How the RAT model can help you think about using a digital technology to enhance a learning scenario

I love a bit of technological innovation, but sometimes the new shiny app you've downloaded just seems to replicate what you can do in real life without adding much improvement - or sometimes makes things even worse rather than better! It's all too easy to get caught up in the hype about some new app or websites offerings without really thinking deeply about whether it's going to make things better or worse.

This is particularly true in education, where lots of techs have been hyped over the decades, with each in turn failing to make any discernible improvement in learning outcomes for students. The latest fad is now Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality, which I'm confident will return much the same value on investment as it's predecessors.

How the RAT model helps

The RAT model, which stands for Replacement, Amplification and Transformation, is a useful way of trying to frame up these technological innovations, and can help you to understand whether or not they're something worth pursuing. It's similar to the SAMR model (Substitution, Amplification, Modification, Redefinition), but I think the simpler RAT model is easier to use in practice. I'm a specialist in this field, and still struggle sometimes with whether something is substitution, augmentation, modification of redefinition when using SAMR - the simpler RAT model generally works better in my opinion.
As can be seen in the diagram, the RAT model basically has three stages: tech is either replacing a real world process without really changing anything, amplifying a real world process in some way by making things more efficient or effective, or actually introducing a new way of carrying out a real world process that would be impossible without the tech.

A simple example: parking your car

If you're anything like me you'll have a small container somewhere in your car overflowing with coins, that are there for the sole purpose of paying for parking when you're out and about. Trouble is, I rarely use them anymore - instead I have a growing assortment of apps, all vying to be the one app to pay for all my parking needs. Trouble is, going back to the RAT model, they're almost all just replacement technologies.
  • Usually you still have to go to the ticket machine in the car park to get the number for the car park, so you make exactly the same journey that would with your coins - it's just replacement. It doesn't really offer anything new for you, though perhaps makes things easier for the company!
  • Some may add some minor enhancements which are handy, for example the ability to remotely extend your stay once you're parked, but again this is hardly ground breaking. It's amplification. It's improved efficiency without fundamental change.
  • But there is one I know which is different. Instead of simply paying for a specific chunk of time once you're arrived at the car park, this app allows you to start the process of parking when you arrive - and keeps it running. It's a lot like when you get a paper ticket on entry, and then paying when leaving, but in this case you never need to even go to the ticket machine in the first place. GPS picks up your location, you start parking, and then drive off when you're finished. It's transformation. The ticket machine is no longer required, replaced by a mobile phone app.

Using the RAT model in a learning scenario

So how can we use the RAT model to help understand how to apply a digital technology to a learning scenario. First we need to define the learning scenario, as the research agrees you must have context when considering digital technology use in education. Tech should never be assessed alone; never trust someone who promises the tech will transform something all by itself!

Let's say you wanted to focus on formative assessment, trying to improve your understanding of how well students understand what you're currently teaching within a single lesson. Without technology you might perhaps create some small handouts to use in the middle of the lesson, a mini-quiz for the students to answer with 10 questions, peer marked half way through, with results used to cluster students into groups for the remaining part of the lesson.

My Tech Trumps® would suggest you use something like Socrative to help with this, the in class web-based student response system.

  • At first using Socrative might seem like simple replacement, i.e. you'd create the same mini-quiz that you would normally do. But this is fine, it's simply good pedagogy, and that doesn't change.
  • However it's also amplification at the same time; the process is now quicker to run, and the marking is automatic rather than being done by hand. Plus the results are stored online automatically and individually, something which - let's face it - you probably wouldn't have time to do for paper copies.
  • Finally there is an element of transformation, by adding feedback directly into your quiz you can add explanations for students who get the wrong answer. This type of personalised automatic feedback is simply not possible with the paper equivalent.

So here we can now see how the RAT model can help think about the role a digital technology is playing within a learning scenario. By using the same process you'll be able to spot when something is just replacing a normal process as opposed to amplifying or transforming it - and avoid the hype!

Using the three stages from the RAT model you just ask yourself three simple questions:

  • Is the tech I'm using just replacing a physical process? (replacement)
  • Does the tech I'm using make the process any quicker or easier? (amplification)
  • Am I introducing something with the tech that would be impossible without it? (transformation)

Replacement can help familiarise you and your students with digital technology in general, but on the whole is best avoided. Amplification is where you'll normally find yourself, with a series of minor improvements to efficiency which together can have a significant overall impact on your teaching. Transformation is rare, but when well executed can provide sustained improvements in your practice.

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