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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Embracing Technology’ as a Tool for Differentiation

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 25, 2018 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are ways technology can assist teachers apply differentiated instruction?

In Part One, Dr. Nancy Sulla, Anne Jenks, Ge-Anne Bolhuis, Sarah Shartzer, Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessia M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Nancy, Anne, and Ge-Anne on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Becky Shiring, Katie Robinson, Dr. Sonny Magana and Dr. Monica Burns contribute their suggestions. I’ve also included a reader’s comment.

Response From Elizabeth Stringer Keefe

Elizabeth Stringer Keefe (@ProfKeefe) is a teacher educator at the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University, where she serves as faculty coordinator of Graduate Studies in Autism and regularly teaches about technology for curriculum and communication. Her research focuses on the preparation of special education teachers and teacher education policy. She is co-author of Remixing the Curriculum: The Teacher’s Guide to Assistive and Digital Technology, published by Rowman & Littlefield:

Show me a place more complex than the K-12 classroom: a microcosm of our society, comprised of communities of racially, ethnically, culturally, linguistically and economically diverse students who bring their own unique approaches to learning in the door with them--a fact no one knows better than teachers themselves! Teachers have the great responsibility of developing and managing a rich and fluid academic environment to support the needs of this vast array of learners --and need instructional methods as diverse as the students themselves. One answer to this is for teachers to employ technology to expand curricular scope.

Consider the myth of the “average” or “traditional” student--an assumption based on the idea that most students learn the same way--that for years has driven instructional methods and groupings--sometimes for efficiency’s sake alone. But instead of a singular learner prototype, isn’t it more likely that individual learners shift according to the learning demand, resulting in a mix of learning needs and interests within one individual students? Technology can provide the means for teachers to create accessible, diverse curriculum that appeals to a wide array of students while also making it possible for teachers to maintain agency and autonomy over instruction.

Sounds great, but how do teachers differentiate instruction with technology amidst the demands of curriculum, assessment, and accountability? A perfect starting point is to layer technology as a complement to traditional approaches. Layering allows teaching to continue to use their preferred instructional methods, but also provides opportunity for additional learning venues that support content goals. Even teachers who declare themselves “technophobes” can benefit from the use of technology in the classroom with simple online tools.

For example, traditionally, teachers gauge conceptual understanding by ask-aloud questions designed to initiate discussion, but could spark fuller participation by adding a technology layer like a classroom polling system (sometimes called personal response systems). One example is Poll Everywhere, a free, online polling tool that allows teachers to create interactive questions for students with a variety of ways to respond (text, pictures, etc). This kind of tech layer is a game-changer for students who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class or need a bit more time to process auditory information, but is engaging and appealing for all students. Teachers can also create ways for students to ask instead of answer the questions by layering with technology like Padlet, a technology that allows students to post questions to an online bulletin board. Questions can be posted (either anonymously or publicly!) instead of asked aloud, and the teacher can review with the class to enhance all students’ learning.

Want to help students access content using tech layers? Teachers can meet common core standards for English Language Arts by adding a layer of Online Magnetic Poetry, which has a variety of uses but can help students’ vocabulary, identify inferences, and “write” without writing. Layer traditional text by using digital reading technologies, which includes both e-books and audio books, and immediately make print more accessible and engaging for all learners. Build math conceptual knowledge about fractions with online Legos and develop programming and coding skills (and reasoning, problem solving, and design!) using Scratch (or ScratchJr for students younger than 7). The possibilities are endless--and these technology layers enhance, rather than encroach, upon teachers’ time-honored methods.

Embracing technology and making it an asset to instruction helps everyone, especially the teacher, by proactively making content accessible and flexible. When instructional materials are versatile, designed with a community of learners in mind, all students can benefit -- regardless of individual learning needs and interests.

Response From Becky Shiring

Becky Shiring is the Director of Professional Development & Continued Learning at Squirrels, an EdTech software company. She is an innovative educator passionate about bringing engaging and impactful PD to teachers and schools. Becky earned her MA in International Education from The George Washington University and has worked with a diverse set of learners including adults, ELLs and young children:

Differentiating in Mixed Ability Classrooms: Making Content Accessible To ALL Learners

Finding lesson content that is accessible and comprehensible to all learners within a mixed ability classroom can be challenging. I have always favored using authentic content with students such as news articles, videos and podcasts when I can. But sometimes this content isn’t immediately accessible to students out of the box. When we differentiate content, we run the risk of oversimplifying learning tasks for students facing more challenges. But in actuality, many of these students have the ability to complete rigorous tasks, they’re just missing the language component. Technology can help play a role in offering these students support so they have the same opportunities as their classmates to complete tasks that promote higher-order thinking and deeper learning. Here are three ways technology helps make content accessible to all learners in a classroom:

Personalize Video: “Video Clipper” tools like PlayPosit or EDpuzzle allow students to access video at their own pace. Teachers can insert audio, questions and helper text. Students are able to re-watch segments of a video and turn on subtitles. These programs also collect rich data like the number of video views and question responses to help teachers monitor progress.

