Digitally Yours: 4 Ways Technology-Based Differentiated Instruction Propels Learning


Whether you’re new to PreK-12 teaching or an experienced veteran, it’s always surprising to discover the diversity of academic proficiency and learning needs you see in a single classroom of students.

During previous decades of school reform, differentiated instruction was widely adopted as an approach to individualizing instruction for various learner profiles. No matter the student’s learning style, strengths, needs and abilities—educators began adapting classroom curricula and activities to meet these differences. In recent years, educators began utilizing new technologies and tools to empower teachers to personalize learning for every student.

With the proliferation of digital technology in schools, online courses, learning management systems, games, and mobile applications are personalizing learning and raising performance. All students along the entire learning spectrum—from the “high” to the at-risk—benefit from the expanding use of tablet devices, laptops, desktops and notebooks. Access to broadband and WiFi powered by the investment by E-Rate, began to really change the game in 2015.

Howard Gardner, multiple intelligences theorist at Harvard University, wrote several years ago that “Human beings differ from one another and there is absolutely no reason to teach and assess all individuals in the identical way. Rather, in the future, good practice should particularize the modes of presentation as well as the manner of assessment as much as feasible; and that individuation should be based on our understanding of the intellectual profiles of individual learners.”

Fortunately, the future is here. Deep personalized learning that meets a range of achievement levels, driven by online and blended learning courses, is now possible. Differentiation is empowered by digital platforms, resources, and entire curriculum programs. We can match and modify instruction and assignments to align the student’s readiness, developmental level and skills with targeted learning objectives.

Digital programs connect education to real-world experiences and also promote equity, access and opportunity for all students. Not only that, but students develop more responsibility for and control of their learning, with more choices around the pace, time, and location of online instruction.

Research shows technology-based instruction is reducing the time students reach a learning objective by 30 to 80 percent. And, the public is showing growing acceptance for blended learning that combines teacher-led instruction, with the online delivery of instructional content. According to a 2015 EdNext survey, 60 percent of the general public thought students should work at least 30 percent of the time on the computer, and 64 percent of parents said the same. Blended learning experts suggested 40 percent, and teachers said 20 percent. In another recent study from EdSurge, 50 percent of the teachers in blended learning classroom said students are developing problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Saving time and boosting efficiency in the classroom

Digital tools make the job of education easier or faster, as well as enhance meaning and understanding. And, digitally differentiated instruction makes it easy for teachers to know each student’s background knowledge, readiness, languages, preferences in learning, and interests. Assignments are automatically differentiated and modified based on readiness, interest level, and learning profile.

Right-on pedagogy. Some educators may lack a proper pedagogical foundation in what it takes to differentiate instruction. Digital curricula can help overcome this challenge. Digital instruction also helps save time for class preparation—the software handles the task of developing assignments tailored to the different needs in each classroom.

Data-driven reporting. Digital assessment software helps manage data intelligence that can be used in federal and state accountability reports. Reports can be instantly produced and easily broken down by various parameters including ethnicity, gender, free/reduced lunch, and more.

Student success. Teachers report that blended learning enhances their relationships with some students who struggle with whole class instruction. These students transform from “zoned-out” to empowered learners. With engaging resources at their fingertips, students see amazing academic success lifts their enjoyment of class, and their instructors. Digital programs are also great at promoting on-task behavior to prevent students from being distracted by the social dynamics of traditional classrooms.

What is it?

Digital differentiation strategies can help provide precise individualized learning that customizes assignment lengths, language, scaffolded activities, compaction, and interactive media. Students can work independently at their own pace and style, and absorb learning quickly.

The top programs modify instruction automatically based on a student’s learning profile—by developmental level, learning modality, and special needs status. Built-in autonomy gives students a sense of control, turning them into active participants in the learning journey.

Case in point: In a typical digital middle or high school course in language arts, activities include readings, journals, labs, discussions, projects, and embedded assessments. Students need to achieve a minimum score or higher on the computer-scored assessments, to advance to the next module or lesson. This mastery learning approach ensures that students learn continuously throughout instruction, and gives students a boost from the exhilaration of success.

