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The diversity of the 21st-century classroom creates numerous challenges for teachers who may not have known the same diversity themselves as students. Among these, teachers must balance the requirements of high-stakes accountability while meeting the needs of diverse students within their classroom. The 26th Annual Report to Congress on IDEA reported that approximately ninety-six percent of general education teachers have students in their classroom with learning disabilities.1 This is not a surprising statistic, considering there are over six million students with disability classifications in the United States. The frequency of special education students in the classroom, however, is only one of the obstacles that teachers face. Teachers must also contend with an increasing number of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and from high-poverty families.2

While many teachers express frustration over high-stakes accountability standards, they acknowledge pressure to “teach to the test,” fearing non-proficient scores, dissatisfaction from school administrators, and in smaller systems, the potential risk of embarrassment when scores are made public. Compounding the issue, data has shown that students with disabilities perform well below their peers in standardized testing.3 In their research, McTighe and Brown articulate a disconnect between the instructional practices found in today’s classrooms and educational research that delineates “requirements for promoting genuine student engagement, understanding, and longitudinal achievement progress.”4 The popular practices and attitudes critiqued by McTighe and Brown include developing curriculum that is too broad, teachers’ flawed perception of the necessity to “cover” content, the overuse of worksheets that are modeled after test formats, and “teaching to the test” in order to boost test scores.

Differentiation as effective instruction

By contrast, the practice of differentiating instruction helps teachers address rigorous standards while responding to the individual needs of students. Differentiation allows teachers to focus on essential skills in each content area, be responsive to individual differences, incorporate assessment into instruction, and provide students with multiple avenues to learning.5 The result is a classroom where specialized instruction is the norm for all students. Students with disabilities have access to appropriate modifications, while students who excel have access to appropriate challenges. This model for instructional planning and delivery is not a new idea and is widely touted as the most promising solution to many of the obstacles presented by the proliferation of diverse classrooms.6

But while numerous studies have established the effectiveness of differentiated instruction, research indicates that some of the practices central to differentiated instruction, such as flexible grouping and specialized instruction, are not widespread.7 A 2005 U.S. Department of Education study found that whole-class instruction was the most common format experienced by secondary students with disabilities as well as students in regular education academic classes.8 The same study showed that only thirteen percent of secondary students with disabilities in general education classes experienced substantial curriculum modification or a specialized curriculum.9 If we know that differentiated instruction is effective in improving student performance, while still meeting required performance standards, why aren’t more teachers using it?

Overcoming obstacles to effective differentiation

In a pivotal piece in 1991, Schumm and Vaughn explored teachers’ perspectives on making adaptations for students with disabilities in inclusive settings. Their findings indicated that teachers largely do not feel prepared to address students’ diverse needs. Furthermore, teachers felt pressured by the necessity to cover a wide range of content in a short amount of time, the excessive classroom management needs of the classroom, and a lack of time to prepare lessons.10 If we compare this to the criticism of instructional practices by McTighue and Brown, we see that these feelings have not changed over the last decade.11 In fact, in addition to these problems, teachers report the additional obstacle of decreasing resources in their classrooms.

Many of the obstacles to implementing differentiated instruction can be overcome with the effective use of technology. Teachers who feel ill-prepared to address the diverse needs of their students, for example, have ready access to more options than ever before as a result of the wide range of software and hardware tools available. Technology can equip teachers to address students’ needs in an almost limitless number of ways, through content input, learning activities, and opportunities to demonstrate comprehension. And because many students come to the learning environment with a predisposition for using it seamlessly, technology can become an intermediary that bridges the relationship between teacher and student, allowing the teacher to meet a student in a familiar realm.

Technology also addresses the necessity to cover a wide range of content in a short amount of time by minimizing the need to take curriculum at a slower pace. Students with special needs may benefit from technologies that assist them, allowing them to keep pace with their peers. For example, a student with dyslexia who might normally struggle with a reading passage could benefit from reading the text while listening to an audio recording through headphones. By providing audio, visual, or concept-mapping supports while introducing new concepts, teachers lessen the need for review and remediation after the initial instruction.

