Five Key Considerations for Meaningful Differentiation with Technology

As is often the case when I work with other educators in a workshop or at a photo (1)conference, I leave the experience more jazzed and passionate about what I do. Last week I had the pleasure of leading an EdTechTeacher workshop called Leveraging Technology to Differentiate Instruction. The group was fantastic. On Monday I had the opportunity to connect and learn along with an equally amazing group at Edcamp BLC.  During both the workshop and several sessions at the edcamp I was involved in conversations about topics such as passion and transformation, but the last session I attended at EdCamp BLC was about putting students first.  How do we put student needs first? It all circled back to the discussion I began the workshop with last week about UDL and meaningful integration. To put students first we need to differentiate instruction, and to do this successfully through technology integration we must be mindful. Below are the key considerations that I believe are essential in order for classroom teachers to leverage technology to create meaningful differentiation in the classroom.

1. Start with the learning goal.

Backwards design is critical for technology integration to be successful. Before contemplating what technology device, tool or app to use, the question of what the learning goal for the lesson must first be identified. All too often educators hear about a new tool or device and are understandably excited to use it in their classroom. However, instead of waiting until the perfect opportunity in which the learning need is matched with the functionality of the tool or device, define the learning goal and then determine the tools or resources that will allow the students to accomplish the goal successfully. Boxing learning into the functionality of a tool will rarely have a positive and productive outcome.

2. Consider assessment before assignment expectations.

For every lesson or unit we create for our students, there are skills and concepts we need to ensure that our students have grasped. It is our role as educators to determine not only what these skills are, but also how we will check for understanding.  For many students, particularly those that have learning differences, simply including the words test or quiz on the agenda elicits such a degree of fear and anxiety that the likelihood of truly assessing understanding is nominal. In an effort to differentiate assessment, many educators have used more creative means to assess student understanding. While I applaud and encourage providing opportunities other than tests and quizzes for students to demonstrate their understanding, it is critical that we consider what we need to “see” in order to accurately assess student understanding. For example, if the learning goal is summarizing main idea, do you need to see the summary in print? If so, what tools can students use to accomplish this task? Can students use their voice to summarize? If so, what tools can the student use to accomplish this task? Is there a reason that students should not be provided the choice?

3. Ensure that differentiation is invisible.

A few months ago I was discussing tracking and balanced classrooms with a friend of mine that is not an educator. He asked if it was actually possible to meet the needs of all learners in a class that had a wide spectrum of learning needs and differences. His son has a learning disability and he fears that his child will always be sectioned off, losing confidence and facing ridicule when he needs additional modifications. With successful technology integration, this should never happen. Using collaborative tools such as Google Drive, scaffolding can be applied without anyone recognizing the differences. Have a student that is a slow processor? Instead of handing her a worksheet and asking her to do the even numbers, create customized learning opportunities that are shared digitally. Have students with executive functioning disorders? Support the research, inquiry and planning process.

This year my 8th grade students created short documentaries about a leader of their choice. The goal of the assignment was to use multimedia to convey to the audience why their chosen person is/was a leader. To prepare for the project we first spent time exploring documentary as a film genre, including watching segments from Ken Burns’ Baseball series. This is the notes template students used while watching the documentary and here is the “guide” I distribute to support my students during their research. Neither or these documents is “special” in their base form; however, by using a collaborative document through Google Drive rather than distributing paper or a pdf, I am able to modify and scaffold both for students with ease. I can also provide ongoing, synchronous and/or asynchronous support to those students that need it, or can challenge students that are ready for the next level. Differentiation occurs while simultaneously eradicating the classroom dynamic of segregation that my friend is concerned about for his son.

4. Don’t recreate the wheel.

social media bandwagon

Photo courtesy of

We are only human. In any given class we typically have an average of 20+ children. Each child has his or her own distinct learning style and associated needs. In the era of “initiatives” equating to ever-growing demands on educators it is often a challenge to find the time to innovate. Technology tools and apps can reduce the amount of time needed to create differentiated lessons, and most likely, someone else has already thought of these ideas. Use social media (Twitter is my personal favorite), connect with other amazing educators and create a strong professional learning network, aka PLN. Forward-thinking educators like to share. When I need help with an idea, resources for a lesson or feedback on something I have created, I rely on my PLN and am always blown away by the ideas and material that is shared with me. In less time that it used to take me to create the not so perfect one-size fits all lesson I am now able to create differentiated lessons that meets the needs of all learners in my class.

