proceeds benefit a charity working to end hunger. Guests are asked to keep their bowl as a symbol of the empty bowls around the world.

To inspire student creativity and compassion, art students discussed the issue of global and local hunger. Students brainstormed how they could make a difference in the fight to end hunger and participated in the planning and organization of the event. Each grade had different inspiration for the design of their bowls; all required research and brainstorming. I integrated technology intermittently through the project, augmenting demonstration videos as differentiated instruction and modifying the students’ sketchbooks to be interactive “inspiration boards.” Students redefined their own learning with non-digital technology as they found new uses for everyday art room materials: toothpicks to carve designs in their bowls, the texture a popsicle stick makes when it’s pushed into the clay, using a PVC pipe to cut perfect circles as decorations, and so on.

Instruction was on all levels of the SAMR ladder throughout this process. The Empty Bowls project was a tool I redesigned that allowed for the creation of a completely new task: redefining content (how to use clay) into an empathetic, powerful learning experience for students (no expensive computers or tablets necessary). Student learning was pushed beyond the content knowledge of clay building and the art curriculum to actually organize an event that demonstrated the students’ ability to connect old and new learning while developing an important empathetic perspective.

Pulsera Project

To build on the art students’ hunger study, the seventh grade Spanish and social studies teachers teamed together to design a learning experience based on the economic disparity between five dollars in America and Central American countries. Instead of writing an essay to assess mastery of these concepts, teachers redefined the learning experience by letting students collaborate using various forms of technology to illustrate their understanding of the wealth imbalance. Students created multimedia projects such as murals, animation videos, and digital infographics to demonstrate what they learned about the value of a dollar and costs of living.

Additionally, students sold bracelets through the Pulsera Project (, a nonprofit organization that educates, empowers, and connects Central American artists with students in more than 1,600 U.S. schools through the sale of colorful handwoven bracelets, or “pulseras” in Spanish. Seventh grade students set up a sales table during lunch for a week leading up to the Community Night event, selling bracelets to their peers. The majority of sales came from the constant flow of guests who attended Community Night, purchasing bracelets from the brightly decorated table run by volunteer students.

Again, learning was augmented, modified, and redefined through the use of traditional technology (i.e., netbook laptops) and repurposed tools that became new technology (i.e., large paper rolls used to create murals). In a cross-curricular effort, teachers redesigned a unit focused on currency and Spanish cultures into a significant learning experience that pushed students to connect their classwork to the outside world and implement real, positive change.

Community Engagement and Technology

With the complete transformation of learning and instruction across the building, Community Night was a tremendous success. Teachers and students raised more than $3,000 to aid local and global efforts to improve living conditions and provide essential food items to those without. The building was abuzz with family members, students past and present, the city’s mayor, local newspaper reporters, and district personnel. The turnout was greater than that of fall parent-teacher conferences. And to think, the technology used to make this Community Night experience possible varied dramatically—from online design platforms to a bag of clay. The teachers in my building truly understood that educational technology can be anything substituted, augmented, modified, or redefined to design a deeply meaningful learning experience for students.

SAMR Model Resources

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura’s, “SAMR: Beyond The Basics”

Introduction to the SAMR Model.

SAMR Model – Technology Is Learning.