The pressures of classroom management needs can also be alleviated as a result of using technology to differentiate instruction. Classrooms enhanced by technology provide support and structure to students who need scaffolding and enrichment to students who thrive on challenge. The result is a learning environment that is task-centered and predictable, in which students understand what’s expected of them and how to succeed.12 In a classroom where gifted learners, learners with learning disabilities, and learners with other special needs are all challenged at appropriate levels at the same time, students are more likely to be engaged in learning activities and less likely to be engaged in inappropriate behaviors. In such environments, classroom management works differently: Teachers act more as facilitators, which allows for more individual attention to students who need attention and might otherwise behave inappropriately as a result.13

The obstacles presented by limited financial resources need not prevent teachers from differentiating with technology. Many tools and practices that facilitate differentiation, including many suggested in this article, make use of free software and programs, as well as basic technologies found in almost every classroom.

The obstacle presented by a lack of time to prepare lessons is perhaps the most difficult to overcome when implementing differentiated instruction, even with the aid of technology. Learning to effectively differentiate instruction does take time. As with any instructional practice, fluency comes with experience. But the initial investment of time to develop facility with a new strategy can offset time that might otherwise be spent re-teaching material that students failed to learn as a result of a non-differentiated approach. Teachers who seek to differentiate but are hampered by limited time may find success in focusing on just one strategy at a time, gradually building fluency with differentiation practices.

Setting the scope

A complete discussion of using technology to differentiate instruction could fill several volumes. The range of tools and resources is vast, and the instructional practices that make use of them are innumerable. By necessity, the scope of this article is limited, and focuses on students with learning disabilities (including disabilities with spoken language, written language, mathematics, and reasoning), students who learn differently because of their linguistic or cultural backgrounds, and students who are academically gifted.

A framework for technology integration

Before exploring specific technologies that can support a teacher’s differentiation practice, it’s important to consider how to effectively integrate technology into instruction. The first and most important principle of technology integration is that the focus should be on the outcome of the instruction, and not on the technology itself. When technology is used just for the sake of doing something new and different, teachers fail to harness the affordances of the technology to support the needs of the learning situation.14

Before making the decision to use a particular technology for a particular lesson, teachers should first make decisions about the learning goals, activities, and assessments that will shape the learning experience. During the process of making these decisions, teachers can more easily envision opportunities to integrate one or more technologies. This perspective is central to the conceptual framework for educational technology known as TPACK: Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge.15

TPACK proposes that thoughtful technology integration occurs when teachers are attuned to the interplay of content (the subject matter), pedagogy (the methods of teaching, both general and content-specific), and technology (both electronic and “traditional”). Considering all three domains together results in a lesson in which all the component parts are aligned to support the learning goals and outcomes of the instructional plan.

The TPACK model acknowledges a distinction between use and integration of technology. While a teacher may understand how to use a handheld device like an iPod touch to listen to music or access the internet, her facility with the device does not ensure understanding and application of sound pedagogical practice with the device within the context of the classroom. Skillful integration of any piece of technology demands a more intentional approach to its instructional use.

Judi Harris and Mark Hofer identify five basic instructional decisions that form the basis of planning a learning event.16 They are, in order:

  • Choosing learning goals
  • Making practical pedagogical decisions about the nature of the learning experience
  • Selecting and sequencing activity types to combine to form the learning experience
  • Selecting formative and summative assessment strategies that will reveal what and how well students are learning
  • Selecting tools and resources that will best help students to benefit from the learning experience being planned.

This framework emphasizes that the selection of tools and resources should follow naturally from the other instructional planning decisions. Following this model increases the likelihood of seamless, successful technology integration that meets the needs of all learners.

Differentiation in 2-D

Differentiated instruction comprises two major dimensions — the teacher-dependent dimension and the student-dependent dimension. The two dimensions play off of one another, and each consists of its own set of variables:

  1. Teacher-dependent dimension
    1. Differentiation through content
    2. Differentiation through process
    3. Differentiation through product
    4. Differentiation through environment
  2. Student-dependent dimension
    1. Differentiation according to student readiness
    2. Differentiation according to student interest
    3. Differentiation according to student learning profile

Differentiating instruction involves manipulating the teacher-dependent dimensions — those variables over which teachers have control. But differentiating instruction effectively requires manipulating those variables with attention to the student-dependent dimension — the variables over which teachers have no control, but that make each student unique.

