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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: Ways to Use Tech to Differentiate Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 22, 2018 18 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are ways technology can assist teachers apply differentiated instruction?

Differentiating instruction is a constant challenge to teachers. Can using tech help?

This two-part series will explore answers to that question.

Today, Dr. Nancy Sulla, Anne Jenks, Ge-Anne Bolhuis, Sarah Shartzer, Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessia M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair share 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.

You can read my suggestions on this topic at an ASCD Educational Leadership article I wrote last year, Student Engagement: Key To Personalized Learning.

You might also be interested in previous columns appearing here on Differentiating Instruction.

Response From Anne Jenks

Anne Jenks is an educator with twenty-six years experience in teaching and school administration. She was the 2015 CUE Site Leader of the Year and the 2013 ACSA Region 13 Elementary School Principal of the Year. Currently, she is working as a consultant with an emphasis on edtech integration and STEM:

Teachers today have a wide variety of needs to meet in their classrooms. Students may speak different languages, have different educational levels from special education to gifted, or they may have a variety of social and emotional challenges to overcome. Technology, used correctly, can help mitigate these circumstances through differentiation and provide the opportunity for every student to access a quality education.

Students who are learning English can benefit from using technology to present information. Frequently students who are not fluent in English are hesitant to make oral presentations in class. English Learners can create slide shows and videos to demonstrate mastery of a concept. Through these methods, students can show what they have learned without the anxiety of having to get up and speak to the group.

Technology is also useful when special education students have to present information. For example, there are many applications that help students overcome barriers that are created by their disabilities. Speech to text is helpful for students with dysgraphia, a disability that makes it difficult to write. By dictating using assistive technology, their voice is converted into text. Students who are visually handicapped can have books read to them by turning on the text to speech feature in various applications. This is also useful for students learning English as it models the correct pronunciation and cadence.

There are several Assistive Communication applications that are available for students who either cannot speak or have difficulty speaking. Some of these applications can support students providing them with a way to communicate by touching a symbol and having the device communicate for them with audio. Others have pictures and photographs that the student can use to communicate their wants and needs.

Students who are accelerated can benefit from using technology in all subject areas. They can create presentations using various applications, take advanced online courses that meet their specific needs, and access information from colleges, universities and research sites throughout the world. They are also able to connect with mentors and specialists in fields that are of interest to them.

By integrating technology into classrooms and taking advantage of all of the different modalities that it offers, the educational needs of all students can be addressed and true differentiated instruction can be achieved. Students can then have the individualized instruction that will insure their academic success.

Response From Ge-Anne Bolhuis

Ge-Anne Bolhuis, Ed. S. is an instructional technology specialist serving in NW Georgia and the mother of a child with special needs. She enjoys engaging with her PLN via Twitter chats, at local EdCamps and at CoffeeEDU meetups:

Ask three educators what qualifies as differentiated instruction and you will very likely get three completely different answers. Simply put, the term means serving students in the way they will learn best. Technology allows us to do this far better than ever. For example, students can use differentiated rubrics, checklists, graphs and other visuals to track their own progress while collaborative tools like using comments in digital work allow for teachers and students to collaborate in real time but in a confidential and supportive manner. Teachers who allow student choice with regard to assignments have apps, tools and features like Flipgrid, Buncee, Webcams, Voice Typing (within Google docs) and other tools that allow students to showcase their knowledge in ways that don’t penalize them for lacking skills like fine motor control or grammar prowess.

How can teachers choose which tools fit their students? Easy! Start with the strengths of the student. Does your student love to talk, but hate to write? Then using video tools and the integrated webcam are great jumping off points. Does your student love to write and/or draw, but hesitates to engage verbally? Use tools that showcase their natural abilities like slide decks, EduBuncee and others.

Simply put, differentiation is nearly impossible without developing a relationship with each student. Good communication and the ability to allow students to choose what works for them are key factors for success. Keeping abreast of tools that help students is nearly impossible without developing a strong professional learning network, or PLN, a group of educators (online, real-life or a combination) who can share and help brainstorm ways to meet the needs of all students. Twitter chats and EdCamp experiences can go a long way towards growing a PLN. Differentiation is, by definition, complex. Technology can allow us to reach all learners, but only as much as we are willing to invest ourselves in the process.

