British SAMR time: a way to redefine digitisation in the creative industries?

One of the most useful reports this year has been Booz&Co’s “The Digital Future of Creative UK: The Economic Impact of Digitization and the Internet on the Creative Sector in the UK” (Künstner, Le Merle, Gmelin, and Dietsche 2013). The report provides a comprehensive view of the impact digitisation has had on the creative sector with analyses of its effect on consumers, creators, distributors, and publishers in the U.K. and Europe. Digitisation (I’m insisting on the English spelling, sorry!) is described as a megatrend by Booz, with the race away from analog still having profound repercussions to products and services in the creative industries.

Whilst that is undoubtedly so, I wonder if the narrative of permanent digital revolution and disruptive digitisation is useful or even accurate to assist in addressing skills gaps or needs in the creative  industries.

pi_large-750x416Digitisation as a blanket term is too broad and because we all feel we share this ‘common sense’ definition, we might be missing real focused and strategic skills support for key areas hidden within this overarching narrative. If we are aren’t really interrogating or challenging this term sufficiently, then we may lack sufficiently sophisticated conceptual models  to understand what is driving change at the heart of our industries, and thus we will be always looking in the rear view mirror and trying to react after damage or disruption is done, rather than using skills as preventative medicine, to forearm the workforce and our employers for whatever’s next.

Of course Booz&Co and other such informed commentators are not saying we are at the beginning of the digital wave, but the distinction about further detail about where we are on that graph tends to be based only around the notion that things will just get ‘more so’, with change accelerated as digital natives enter the workforce and demand more responsive services and goods instantaneously. Even the term ‘digital native’ is banded around as a universally accepted blanket description despite sixteen million adults from the age of 15 upwards in the UK who don’t have basic online skills. In addition, the e-Learning Foundation estimates that 700,000 of the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the U.K. lack home access to the Internet.

These phrases like digitization and digital natives we come across in reports have become too tidy and convenient, and yes, alluring. They mask areas of grey and ambiguity. Ignoring the grey areas leads to a monoculture of skills responses.

digitisation2As Martin Weller in his book The Digital Scholar says, “far from being the tech-savvy, digitally immersed cyborgs portrayed in much of the literature, there are some relatively poor information skills amongst the net generation”

Malcolm Brown reports in “The NetGens 2.0: Clouds on the Horizon” (2009) that young people are held back by poor performance caused by three factors: insufficient reading skills, less sophisticated research strategies, and a dramatically lower patience level.

So some evidence doesn’t quite fit with what we’d like to believe. Intuitively we know digitization is sweeping through our industries, right? Well, yes and no. My point is not to refute the tropes of digital disruption, digital natives or the grand narrative of digitisation, but rather to say we need to dissect and analyse them a bit more if we are to design effective skills solutions to these issues. We need to identify the grey areas and accept how attractive, convenient yet simplistic some of this nomenclature is.

However, there are frameworks out there that can possibly help us interpret where we are in this spectrum of digitisation, if we look beyond industry reports and consultants research, and perhaps surprisingly towards the world of education theory and pedagogy.

Before we examine one of these frameworks let’s just see how digitization is playing out in one particular subsector. Let’s look at video editing, an essential process in broadcast. I’ve selected this because I had firsthand experience of the change from analogue to digital.

Video Editing and the digital wave

When Booz&Co mention the red-hot megatrend of digitisation, we need to remember that this has been happening in many of our industries for at least 25 years now.

A Steenbeck film editor; splicing film was essentially descructive

A Steenbeck film editor; splicing film was essentially descructive

Digital or ‘Non-linear’ editing swept away film-based Steenbeck machine editing in the late 80s and early 90s. By then M-JPEG had become the standard codec for editing. The proliferation of Firewire IEEE 1394 architecture and the new DV format that was launched in 1995 brought digital editing systems to the masses and arguably opened up editing to the consumer. Suddenly the camera output was digital, so the word ‘digitising’ as a process of ingesting into the edit suite became a misnomer. Digital was the norm, the establishment, by 2000. Final Cut Pro received a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award in 2002.