The power of technology lies in the teacher’s ability to use it for customizing instruction. It helps teachers to address those student variables by manipulating the complexity or level of difficulty of the content, the ways in which students receive and engage that content, their options demonstrating what they have learned, and the circumstances under which they do so.

Understanding learners’ needs: The student-dependent dimension

While teachers cannot control the variables that make up the student-dependent dimension of differentiation — students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles — they can learn to differentiate instruction effectively as a result of understanding those variables. Knowing the contents of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is important, but does not provide enough information to create a differentiated classroom. A student learning inventory, an example of a diagnostic assessment, offers a solution for addressing this initial challenge. With the aid of technology, a teacher can create, host, and administer a learning inventory, and then easily analyze the results — all without students feeling put on the spot.

For example, at the beginning of the year, students may respond to a teacher-created online survey that asks questions about their preferred learning styles, where and how they typically study, and what the teacher can do to help them to learn. Sites like Zoomerang and SurveyMonkey offer free, customizable surveys that will display both individual results and a composite of a group of students. Using one of these tools, the inventory might include a question like this one:17


  1. Rank your learning preferences for learning math by ranking the following activities:
    • Using manipulatives
    • Observing demonstrations
    • Sketching out the problem
    • Reading
    • Comparing work with a partner
    • Solving problems as a team

Having this knowledge of student learning preferences is very useful when designing instruction and creating flexible grouping for students during classroom activities.

Student response systems, or “clickers,” offer another strategy for collecting data from students. These devices connect to a computer and LCD projector or an interactive white board and allow students to answer questions in class without sharing their responses with classmates. This option requires devices that must be purchased, but because some interactive white boards are packaged with clickers, many schools may already have them. Clickers provide immediate data that is aggregated with no additional effort. The data can be either anonymous or tied to the individual learner, as many systems can associate the number of the device with a given student to keep a running record for that student. Once collected, student data can then be used to develop either an individual or classroom learning profile.

Using clickers to conduct a learning inventory is a formative assessment technique that provides feedback for both teacher and student. And for students who are challenged with dysgraphia, which affects the ability to write, clickers focus their attention on identifying the appropriate response, avoiding preoccupation with writing so that a student can participate as readily as his or her classmates.

Less expensive and even free alternatives to student response systems include web-based tools like Poll Everywhere and PollDaddy, which allow users to create polls that can capture data on a group of students. These options record responses students submit through text messaging, handheld devices like iPod Touches, or laptops. Poll Everywhere also includes an option to store data for individual students.

The article “Using Student Responders Responsibly” offers a thorough discussion of how to make the most of clickers and web-based alternatives.

The teacher-dependent dimension: Four variables

The teacher who develops a basic understanding of his students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile is ready to use that information to adapt his instruction based on the four variables of teacher-dependent differentiation: Content, process, product, and environment. As instruction continues, the teacher can return to these student-centered formative assessment techniques to adjust and enhance his understanding of his students’ needs.

Differentiating by content

Differentiating by content can happen in a variety of ways, but the two primary means include 1) using different content to teach the same subject to students with different needs, and 2) enhancing or augmenting existing content to make it accessible to all students. Technology can facilitate both strategies — finding new content and augmenting existing content.

Video: Using Technology to Differentiate by Content
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In this video, classroom footage and interviews with educators illustrate a variety of ways to differentiate by content using technology.

Locating content

The use of the worldwide web to find information is now so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how we taught — or lived — without it. But it wasn’t long ago that teachers and textbooks provided the sole sources of content for students in the classroom. Now the range of material immediately available to students is almost without limit, and includes research-based articles by university professors, digitized books, manipulative images, archived radio programs, scientific videos, and much more.