Vary Levels of Language Complexity: There are a variety of sites such as Newsela or Smithsonian Tween Tribune that offer news articles at different Lexile levels. This way students can all read the same article, just at an appropriate level of complexity. Included in these sites are comprehension checks and the ability to capture data.

Adjust Audio Speed: Listening for information can be very challenging for some students. If you listen to podcasts, many apps or audio players have the option to speed up or slow down the audio. Simply letting students listen to something at a slower pace can be tremendously beneficial. If you’re watching a YouTube video, try pasting the video URL into YouTubeSlow and then click the settings wheel to choose your desired speed. This also works well for students who want to move at a faster pace by speeding audio up a notch.

Response From Katie Robinson

Katie Robinson is the Technology Integration Specialist and Exploratory Design 7 teacher at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, AR. She believes that we need to inspire our students to be life long learners and risk takers:

Differentiate to Empower Ownership in Learning

I would venture to guess that differentiated instruction is a goal of every educator in today’s classroom. Understanding that our students come to us with a myriad of needs and abilities, teachers strive to create a learning environment that meets all those at one time. At times this can seem like a daunting or even impossible task.

Fortunately technology provides educators opportunities to differentiate in new and exciting ways. One of my go-to methods is differentiating the ways in which students demonstrate their learning. How many times have we sat in front of a stack of essays, posters, or even Power Point presentations and wondered if we were going to be grading approximately the same thing on repeat? Differentiating the products we ask our students to create for us alleviates this pitfall and provides students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning while tapping into unique skills and passions. Because the wealth of online creation tools available to students continues to grow this strategy is even more accessible. For example, try taking that essay assignment and allow students to create a video using We Video or Powtoon, a podcast they can post to the classroom blog, or even program in Scratch. Create a tic-tac-toe menu of options that allow students to choose their own path in demonstrating their learning while also showcasing their creativity in answering an essential question or addressing understanding of a unit of study. Keep a classroom list of online technology tools that the students are familiar with or want to learn more about and ask for their input when designing projects and assessments. What tool would work best to demonstrate this type of learning? How can we mash online tools together to achieve our goals? If given the choice, how would you demonstrate to me you mastered this content or skill?

These simple questions involve students in the planning stages and provide them with authentic ownership over their learning as well as differentiated products and learning paths. It is important to scaffold these opportunities for your classroom and students. Moving from a few choices, to a larger menu (tic-tac-toe), to complete input and freedom is an effective way to guide students in making effective and successful choices and differentiating their learning.

Response From Dr. Sonny Magana

Dr. Sonny Magana is an award-winning educational futurist, best-selling author, and pioneering educational technology researcher. Sonny is a highly sought-after leadership consultant, speaker, and instructional coach with more than thirty years’ experience helping educational systems around the world realize the power of transcendent learning. The author of numerous research studies and articles, Sonny’s newest book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education, was recently published through Corwin Press:

Strategies for Differentiating Assessment

When considering how to use use technology to differentiate instruction, let’s not forget the other side of the instructional coin: assessment. While it’s important for teachers to apply digital tools to help students effectively interact with new content knowledge, it’s equally important for students to use technology to represent their growth regarding content knowledge. When used well, technology tools can offer multiple pathways for differentiating how students individually express their knowledge gains.

One of the most impactful ways to use digital tools in schools is by giving students multiple opportunities to represent their knowledge growth over time. We refer to this strategy as student-generated assessment because the locus of control for the assessment process rests with individual students (Magana & Marzano, 2014). Student-generated assessments originate from a student’s own unique set of cognitive constructs and prior knowledge. When students are given the opportunities to generate multiple ways of representing their knowledge, they begin to take ownership for the process of representing what they know and are able to do, and how they think about their learning (Magana, 2017).