So for us to talk about digitisation as a skills issue in this sector today isn’t really accurate, and in fact is misleading, and may actually stop us addressing real issues of technological disruption. Technology of course is an issue, and the networks and connectivity that comes in its wake requires new skills, but digitization of the process is so over.

However, if we don’t have the shared grammar to articulate this- if digitisation is the only blanket term we can use, I doubt we can really grapple with some of the skills problems in the workplace. Taking this at face value sets an agenda for more universal funding of Final Cut Pro or Avid workshops, or Stereo 3D, rather than IT or network skills, or asset management, or whatever. In short, we are not able to be as strategically canny about our skills solutions as we could be.


SAMR School

As it happens there is a framework that we might wish to adopt to help us to understand what is happening in our industries, and it (maybe surprisingly) comes from education. As far as I know, no one has thought to apply it to the notion of digitisation in the workplace, to help us understand the wider skills agenda that technology and digitisation leave behind in their wake.

SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. It was originally formulated by Dr.Ruben R. Puentedura as a way of examining how digital technology impacts on teaching and learning, (rather wittily referred to as ‘Padagogy’ –  a cross between iPads and pedagogy)  but I think it maps nicely as a description of the different stages of digitisation in any creative industry. SAMR charts how every technology travels and evolves through enhancement of the preceding technology, towards the final transformative stages of modification and redefinition.

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura's SAMR model may hold the key to understanding digitisation

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR model may hold the key to understanding digitisation

So let’s see how this might relate to my earlier example of video editing. Well, the Substitution stage was where the early digital Non-Linear editing machines like Lightworks, Optima and Avid started to do the job of the film editing steenbecks. They offered simple non-destructive EDLs (Edit Decision Lists), essentially the same as the still available film systems.

The next stage is Augmentation. One can suggest here that the technologists are asking- how can we further enhance the process of editing? The resulting new technological tools introduce functional improvements. Once material was digitised this was represented by the speed at which Edit Decision Lists could be created, in a variety of different formats, and edits could be re-ordered, and fades and dissolves could be programmed and viewed almost simultaneously. The editing process had been enhanced, but it was still familiar to any dyed in the wool film editors from the previous stage.

The third stage and the first of the two transformative stages is Modification. The onward march of technology (in this case around data speeds, compression and open formats) meant a significant redesign of the process. MPEG and Quicktime meant that edits didn’t have to be solely off-line (typified by low visual quality) but approached online or near broadcast levels. Tasks are modified, and some even obsolete. New things can be done that weren’t possible before. Edits could be output ‘live’ direct to broadcast, for instance, and this changed the face of news broadcast.

The final stage is Redefinition. Previously inconceivable tasks are incorporated into the editing function. Examples are how multiple media can easily by inserted- digital stills, titles, 3D graphics, compositing via multiple layers (all undoable), and lastly how multiple users can collaborate and work on the same (distributed) edit at the same time, or call on global archives and newsrooms, using new networked communications.

credit: R. Puentedura

credit: R. Puentedura

From this limited example it seems to me that utilising the SAMR framework is effective in contextualising the kind of skills interventions that might be needed.

This is important, because in the case I have outlined, the application of SAMR could have allowed us to pinpoint particular skills work at each stage. By understanding where an industry is on the SAMR spectrum can help us understand the kind of competencies we need to promote, and how we might allocate precious learning resources. From my quick assessment here, for instance, we might conclude that IT, Networking, or asset management skills will help the industry progress more than yet more Final Cut Pro courses, which were more important at earlier stages. That’s because SAMR allows us to see that editing is at the Redefinition stage. Other industry practices will be at other stages. Scriptwriting, or Tailoring, might be at Augmentation level for instance.

To me the useful thing about the SAMR model is that it can be predictive- and help us accelerate skills development in a competitive global marketplace. I’d invite readers to do an audit of particular industries they are familiar with, and see if SAMR helps to identify the kind of training needed now, and in the near future. To me, it’s far more fruitful than just saying that digitisation is the phenomena at hand. Where we are on the SAMR spectrum can help us be smarter in our use of skills development.