In one lesson, for example, students form inferences about digital characters from dialog and from the avatars’ actions—key attributes that drive new literacy skills as they complete the tasks. The teacher actively monitors progress and test scores to understand the student’s learning needs, only diving in to help struggling students, or guide accelerating students.

Goodbye to one-size-fits-all: Four ways digital differentiation is working

Curriculum technology for digital differentiation affords a high degree of flexibility in implementation. Teachers can schedule and assign computer time when needed, as the classroom schedule permits, and even as work assignments from home, over the web. Today’s programs are becoming more easy to use, so minimal support is required from other educational or technology specialists.

Here are four must-have elements to look for when evaluating digital curriculum programs.

  1. Rigorous curriculum
    Sound pedagogy is the foundation for digital instruction. A high-quality, standards-based curriculum engages students with the concepts, principles, and big ideas to develop understanding and application of required learning competencies. Beginning with basic literacy and numeracy skills in PreK and kindergarten, digital interactive programs address rigorous standards and ever-shifting assessment requirements, building conceptual understanding and procedural fluency.Digital programs are more than a new way of creating a diorama, presentation or poster—they help deepen meaning and stimulate high-level thinking. These programs nurture higher thinking skills such as reasoning and synthesizing, afford a chance to explore important ideas, and develop the skills and attitudes needed to do rigorous, quality work. And, they offer new ways to accomplish projects and allow multiple modes of expression, including writing and speaking.

    Digital instruction affords the ability to make higher-order tasks and advanced learning both easily accessible, and possible. Lessons contain many opportunities for students to explore, apply, practice, and confirm their understanding.

    Purposeful use of interactive multimedia actively motivates, while addressing a variety of learning styles. The ability to for each student to set her own pace is especially helpful for special education and ELL/ESL students, who can learn at their own speed. And, digital differentiation by computer programs can support the accommodations and modifications required by IEPs. Specific digital programs that address RTI (Response to Intervention) are the most appropriate for the intense intervention required by non-traditional and at-risk students.

    Differentiated program examples

    • SRA FLEX Literacy, a high-rigor intervention program for Grades 3 and up, offers differentiated instruction in The Digital Experience, using computer-based instruction focused on skill development. Individualized and motivating technology includes scaffolded instruction, practice, assessment, remediation, and review opportunities. FLEX Literacy utilizes technology as a way to ensure that students do not just read more, but read more targeted text. By targeting students at their individual reading level, FLEX Literacy goes beyond differentiation, and is able to individualize education to the unique needs of each student.
    • Building Blocks is a supplemental math program that uses personalized lessons and research-based learning paths to improve student math skills and confidence through games and adaptive learning technology. The engaging math program contains nearly 300 fully animated digital activities for PreK–8 math practice, conceptual development, and remediation.
  2. Continual assessment
    Every mouse click informs student strategies. Digital curriculum programs pave the way to new methods for assessment and accountability.A diagnostic-prescriptive approach personalizes learning for each student, allowing students to test and progress at a flexible pace that’s not necessarily based on age or grade level. Digital assessment first allows teachers to pre-assess students’ readiness and interests at the start of a unit, before automatically serving up the appropriate interfaces, prompts, and instruction. Often, multiple entry points dynamically create the learning path best suited to his or her needs, to guide the student through the curriculum.

    Administrators and teachers are equipped with intuitive dashboards to interpret progress and performance data in real-time, and make informed decisions. Student progress based on objectives are tracked and easily viewed graphically, so teachers can see- where each student stands at the click of a button.

    Online assessment immediately shows results and helps identify quickly who is struggling, who is excelling, and what kind of additional support each needs. This provides a powerful lens into the individual student’s potential, to better inform instructional decisions. As with regular curricula, all staff members should work as a team to carefully monitor and support student performance.

