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Technology makes differentiation practical

By December 4, 2009June 14th, 201622 Comments

One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who doesn’t espouse the virtues of differentiation. Yet finding good examples of differentiation actually occurring in the classroom can also be hard to find. When we do find it, we often see a teacher employing educational technology. The recent book Differentiating Instruction with Technology in Middle School Classrooms by Grace E. Smith & Stephanie Throne highlights the power of technology to make differentiation more possible than ever before.

Teachers differentiate using three criteria to decide the appropriate type of instruction as shown below.


For example, mathematics teachers can differentiate by content by using software that is diagnostic, prescriptive, interactive, and adaptive according to students’ readiness. One such software is Cognitive Tutor®. It diagnoses the holes in a student’s mathematical understanding. Then it prescribes interactive lessons to fill those “holes.” Using a sophisticated monitoring system, it adapts the sequence and difficulty of the lessons according to the student’s input and progress. The teacher’s role is to facilitate the use of the software, pose and answer questions, and to analyze the robust progress reports the software provides to continue to adjust the instruction for the students.

Technology can also lend a hand to differentiation in other subjects such as social studies. Students could be required to present their research and proposed solutions to one of the United Nations Priorities for Action. This already allows for differentiation by content. Process can also be differentiated by using a Google site to collect the student work in an online portfolio. Students create the work in the medium of their choice, such as SlideShare, Photo Story, Voice Thread, Windows Movie Maker, iMovie and others. All of which can be embedded on a Google site set up by the teacher or students.

Differentiation by product is possible by using different types of technology. For instance, student groups could be asked to do a science inquiry on photosynthesis. The presentation of the inquiry and results could be given in a variety of ways including movies simply made with a Flip Video™, presentations using PowerPoint, graphics made with Inspiration, reports using Comic Live, and others. Students can propose the medium in which to show what they know for teacher approval.

Most agree that technology makes learning more engaging for many of today’s students. Perhaps this is because by nature, educational technology allows for greater differentiation. Do you have some examples of how technology has increased your abilities to differentiate? If so, please share in a comment to this posting.

by Matt Kuhn – McREL Lead Consultant

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Lollie Lebario says:

    I thought the Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works is a good book.

  • Deb Jensen says:

    I would love to use more technology with my children. It can be a great tool for creating interest and providing differentiation in teaching. I struggle to find the right tools at times. Many times the kids have no idea how to use technology unless it is gaming. It can sometimes take twice as long to teach a concept due to the time spent teaching HOW to use the simple technology tools.

  • J. Saum says:

    Looking forward to gain additional technological tools that can be used in my classroom.

  • Randy Schultz says:

    I have experimented with using technology in the classroom. But it often takes students half the class period to get into the laptop computer and lab space can be limited.

  • Vicki Huskey says:

    I am hoping I can make differentiation practical with technology for my Foreign Language classes.

  • Matt says:

    Hello Vicki, see for resources on learning styles and differentiation.

  • Anita de la Isla says:

    I am excited about the prospect of learning new and innovative ways to integrate technology into the classroom and staff development.

  • Leslie says:

    I think technology in the classroom is the future of education. One of the main struggles is getting all teachers to buy-in and to understand the benefit of why technology is so important. For learners today, technology is the key to engagement!!

  • Matt says:

    Hello Leslie, below are six steps in creating demand for educational technology integration:
    1. Intellectual Stimulation – they have to be convinced over time that it is the right thing to do. Use research and articles from and other sources to discuss for 10 minutes each month. This can be done at a staff meeting or in an online environment such as moodle or an internal blog.
    2. Functionality – Technical assistance and support in using the equipment and software are often inadequate in many schools. If teachers feel that they cannot depend on the technology to work, they will not trust it. If they do not trust a pedagogical tool, they will not use it as part of regular instruction. IT support needs to view their job from the eyes of the teacher. Therefore, filters should work, but not hinder real-time instruction. Computers and software should be kept up-to-date with all browser plug-ins for IE and Firefox including java, flash, and shockwave. Within reason, real-time and long-term technical support should be available and effective. IT should empower and instruct teachers in fixing the most common and harmless technical problems.
    3. Access – teachers need access to power and computers inside the regular classroom. Signing up to use computers (or laptop carts) should not be overly time consuming or burdensome. Teachers need a formalized and relatively fast way of requesting access to blocked websites, services, software, and hardware.
    4. Professional Development – Integrating educational technology is an ongoing learning curve that never ends. Teachers need help in learning how to use and integrate effective technology tools into the curriculum. A regular schedule of general and specific PD should be offered (and required) every school year.
    5. Monitor and Evaluate – Teachers will pay attention to what their leaders pay attention to. If the leaders keep a close eye on the types and frequencies of instruction techniques, than data driven decisions can be made that will focus the school, teams, and individuals on their strengths and weaknesses. This will make the use of PD and other resources more efficient and create a desire for positive change.
    6. Manage Transitions – Some staff members will be overwhelmed with the changes educational technology integration brings. For instance, where they once felt that they were a pedagogical expert with clout, now they feel like a beginner. Furthermore, they may not be convinced that this the right thing to do or that it is worth the time and effort needed. Leaders must seek out these individuals and manage their transition to a new way of doing things. This requires a differentiated approach to instructional leadership and mentorship.