5. Maximize flexibility to increase access and engagement.

The American Disabilities Act of 1990 has served to provide equity and access for Americans with a myriad of disabilities. One regulation stemming from ADA is building codes that ensure access ramps to bypass stairs as well as curb cutouts so that wheelchairs can safely cross streets. On behalf of mothers everywhere, thank you Bush 41 (and to David Rose for providing our class with the perfect example of the benefits of flexible design and UDL). Although these regulations were originally intended photo (2)to provide access to individuals in wheelchairs, stroller-pushing individuals have reaped the benefit of the ramps, automatic doors and curb cutouts. The epitome of UDL, by creating flexibility for one group of people, this flexibility also enhanced access for another group of people. We need to find the same possibility in our classrooms – through physical design, instructional design, instructional support and assessment. When we consider any of these we need to consider how providing flexibility can open access and/or engage individuals in our classrooms. Consider how providing information in both audio and print format can allow the non-readers in your class the opportunity to access information, while also allowing the student with a long bus ride to listen to the information on his way home from school (reading in moving vehicles makes him want to puke). Or consider how allowing students to create videos to demonstrate their understanding of essential questions will encourage a struggling writer the chance to shine while also providing that student that thrives on an audience the motivation to create something incredible and publish his work.  The examples are endless.

My #edcampbos highlight reel…

On Sunday night I jumped in on #edchatma. I was still on the extreme passion high from Edcamp Boston and wanted to further the conversations started on Saturday. During the chat, someone asked what made #edcampbos such a special event. I tried to capture it in 140 characters, but it just is not possible. On Monday morning I saw a tweet urging Edcampers to share not just that we learned, but what we learned.

Here are my top five “what I learned at EdCamp Boston”:

1. Student voice is extremely powerful. Edcamp Boston participants had three opportunities to engage in sessions led by students. It was the highlight of the day for me.   A group of 5th grade students from Pine Glen Elementary School in Burlington blew me away.


Of course their knowledge and creativity was engaging, but to me it was the thoughtful and eloquent way in which they responded to questions and added their own ideas that I found the most incredible. Ten year olds that handled themselves better than many adults I know! Cramming math facts or force feeding content is not the answer. Letting kids create and explore, then share their knowledge and learning, this is the transformation that needs to occur. Bethany Rogers joined Katrina Kennett again this year after wowing the crowd last year at Edcamp Boston. Erin McGurk’s tweet below shows perfectly the impact Bethany had on the educators in her session.

erin mcgurk edcampbos tweet

2. In the midst of the morning schedule build, I was chatting with fellow organizer Liz Davis about the sessions she was putting  up. She told me that she had a new name for 21st century learning, “I call it today.” I laughed, but it was not out of humor. I am growing more and more tired of the term as it is continually being used as a term to denote some goal we are striving to reach. We are 13 years into this century. Jobs, skill sets and lifestyle have transitioned, why is it okay for schools and educators to act as if it is understandable that schools and educators have not kept pace? It is unlikely that I will be able to fix this problem in the short term, but at least I can help reposition the lingo. No more 21st Century spoken like it is sometime beyond, it is TODAY. Thank you Liz Davis.

3. There are some amazing teachers out there. We all know that this must be the case, we hear about them and work with many of them, but it is never more clear to me than at an Edcamp, and Edcamp Boston epitomized this belief. An absolutely gorgeous Saturday, and yet more than 200 teachers were building a schedule at 8:30 in the morning with such excitement and passion, it was astounding. And then the wall went up. I often know which sessions I want to go to, but with this wall, I was perplexed. Voting with my feet was not going to solve the problem that I only have two feet and they have to choose. The good news for me was that there were no bad choices. I am still trying to process all the discussions and ideas. The sharing on twitter was incredible, and I was torn whether I should try and jump around. I was happy with my choices, but still wondered what I had missed. Just before the smackdown, I went into one of the session rooms and found this:

WP_20130504_008 – Rumor has it that Steve Guditus was responsible for this board!

4.  In the afternoon I had the privilege of hearing a 9th grade student, Sam Mahler, eloquently testify that students should not have to fight to have access to tools that allow them to learn. Sam is both dyslexic and disgraphic, but with the help of the amazing Karen Janowski and incredibly supportive parents, he has learned to use the iPad as a tool to allow him to overcome the challenges that his learning disabilities present, making it possible for him to engage in his education. The quote that most impacted me was when Sam Mahler discussed the impact of taking the iPad away from him for assessments in school.  “I am an A, sometimes a B, student on projects and assignments. I am a C or D student on tests and quizzes…they are keeping me from Harvard.” Wow. How can educational institutions continue to allow this to happen?

5. Learning and sharing is exciting and there is no better form for a teacher than an Edcamp. I  work with some incredible teachers in my school; however, all too often when we gather for “professional development” time, our time is distracted by discussions/complaints of a new policy or new initiative. The atmosphere often turns toward pessimism. Not at an Edcamp. I saw this post from Christine DiMicelli and could not agree more.

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Edcamps are engaging and enlightening. Edcamps are inspiring and they are thought-provoking. On a clear and beautiful May weekend, dedicated teachers filled the rooms at Microsoft and the atmosphere was electric.  Below is what I wrote before heading off to sleep on Sunday.

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Hope to see you all at Edcamp BLC in July!