Response From Dr. Nancy Sulla

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom. She is the author of three books on the subject of student-driven classrooms: Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom; It’s Not What You Teach But How: Making the CCSS Work for You and Build; and Building Executive Function: The Missing Link to Student Achievement. You can follow Nancy’s blog and find out more about her company at www.idecorp.com:

Meeting the needs of all learners can seem like a daunting task. I often ask teachers, if they had just one student, the lowest achieving student in the class, could they get him or her to succeed and master the content? The overwhelming majority of teachers say yes. I ask then if they had two low achieving students, could they get them to master the content? Again, the answer is yes. I keep on adding to the number. Somewhere around five students teachers begin to say no. The point I then make is, you actually do know how to ensure every student succeeds; you just need to clone yourself! Enter computer technology: the perfect “teacher cloning tool.” Use computer technology to develop myriad ways for students to engage in learning. Videotape lesson for your students; identify NewsELA articles that offer students the same content on different lexile levels; create Nearpod lessons with formative assessment questions to further facilitate differentiation; and identify Apps that allow students to explore your content in more interactive ways. Let me share an idea on using technology to provide students with differentiated learning activities.

Learning Activities

A learning activity provides direction instruction on a target concept or skill, offering a step by step process and, where appropriate, feedback. You can find videos, interactive websites, online simulations, how-to sites, and more to offer students options. You can add learning activities that you design using various applications. Many of our kindergarten teachers create videos of key skills (e.g., writing letters, using scissors, and reading words) and have QR codes hanging next to images for students to scan with their iPads.

For most grade levels, I like to create a 3x3 grid for students to access a variety of learning activities. The middle column is for students who are ready to learn a skill or concept; the first is for those who need a little background work first; the third is for those who already know the content. The rows represent different learning modalities. Each can be set up with hyperlinks to websites. Here’s an example of ways to learn about the concept of a Food Chain. You can encourage students to start at their level and move from left to right, and to try two different modalities in one of the columns where they want to spend more time.

Understanding a Food Chain

Complete any three:

Not Sure of This

I’m Ready!

I Know This Already

I Like to Read and Look: Visual

Learn about small predators and scavengers: read the Fun Facts then take the quiz.

Learn about food chains and then take the quiz.

Read about food webs.

I Like to Listen: Auditory

Watch this video on definitions in a food chain.

Watch this video on food chains.

First watch a food web video; then learn about how ecosystems get out of balance

I Like to Move Things Around:Tactile

Learn about predators and prey by building a food chain.

Play BrainPOP’s food chain game on your own or a food chain game with a friend.

Play the food web game to place species in the correct trophic level and spot in the food web.

You can also add assignments for students to complete to demonstrate their knowledge after working through options on the grid.

There’s so much to share on this topic, but I thought I’d start with this idea that both differentiates instruction and empowers students to take charge of their own learning.

Response From Sarah Shartzer

Sarah Shartzer (@SarahShartzer) has taught math at Kentucky Country Day School in Louisville, Kentucky, for fifteen years. She currently teaches a semi-flipped eighth grade algebra course and a STEAM elective focusing on the mathematics and the art of origami. Sarah is also the technology integrationist for junior kindergarten through twelfth grade classes at her school. Each summer, she helps to plan the Tech Teach Learn Conference (techteachlearn.org), which offers technology-related professional development for teachers in the Louisville area:

I use technology to differentiate in my Algebra classroom in many different ways. Sometimes, I put this technology in the hands of students and sometimes I use it myself to streamline a process.


Flexible grouping is a large part of differentiated instruction. With FlipQuiz Random Group Maker, you can create by number of groups or number of students per group. Using the ClassTools Random Name Picker, you can pick and remove students until groups are created. Students enjoy seeing both of these up on the screen if you’re looking for entirely random groups.

However, I have found that groups are best when they’re not-so-random. I want to be able to quickly group by ability (hetero- or homogeneously), learning style, working speed, or sometimes just by personality/group work style, so I have used GAFE to create my own set of grouping cards. Teachers have been doing similar things with with popsicle sticks for years, but by using a spreadsheet to create and assign the cards, I can group my students purposefully. The groups usually seem random to students (they have no idea that when I call “colors” or “letters” they’re being grouped by homogeneous ability level or when I call “shapes” they’re being grouped by learning style), but I know exactly who is going where and can implement flexible grouping with a purpose.

(Note: These cards were new last year. I’m working on a set of 16 and a set of 32 for smaller or larger classes and will Tweet links when they’re ready!)


I consider my classroom “semi-flipped.” For most units/lessons, I try to allow students to choose their method and pace for getting the cut-and-dry concepts before they need to come to class the next day to apply them. There are some units that we do together in class in a traditional math lecture, but these also include a video and written link in case students need to see the content again or in a different way.

Most students choose to watch my flipped videos, which I record using Screencast-O-Matic and post on YouTube. Students watch videos, take notes, and sometimes pause to answer questions (otten using EdPuzzle). If they don’t like my explanations, they can always check out Khan Academy for another perspective.

We do not use a textbook in my class, but for students who prefer a written explanation, I post links to the appropriate content on PurpleMath. While this site is specific to math, there is online content available for almost any subject area (try SmartStudy, MIT Open Courseware, or a variety of other sources. Rather than asking students to search on their own for this kind of content, I give specific links and details about what to read.