    Differentiated program examples

    • Number Worlds is a PreK-8 math intervention program with many phases of assessment:

      • Planning—As teachers develop lesson plans, planning helps them consider how they will assess the instruction, to determine whether students have grasped the materials
      • Gathering Evidence—Throughout the instructional phase, teachers informally and formally gather evidence of student understanding via an Informal Assessment Checklist and Student Assessment Record
      • Summarize Findings—Teachers take time to reflect on the assessments to summarize findings and make plans for follow-up, as a critical part of any lesson
      • Use Results—Teachers use results of their findings to differentiate instruction or to adjust or confirm future lessons
    • All components of SRA FLEX Literacy including print, digital, and project-based learning are integrated through a comprehensive, computer-based teacher management and assessment system. Teachers and administrators can easily place students, monitor student progress, and manage the overall learning experience.

  3. Instructional challenge
    Push each student’s learning boundaries. Digitally-based tasks take into account each student’s learning level so they are presented with challenging, interesting, and thought provoking content. And, innovative user interface designs incorporate elements of popular games and apps that engage and motivate students, with virtual manipulatives and dynamic audio and visual supports.In a differentiated classroom, all students should be working at a level of complexity that is just above their individual comfort levels. Frequent assessments enable students to receive regular feedback that nurtures engagement and motivation, offering more or less complex problems based on the student’s responses. The software identifies the need to re-teach a concept or lesson, and activities are automatically modified when students are found to be at lower readiness levels. The challenge is lifted higher for other students.

    By providing each student with practical levels of challenge and differentiated instructional scaffolding, students are rewarded when work results in successful growth. Mastery checks and visual awards such as virtual mastery stickers deliver positive reinforcement for achieving learning objectives.

    Differentiated program examples

    • Number Worlds integrates virtual manipulatives that demonstrate and explore concepts and solve problems throughout the program. These tools include: data organization and display tools like spreadsheets, measurement and conversion tools like stopwatches and metric conversion, geometric exploration, and calculation and counting tools including calculators, base ten blocks, and coins and money.
    • FLEX Literacy allows students to progress at their own pace with lessons and activities that meet students’ individual needs. Students build their own game and earn points for reinforcement.
  4. Facilitated learning
    Optimize each teacher’s ability to customize and personalize instruction. As the educator’s role shifts to be the facilitator of learning, digital curriculum technology makes it possible to create even more highly engaging learning environments.Each teacher is empowered to function as a coach, mentor, tutor, diagnostician, and motivator. Teachers apply a human touch to provide extra support, remediate deficiencies, or deliver additional extensions as needed. The focus shifts to delivering empathy, understanding and mentorship.

    Teachers are doing less lecturing and providing more skills focus in the classroom, applying digital tools from Powerpoints, to videos, to blended digital programs. Teachers coach on technology use, app navigation, and help students direct their own learning. In turn, students’ computer time is spent more efficiently absorbing core knowledge, with regular classroom time used for collaboration, projects, discussions, and open-ended investigations.

    Enter the brave new world of technology programs

    There’s no doubt that technology adoption can be expensive. But digital curricula can provide cost savings opportunities for districts through increased teacher effectiveness and improved student outcomes, including higher graduation rates.

    Consider these guidelines and considerations for planning and implementing digital differentiation:
    Instructional strategy that affords blending teacher support and student interactions
    Inventory and audit around pedagogical practice and curriculum resources available
    Professional learning plan to train teachers on how to use and maximize the technology
    One-to-one computer access, with one device per student
    Communications infrastructure supporting speedy Internet connections
    Administrative support encompassing information technology and networking support

    Whether it’s adopting point technologies like the digital reading practice of Reading Labs 2.0 in a single classroom, piloting blended learning programs across a school, or applying a full-stack start-up approach including comprehensive learning platforms and programs district-wide—digital differentiation will no doubt continue to be integral to Pre-K-12 education.

    A digital infrastructure alone will not change teaching and learning; it requires a new vision with solid human oversight, experimentation and iteration, and professional capacity building. When you’re considering digital learning, assemble a committee to assess online learning in general and to evaluate the various digital curriculum providers. Consider developing and using a rubric to evaluate providers that includes instructional design, course content, engagement, interactivity, assessment resources, services support, and technical requirements.

    To get consultative insight when it comes to adopting digital differentiation solutions, please contact your McGraw-Hill Education representative or inquire here.

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