  • Erin says:

    Thanks for the website above.

  • Kasha says:

    A great new resource for differentiation using learning styles or multiple intelligences is
    It allows teachers to create four separate activities for their students, including rubrics, in less than 10 minutes.

  • Danielle Brandt says:

    My students were struggling on the state reading assessments, so I begin utilizing an online program from “Achieve 3000.” The program test students’ reading levels, and produces nonfiction articles for each student at the appropriate reading levels for each individual. It is a perfect tool to use to differentiate instruction. I can have all of the kids reading the same article, allowing us to discuss all of the same points, but each student is able to read at his/her own level with vocabulary that is appropriate.
    This specific technological resource has made differentiating very simple for me.

  • Allison Wolfe says:

    We are living in a world where we are entirely dependent on technology, and it is only appropriate that we prepare and educate our students with that same technology. I would really like to incorporate more technology in my classroom. Thanks!

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    I link Danielle Brandt’s example of technology for differentiation is right on the mark! So many teachers see technology as an add-on instead of a way to make teaching more efficient and effective. Danielle now has an virtual assistant in teaching her students to read that would not be possible without the technology.

  • Liz DeLorge says:

    I think technology is an excellent way to differentiate in the classroom. I have actually decided to do a lesson for my teachers this year on integrating technology using differentiation. I think they will be surprised how easy it is.

  • Angie Nicholes says:

    Many teachers find it difficult to take the time to learn new technology and how to incorporate it into their teaching. Of course when learning something new it does take time, but once the learning and setting up on the front end is done the back end results are so easy! The teacher can then give students choices and therefore begin becoming more of a facilitator rather than standing at the front of the room dispensing their pearls of wisdom.

  • Jannette Anderson says:

    Wow! Years ago when I discovered on-line banking was an invaluable tool for my own time management, I realized society needs to focus on technology implementation to eliminate tedious lengthy non-tech assignments. Thus, I am anxious to learn how to provide “tech tools” which can be used for differentiating instruction clearly and concisely and not bring confusion and lack of implementation.

  • Jenette says:

    I agree with Ashley “We are living in a world where we are entirely dependent on technology, and it is only appropriate that we prepare and educate our students with that same technology.” Even with the 650 four year olds in the Pre-K school they love and live technology. Using technology to help with differentation is one of the best ways to meet the needs of all the students, high, G.T. middle and low students. Using technology also allows you to address different learning styles, visual and auditory learners excel using tehcnology.

  • Lauren Padon says:

    I think using technology as a differentiation tool is one of the most helpful tools when trying to individualize instruction. There are a variety of learners, and technology makes it possible to accommodate all learning styles. I have a set of student computers in my classroom and I use them as a center. Every student goes to the computer each day to work on Lexia Reading. This has been a great resource and really helps target individual reading needs. I have also used Zip Zoom into English for my English Language Learners. Technology is a great resource to incorporate into your classroom.

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    This new article from ASCD’s Smart Brief makes this point again. Check out “Classroom technology enables more individualized learning” at

  • Sarah says:

    I have a computer lab in my classroom and would love to be able to differentiate my instruction using my computers. I am currently on the look-out for ways to differentiate my Algebra 2 curriculum. I implement many strategies for student product, but I would love to learn ways to differentiate the actual presentation of information. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!!

  • D. says:

    I believe technology will provide necessary opportunities for the future. We
    as a society have post graduate and high school courses online. Teachers are beginning to see the involvement with diverse learners for all age groups.

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