Most teachers already understand how to find relevant content for students on the internet. What isn’t always so obvious is how to find content that supports the learning goals for a lesson while meeting students’ individual learning needs. How do you find just the right piece of content, in the right format and at the right level, to reach a particular student? Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula that can answer this question correctly every time. Formative and summative assessment strategies are necessary to gain feedback on whether a certain type of content is successful with a particular student. But there are certain basic concepts that can provide a useful starting point:

Students with ADHD
Students who have problems attending to lecture or reading lengthy texts benefit when verbal and textual input can be supplemented with visual reinforcement by video or images. Video-streaming subscription sites like Discovery Education Streaming offer authentic content produced with the learner in mind. These online video databases are easily searchable and offer a range of topics and levels.
English language learners
Students for whom English is not a first language can become frustrated when presented with information that meets their English comprehension level but is far below their cognitive level. These students also benefit from supplementing verbal and written information with videos. Discovery Education videos include closed-captioning, which reinforces the language by providing spoken and written speech at the same time, while supporting vocabulary acquisition with images.
Students with reading or processing difficulties
Students who have difficulty reading or processing text similarly benefit from visual reinforcement for a reading passage. Supplementing a reading passage with images provides valuable context that can scaffold the learner’s understanding. Before sharing a reading selection with students, the teacher can identify the elements of the passage that lend themselves to visual enhancement and create a list of images to enhance comprehension. Image databases like Flickr and the Wikimedia Commons provide easy, searchable access to countless images, which can be displayed in slideshow format as a pre-reading strategy for the entire class. Alternately, images can be inserted into a multimedia presentation to be viewed individually alongside a text while the student reads. If the text is available electronically, it may be possible to insert both the text and the associated image in the presentation.

Augmenting content

Just as technology offers a way to bring different content to students, it also provides a way to make the same content accessible to students for whom that might not otherwise be a possibility. A reading passage that may not meet the needs of every student in a classroom can easily be made accessible with the aid of technology. As with all differentiation practices, begin by considering the needs of the learner, and let the technology follow.

Screen-reading software
If the chosen text is web-based, an initial starting point to support students who have difficulty with reading is to use screen-reading software. This category of software assists students with learning disabilities by reading aloud text from a web page or document using a synthesized voice. In some instances, the software highlights the words as they are being read, allowing students to follow along as they hear the text. This strategy is also useful for English language learners, although it’s important to ensure that the quality of the audio input offered is comprehensible to the listener. Screen readers have suffered harsh criticism because the synthetic voice may not provide the fluency and authenticity needed by some learners. But in recent years, these voices have become more human-like. Most screen-readers offer a free trial and some of the more simple programs are available for free.
Concept mapping
Sometimes the challenge posed by the text is one of understanding and remembering relationships. The ability to understand these connections can frustrate the learner, interfering with comprehension of the text. In a narrative passage that centers around character interaction, students with processing difficulties may have trouble retaining the relationship between key characters. In a social studies classroom, the problem may be one of grasping how key events relate to a historical construct. In an English language arts classroom, the challenge might be understanding and remembering the organizational structure of a research paper.
Concept maps support students’ comprehension by identifying key concepts and making visible the relationships between them.18 These visual representations allow students to read the same passage as their peers without the frustration caused by the inability to synthesize information. To use concept maps as a pre-reading strategy, teachers can create concept maps and give them to students with processing issues or dyslexia prior to reading a text. Depending on the level of the students, the teacher may use this to preview the passage with the whole class or individually. Students can also create their own concept maps after completing a reading. Used in this way as a post-reading activity, concept maps can help students more closely review what they’ve read and can serve as formative assessment.
Concept maps can be created using web-based applications or stand-alone software programs. Tools like the web-based Bubbl.us allow the user to create a simple concept map that may be either printed or downloaded as an image file. Stand-alone software like Inspiration and Kidspiration for younger learners, offer a broader range of features including the ability to insert images to represent the major nodes, and the ability to insert text to state the relationship between those nodes. While this software is not free, a trial version is available for download.
animal habitats concept map

This concept map, created using the free program Bubbl.us, illustrates key ideas and relationships from a reading passage about animal habitats. Click on the image for a larger version.