Student-generated assessments may also offer a more reliable means for students to authentically express their learning. The most common form of student-generated assessments are conversations between students and teachers in which students verbally express their understanding of newly acquired content knowledge to their teachers. Rather than simply choosing one right answer out of a predetermined series of choices, students engage in more rigorous thinking strategies as they craft, share, and defend deeply personal and informative narratives regarding their learning.

Talking about their knowledge gains allows students to engage in a kind of reflection-in-action as they express the thinking journeys that underpin their particular knowledge representations “in the moment.” Students also tend to make more complex decisions about the phrasing they choose as they develop elaborations and analogies, and provide evidence that supports their learning claims. This rich assessment information allows teachers to more accurately determine the quality and the correctness of students’ thinking processes. This is a far more informative, and therefore valuable, way of assessing authentic student knowledge gain (Magana & Marzano, 2015).

One can readily see why this highly personalized form of assessment can be so powerful. One can also see why this process is so rarely used; it takes so much more time than administering and grading teacher-generated assessments.

Enhancing student generated assessments with technology provides learners with unlimited options for representing, capturing, and archiving what they know (declarative knowledge), what they can do (procedural knowledge), and perhaps more importantly, to make their thinking explicit (Magana, 2017). The multimedia artifacts created by learners are in fact digital thought products that can be digitally archived and accessed by teachers, and potentially other students. These may include, but are not limited to: sound files, images, videos, the spoken word, oral narrations embedded in text, music, poetry, song lyrics, or any digital file that includes, rather than excludes, a rich variety of multi-media.

Consider having students use free digital tools such as Audacity to record an oral representation of what they know, what they are able to do, and how they think about their learning. You can also have students use multimedia tools such as VoiceThread to record a layer of narration over a PowerPoint presentation, word-processing document, or image files. Students can also use a variety of screencast tools such as Screencastify, Camtasia, or Screencast-O-Matic to record annotations and narration on any file that appears on their computer screen. There are no limits to how students might creatively use these tools to represent their learning.

Students can use these digital tools, along with many others, to capture, archive, and share knowledge artifacts with their teachers and classmates. Differentiating assessment through student-generated assessment practices is reflective of the T2: Transformational Technology use state of the T3 Framework for Innovation in Education (Magana, 2017).

The next time you think about differentiating instruction with technology, stop and think about how you might differentiate assessment strategies with technology. You may be surprised by the amount of effort students invest, and the quality of thought they represent digitally.


Magana, S. (2017). Disruptive classroom technologies: A framework for innovation in education (pp. i). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Magana, S. & Marzano, R. J. (2014). Enhancing the Art and Science of Teaching with Technology. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Magana, S., & Marzano, R. J. (2015). Leveraging technology, increasing performance. In J. Bellanca (Ed.), Connecting the dots: Teacher effectiveness and deeper professional learning (pp. 181-202). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Response From Dr. Monica Burns

Dr. Monica Burns is a former classroom teacher, EdTech & Curriculum Consultant, international speaker, and Founder of ClassTechTips.com. Her new book #FormativeTech: Meaningful, Sustainable, and Scalable Formative Assessment with Technology is now available from Amazon and Corwin Press:

Imagine you are walking around the room as your students are exploring a new math topic. You swipe your finger across the screen and each student now sees a picture of a coordinate plane on their device. They’ve been busy working in partners to plot points on a shared page but now their screen gives them a space to label the X- and Y-axis and plot points on their virtual coordinate plane. As soon as they press “Send” they dive back into their partner work and you instantly receive 30 images of each student’s coordinate plane.

With technology tools we can use formative assessment data to differentiate instruction. As you quickly skim through the images students submitted you’ll soon see which students in your class are having trouble figuring out how to label and plot points on a grid. You now have information that can help you make a decision about differentiated instruction.

When used effectively technology can do more than gather data, but also help differentiate instruction. If you notice a student is struggling with a new concept, has a misconception or quickly demonstrates mastery, technology tools can support, clarify, or extend a learning objective. As an intervention after this example lesson, you might (1) share a how-to video hosted on YouTube that reviews the concept, (2) provide students with an opportunity to explore an interactive number line.

Educators can use technology to differentiate instruction with tools like Nearpod (to embed questions), Khan Academy (to review a concept or extend a lesson) or Math Learning Center apps (for hands-on practice), just to name a few! I call the use of technology for formative assessment #FormativeTech. In a classroom where differentiated instruction takes place, technology tools can help educators identify student needs and access materials to support or extend this lesson.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Elizabeth, Becky, Katie, Sonny and Monica, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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