When we do reading/writing activities, I try to customize these to students’ abilities and learning styles as well. When we practice writing with numbers, I allow students to use the MLA Handbook for a written explanation or this infographic for a more visual approach. When we read math-related current events, I always offer several different versions through Newsela so that all students can get the same content, no matter their ability level.


Because I allow students to pace themselves through (some of) our units and to work on activities/concepts until they are mastered, I have found digital badges to be very useful. Students and their parents can keep track of what units they’ve completed, what skills they’ve mastered, and where they’re going next.

I offer badges for mastery of concepts/test scores/project grades, but also for things like completing all homework in a grading period, being particularly helpful to another student, or coming in for extra practice during study hall. For some students, the content badges are most important, but for others, just turning in an assignment is a big step in the right direction. Every student can set their own goals for badges and every student can find some level of success to show off on their banner page.

There are many free websites that can be used for creating and issuing badges - MakeBadges, OpenBadges, ClassBadges, Credly. Because we are a GAFE school and our students already use their Drive every day, I use my own in-house badging system created with Google Drawing and Google Sheets.

Response From Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessia M. Tsang & Kristen P. Blair

Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, is the Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and holds the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology. He is an award-winning learning scientist, who also spent eight years teaching secondary school in Los Angeles and Kaltag, Alaska. His special niche is the ability to produce novel and effective learning activities that also test basic hypotheses about how people learn.

Jessica M. Tsang, PhD, is a researcher and instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who studies how to design instruction that naturally recruits students’ native capacities for learning and understanding. Her interdisciplinary research bridges between cognitive neuroscience and the design of effective classroom practices. She has previously worked in the fields of education philanthropy, urban school reform, and educational media technology.

Kristen P. Blair, PhD, is a Senior Research Scholar and Instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. She develops technologies to support students’ learning in math and science, and she studies child development and learning in classroom and in family contexts. She holds a PhD in Learning Sciences and Technology Design and a BS in Mathematical and Computational Science, both from Stanford University:

Delivering instruction tailored to the needs and interests of individual students is intuitively appealing. In practice, it usually takes the form of matching instructional content to studentsskills and interests. A simple example involves assigning a book that a child can read and finds interesting. One might also try to match student profiles to the type of instruction (e.g., project-based versus tell-then-practice). It is worth being cautious here, because differentiating instructional methods often devolves into "weakerstudents being told and then copying, which is a recipe for the neediest students receiving the worst instruction. There are very few rigorous studies that have documented success at matching instructional methods based on learner characteristics (e.g., learning styles), unless those differences achieve clinical levels. Good instruction works for most everyone, if the level and content are appropriate.

There are four challenges to differentiating instruction: assessing the child; finding the right content; tracking multiple personalized lessons; and finally, a bedeviling side effect, which we discuss below. For the first three challenges, there are innumerable software packages. The software provides the child with a task, and if the child does poorly, it moves the child to an easier level. If the child does well, it moves the child forward. It also provides the record keeping automatically.

Not all programs are created equal. There are websites that help teachers navigate the fractured market of educational software. There is a paucity of research on specific products, so try to get a free preview to see if the technology passes the sniff test.

There are also many creative support tools that enable interesting classroom models for differentiation. One service translates newspaper articles into multiple reading levels (and Spanish) so that, regardless of reading level, all the students can read the article and participate in a conversation on social studies, for example.

The bedeviling side-effect of differentiated instruction is that it can isolate students. Tracking in math is one example. Low students become isolated from high students, which can trigger unfortunate problems for self-esteem and motivation. Full-blown individualization runs the risk of each student working alone, perhaps on a computer in the back of the room.

So, heres one idea. Ask students to work in teams to create a digital video on a topic of their choosing. It is highly motivating. The technology tools support all levels of sophistication, and the task is complex enough that it supports differentiation through students taking on different roles. Make sure to set the constraints so that students learn the key concept; for example, create a video that clarifies different points of view on a current event. Help the students differentiate into team roles - producer, writer, actor, techie, recorder. Try to find the role where a student can thrive. A student who may be weak in language may nevertheless be very good at editing videos, which will help the student engage and learn about the key lesson regarding points of view. It is also a good idea to have students rotate through roles, so they do not get trapped in a marginal role. This model of differentiation helps students develop islands of expertise regardless of their incoming abilities. It relies on the creative possibilities of technology such as recording video, downloading and splicing in online videos, transition effects, and more. It also requires students to take responsibility for their personal opportunities rather than having it scheduled for them. Lastly, instead of isolation, it capitalizes on the benefits of heterogeneous groups for learning; students typically learn more by teaching each other than they do learning for themselves in isolation.

Thanks to Nancy, Anne, Ge-Anne, Sarah, Daniel, Jessia, and Kristen 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.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

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