Digital textbooks, eBooks, and audiobooks
Digital textbooks, both online and CD-based, offer options for accessing the same content at different levels of complexity. The digital format offers an advantage over traditional textbooks because digital publications can incorporate time-based and interactive media directly within the text. For example, North Carolina History: A Digital Textbook contains a map of North Carolina agriculture from 1860-2007, illustrating the acres of farmland by county. By dragging a sliding bar underneath the map, the learner can visually see the decrease in land devoted to farming over time. Students who are dyslexic or who have processing issues benefit from multi-sensory input afforded by textbook features like this one.
CD-based digital textbooks provided by textbook publishers offer a variety of features, including pronunciation guides, text-to-speech, and vocabulary support, as well as features that allow the reader to change the formatting of the text to improve readability.
Many digital textbooks allow students to hear the text. This feature supports students with learning disabilities and English language learners, who benefit from the ability to hear and view the text simultaneously. Perhaps one of the best sources for audio-enhanced books of all kinds is the federally funded Bookshare. Operating under an exception to U.S. copyright law, Bookshare allows registered users to download books, textbooks, and newspapers to be accessed via text-to-speech readers. Bookshare is freely available to qualifying schools and students.
CAST UDL Book Builder
Some learning situations may require further customization not possible via pre-fabricated content. In these situations, the teacher must seek tools for enhancing text as opposed to already enhanced text. One of the gems of the web is the CAST UDL Book Builder, a free digital book database and book builder. Developed and hosted by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), Book Builder helps educators “create, share, publish, and read digital books that support diverse learners according to their individual needs, interests, and skills.” The database and tool integrate a number of technologies like screen-reading software to make content accessible to students with learning disabilities, yet at the same time integrating functionality that engages the reader through the use of built-in avatars who pose questions and offer ideas as the students reads.
For example, imagine a student who has difficulty understanding cellular mitosis. The teacher may write his or her own explanation of the process, including illustrations, and upload them into a “book” on the Book Builder site. In addition, the program includes built-in avatars, up to three per book, that appear underneath the book as icons. The teacher may elect to use them to offer addition commentary on a page or to post comprehension questions for the reader. In this example, an avatar might ask at a certain point, “Who cares about cellular mitosis? Why is it important?” Just like the text of the book, the text of the avatars can also be read to the student.
Microsoft Word
One of the easiest differentiation tools for a reading passage is a software program that most teachers have readily at hand — Microsoft Word. Smaller reading passages, copied and pasted into Microsoft Word, can be easily enhanced to aid comprehension using standard formatting features within the program. Using the highlighting feature can help students focus on particular aspects of a text like parts of speech, literary devices, or key elements of a paragraph or research paper. Teachers can also use the comment feature to provide scaffolding or context for a student who needs help with a reading passage. Comments allow a user to insert a call-out box elaborating on a difficult vocabulary word, idiomatic expression, or complicated idea.
For example, imagine an English language learner reading a passage about summer vacation activities. One section of the reading mentions a family that spends the day at a water park, enjoying a water slide. Since the concept of a water park and a water slide are somewhat culturally bound, the mention of this activity might impede comprehension for the ESL student. By creating a comment associated with the term, the student receives support at the point at which it is needed. This strategy allows the student to continue reading with relatively little disruption.

Differentiating by process

As with differentiation by content, using technology to differentiate by process requires first attending to the student-dependent dimension of differentiation. Focusing on student readiness, student interest, and student learning profile yields effective differentiation centered on learners’ needs.

Video: Using Technology to Differentiate by Process
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In this video, classroom footage and interviews with educators illustrate a variety of ways to differentiate by process using technology.

Flexible grouping

One way to attend to those student-dependent variables is to implement flexible grouping. In flexible grouping, students are organized in groups according to one of the three variables — ability/readiness grouping, interest grouping, or grouping by learning profile. The strategy is termed “flexible” because students may be grouped differently according to the activity or learning objective, and because students can move from one group to another.

A teacher might draw on an initial learning inventory to group by learning profile, identifying students who have similar preferences like learning through writing, learning by discussing, or learning by creating something. Grouping by interest would organize students based on their preference when given a choice like researching different careers that use biology. Grouping by ability or readiness would organize students according to their background knowledge of the subject or their ability to proceed through the information at a certain pace.

The strategy allows teachers to simplify their planning by preparing for two, three, or four basic groups. And because the groups are flexible students don’t feel pigeon-holed into one niche in the classroom.

