Differentiation – a word with which every educator is quite familiar. However, the execution of effectively differentiated instruction for students is where the struggle can be for many. Technology can be a huge benefit to teachers as they customize learning activities for their students. Directing students to specific group activities, choice of resources, and dynamic activities are a few examples of how technology can be a benefit to reach all learners where ever they are in the learning process.
Many teachers have used the strategy of moving students in their classroom to do a certain activity (i.e., stations). While this works fine, it has potential for unintended negative effects, for instance, if a student labels him/herself based on the group he/she is assigned. Releasing and/or restricting particular learning activities through technology to groups of students can direct their focus on the learning task and at their pace, all the while other groups of students are working on their task at their pace. Students are none-the-wiser as to who is in the remediation or extra-time group and who is accelerated.
Another benefit of technology is the ability to publish different parts of a lesson in a sequence that the teacher deems appropriate. For instance, a teacher has four parts to her lesson (A, B, C, D) and wants to ensure that part A is completed or mastered before part B, part B is completed or mastered before part C, etc. In a traditional classroom, the teacher would have complete control over the timing of each portion of the learning, probably, by delivering to a whole group. But . . . where’s the differentiation in that? Using applications like our eCLASS C&I course pages, the teacher can conditionally release portions of a lesson contingent on a previous portion being completed or receiving a set score (i.e., Part B is only available after part A has been viewed). Thus, students control the pace of the lesson to match their learning needs, supporting a deeper understanding before moving on to the next section of the lesson.
Providing choice to students in the learning process is another way to differentiate. Students have so many different learning preferences and it is nearly impossible for any one teacher to effectively, let alone efficiently, deliver a topic to meet every learning style in the room. When a teacher can give his or her students a choice in the learning resources through the vehicle of technology, it allows the teacher to have clarifying, extension, and remediation conversations with the learners. One could create a choice board including a reading passage, a video, an audio file, an interactive activity, a physical creation, etc. Teachers also can have students select more than one option on the choice board, thereby activating the different styles and potentially increasing learning. When students have a choice in the product that they present to the teacher to show their understanding, that meets the students where they are, to help them communicate their level of learning. For example, if a student has a high level of anxiety presenting a report in front of a class, he/she instead could create a visual product with a web 2.0 tool.
Finally, when students have dynamic content with which to interact and get immediate feedback, students and teachers alike can experience the strength behind differentiation. There are so many interactive websites available now for students to experience learning in such a powerful way. Virtual lab experiments, number input/output games, and word sorts are all examples of the practice activities that can be leveraged as a component of a lesson and supporting students’ learning on their level. Many of these include dynamic features that provide immediate feedback to the “player” about whether or not they are correct. Further, including the teacher in the conversation immediately, whether virtual (on a discussion, blog, etc.) or physical, lets the student know what adjustments they need to make as they are learning.
In summary, differentiation is a best practice and therefore an everyday expectation for the instruction in our classroom(s). Guiding learning paths for students can lessen the load and provide structure for students by restricting activities or parts of a lesson until the learner is ready. Students are able to “control” their learning when they can choose the type(s) of learning activities in which they will participate, all the while receiving the same content. And, when a choice is given in the type of product they can present to the teacher, students can produce something within their scope of comfort and expertise. The ability to interact with content and be provided with immediate feedback from the material and the teacher provides an unmatched degree of support for an individual learner. When educators can harness the power of technology to support this vital component of teaching, teachers can better reach their students and students can have a more positive learning experience for their learning abilities.