Processing and recording information

Technology can be used to support how each student works to integrate new information, either alone or in flexible groups. A student with a learning disability like dysgraphia may feel frustrated that she cannot easily take notes or render responses to assigned questions because of her difficulty with writing. Using a laptop or portable word processor can alleviate that frustration, freeing the student to render notes or answers by keyboarding.

Technology can similarly support students who are diagnosed with dyscalculia, a learning disability related to mathematics. The use of a hand-held calculator can help students who have difficulty writing numbers in the proper sequence. For students without access to handheld devices, many online calculators offer the same functionality. Alternatively, students with dyscalculia can use spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel, which have built-in formatting options to help students organize and see data. The ability to color-code columns or rows of data, for example, can help a student who needs support to distinguish numbers.

Microsoft Word also offers a free Mathematics Add-in that can be used to create graphs and solve equations within the word processor. The add-in lets students choose mathematical symbols from a specialized menu and insert them onto the page. This level of scaffolding can make a difference when students are faced with a blank page and are not sure where to begin. The availability of mathematical symbols as choices from a menu creates a more equitable situation for these students.

Manipulating information

For students with processing difficulties or kinesthetic learners, virtual manipulatives can be another powerful way to learn math. Crawford and Brown note that virtual manipulatives “create a conceptual understanding of mathematical theories beyond the mere formulaic models of traditional mathematical coursework.”19 The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, supported by the National Science Foundation, is a database of freely accessible manipulatives and tutorials for K-12 mathematics. One example allows students to manipulate the variables in a linear equation using a web-based graphic of a balance beam. The tool helps students visually understand the concept of balancing an equation. Students who learn by doing or by touching things can gain tremendous insights into mathematical concepts by using virtual manipulatives.

Extending learning time
(without extending your work day)

Outside of the classroom, students with learning disabilities benefit from opportunities to access online tools and tutorials that enhance their integration of new information. Extending access to class content beyond the actual instructional period can make a big difference for students who require additional processing time. The ability to repeatedly review material like video tutorials, demonstrations, and archived lecture recordings outside of class can aid students’ comprehension and provide invaluable access to instructional materials for their tutors or parents.

Online course platforms like Moodle and Blackboard provide a structure for content, allowing teachers to organize materials in a way to make them easily accessible to students. Teachers who do not have access to a learning management through their schools can create their own class websites using any of a number of free tools, including wikis and template-driven website creators like Google Sites and Weebly. (The process of creating a class website is beyond the scope of this article, but is addressed in the article “Keep Parents in the Loop with a Class Website.”)

Teachers can also use web-based tools and screen-capture programs to create archived presentations that combine images, video, and voice-over narration. Some programs also feature the ability to insert screen-based annotations in the form of callouts to draw attention to a particular element visible on the screen.

A science teacher might create a series of multimedia slides to illustrate a laboratory set-up for students who have difficulty with task differentiation, or breaking a project down into its component elements. Then, using a screen-capture tool like TechSmith’s Jing, the teacher could develop a tutorial, recording his or her voice to lay over the visuals. The end result is a stand-alone resource that allows the student to view it at his or her own pace, as many times as needed to understand the content.

Video: Screen capture demonstration of a geometric proof
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In this screen-capture video, a high-school math teacher demonstrates the process of proving that a quadrilateral is a parallelogram. The video was recorded using a Mobi device.

Most interactive white boards and associated tables have built-in capture software, making it possible to create or re-create a class demonstration or tutorial to be viewed at a later time. Features like these help teachers save time in teaching and planning since the archived presentation, including all the component images, demonstrations, and discussion, can be used immediately for students who need to review the materials.

Differentiating by product

Student demonstrations of learning reflect who they are as individuals, who they are as creators, and who they are as learners. Differentiating by product means offering options for how students will express their understanding of the target learning goals and objectives. Allowing students to choose from several options empowers them and increases their motivation and engagement. And because numerous studies have shown a positive correlation between student engagement, appropriate academic activities, and high achievement, differentiating by product often translates to improved student achievement.20

The range of technologies available for students to create and store products is vast and constantly increasing. Johnassen and Reeves consider these technologies “cognitive tools” because they “enhance the cognitive powers of human beings during thinking, problem-solving, and learning.”21 The options and flexibility provided by these cognitive tools offer support for a range of learning disabilities. As with all other aspects of differentiation, the key to successfully harnessing the affordances of these technologies lies in using the TPACK model — start with the learning goals and move through the steps, selecting the technology as the last step. Effective selection of technology should also be done with attention to students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile. For every learning objective and student need, there’s an appropriate tool that can play to students’ strengths while engaging and motivating them.

Video: Using Technology to Differentiate by Product
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In this video, classroom footage and interviews with educators illustrate a variety of ways to differentiate by product using technology.

Blogs, wikis, and other writing platforms

For students who do well with written products, online text platforms like blogs and wikis can increase motivation by offering the promise of an attractive product with a “real” audience. Some blogging sites offer teachers the ability to create a classroom blog linked to individual student blogs. For example, the Landmark Project’s Class Blogmeister is free to teachers and provides a secure environment where students can safely share and comment on the work of their peers.

Before students publish their written work on an online platform, they should first compose the work using word processing software like Microsoft Word. Built-in features in the software can support students who have difficulty with written language and processing:

  • Spell check helps students with dysgraphia and other learning disabilities — although it’s important to acquaint students with the pitfalls of relying on this feature. The autocorrect feature can be enabled or disabled depending on students’ strengths and needs.
  • Grammar check helps students identify awkward grammatical constructions like passive sentences.
  • Text-to-speech add-ins support auditory proofing before students submit their work. Numerous free text-to-speech add-ins for Microsoft Word are available.

Demonstrating understanding through multimedia

Students who struggle to organize their thoughts and students who have dyslexia are often paralyzed by anxiety when they’re assigned written work. When written work is a necessity (and in many cases, it is), appropriate supports should be provided. But in some situations, the appropriate use of multimedia products — either to supplement or replace written assignments — can be used to free students whose expression is often impeded by their learning disabilities. Free web-based multimedia tools provide students with options that respect their individual strengths and weaknesses:

Digital posters
Digital poster displays, like those created using Glogster EDU, incorporate media elements like images, videos, audio recordings, and drawings with text. Gifted students and students who thrive on creative freedom find engagement and challenge in such a format, and students with learning disabilities find support in the options for expression. For a thorough discussion of using digital posters in the classroom, see the article “Digital Posters: Creating with an Online Canvas.”
VoiceThread
Voicethread is an online platform where students can respond to a topic using text, audio, video, or images. The variety of options makes it possible for students with learning disabilities to contribute to the presentation using the method that works best for them. The option to record an oral response, rather than delivering it “live” in class, benefits students who need time to compose their thoughts, as well as students who have speech disorders like stuttering. In this third-grade example of a picture book of poetry, students have commented with both text and audio. (See the article “Using VoiceThread to Communicate and Collaborate” for a thorough explanation on how to use VoiceThread with students.)
Digital storytelling
Digital storytelling projects, in which students tell fictional or true stories, are another example of differentiating product by student interest: Each learner draws on his or her background or interest to provide the content for the product. Digital stories can be created in a range of formats, including pure audio, image slideshows with static text, image slideshows with voiceovers, and pure video. The options that prioritize audio over text benefit students who have difficulty with writing. The University of Houston offers a useful introduction to using digital storytelling in the classroom.
Free, downloadable audio-editing software like Audacity can be used to create and edit digital stories. Students who need support in mapping out the characters, setting, events, and sequence of their stories can use concept mapping software to organize their thoughts.

Evaluating student products

All students need the support of clear project guidelines in order to succeed. But students with special needs may need additional support to stay on task and complete each step in completing a project. Creating separate rubrics for students who have different skill sets can provide the appropriate level of support for those students.

For example, an oral presentation rubric might include criteria like, “Share multiple drafts with teacher,” to remind students with organizational/procedural issues of the importance of viewing the final presentation as a series of tasks. Web-based tools like Rubistar, a free rubric generator, can help teachers easily create a master rubric and then adapt it for students with special needs.

Alternatively, project-based learning checklists can help students who have difficulty organizing their work. Checklists break down projects into small component parts to make it easy for students to see the steps toward completion and the order in which those steps should occur. Consistent use of these checklists can scaffold students toward their own understanding of how to organize tasks. Teachers can use the online PBL Checklist tool from 4teachers.org or create their own using a word processor.

Differentiating by environment

The importance of the fourth element of teacher-dependent differentiation, manipulating the environment to support all learners, has been established in numerous studies.22 The environment refers to the physical space where learning takes place and all the elements within that space that have an impact on student learning. While it is important to know students’ backgrounds and needs in order to effectively teach them, we must also attend to how students learn best and how environmental factors impact their ability to learn optimally.

Obviously, some elements of the environment cannot be manipulated. Where desks are bolted to the floor or the temperature is controlled elsewhere, teachers face limitations on how much of the environment they can influence. But even in the realm of the classroom environment, technology can support differentiation.

Video: Using Technology to Differentiate by Learning Environment
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In this video, classroom footage and interviews with educators illustrate a variety of ways to differentiate by environment using technology.

Controlled chaos

Differentiated classrooms are not quiet places of learning. Students move throughout the room as they collaborate with classmates. Table discussions occur on a regular basis. Students listen to (and create) audio recordings, and text-to-speech devices sound off, making reading passages accessible to all students. While this may sound like a symphony of learning to a teacher, a student with processing issues might experience it as an overwhelming cacophony.

Fortunately, where technology amplifies the learning noise of a classroom, it also provides solutions for keeping that noise under control. Individual student headsets are a critical component of a differentiated classroom, allowing students to access audio and video at any time without disturbing their peers. Effective differentiation by environment also requires careful planning so that some students work individually using headsets while others work in groups. The noise of students’ collaborative groups doesn’t distract students who are using headsets to access audio content, and vice-versa.

In schools that have adopted one-to-one initiatives, in which each student has access to a laptop, students have their own “differentiation in a box.” While each student has the same tools, those tools can be manipulated in ways that serve individual needs. A one-to-one environment simplifies other aspects of differentiation, because students have ready access to differentiated content, tools for differentiated learning processes, and resources for creating differentiated products. Teachers who don’t have the benefit of a one-to-one environment can use the same principles of differentiation, but need to plan more carefully to distribute resources equitably and make effective use of the school’s media center.

The sensory experience

Sometimes the standard tools we use for teaching and learning do not meet the needs of students who are affected by environmental factors beyond anyone’s control. For example, some students have sensory aversion or motor skills issues associated with using common classroom tools like pen and paper. While these students are perfectly capable of completing the work and may even be identified as gifted, the physical sensation and auditory impact of putting pen to paper interferes with their ability to participate in classroom activities. These students may find that using the computer enables them to demonstrate learning while navigating around difficult or unpleasant sensory experiences.

Culturally inclusive classrooms

Environmental differentiation also includes making the environment conducive to learning for students from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.23 A culturally inclusive classroom environment includes ready access to materials that provide a rich and global perspective on the world and allows each person to feel valued as a result of his or her background. Classroom displays provide a valuable avenue for creating such an environment. In a classroom that includes Latino students, for example, a display for National Science Month should include the contributions of Latino scientists. The ease of finding information on the web makes creating such a display far less time-consuming than in the past. Teachers can also use technology-aided communication like class websites or wikis to learn from students about their cultures. The ability to integrate students’ cultures and experiences into the classroom validates who they are as learners.

Breaking down the barriers

There’s no doubt that effectively differentiating instruction presents challenges to even the most experienced teacher. While technology cannot eliminate every obstacle, it can make differentiation easier for teachers and more engaging for students. Teachers who invest the time and effort to integrate technology into their differentiation practice can reap enormous benefits in classroom management, student engagement, and the pacing of instruction.

Successful technology integration, however, relies on intelligent planning. Teachers must understand those variables they cannot control — students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile. Planning should begin by acknowledging those variables and understanding the learning goals. The selection of technology follows as a natural result, as teachers select appropriate tools for manipulating those variables they can control — content, process, product, and environment. Differentiated instruction designed with these principles in mind ensures classrooms that are rich centers of learning for all students.