Technology’s role in differentiation

Computers can be used for a whole variety of purposes in the classroom. But I have recently come to the conclusion that if technology’s use is for anything other than the pursuit of personalised learning and differentiated instruction, then educators should reassess the role that technology plays in their pedagogy. Used in the wrong way, technology can be non-conducive to learning, and nothing more than an expensive distraction.

Take an electronic book (ebook) for example. When iPads first began to filter into schools, principals were promised that school bags would be lighter due to the removal of textbooks. On the contrary, after years of effort it is clear that a book is the best way to present text, a textbook is best at being a textbook! However an interactive book, with tailored content for the individual, rich in immersive media has the potential to become a better tool. In this instance you have moved beyond simple substitution and you are beginning to use technology to improve learning. The overall objective? Differentiated Instruction.

Late last term, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a professional development session hosted by Differentiated Instruction expert, Donna Deed (care of the Catholic Education Office). This session exposed me to the writings of Carol Ann Tomlinson and my colleagues and I began a conversation about technology’s role in the delivery of personalised learning, and my own objectives, in the manner with which I support teaching staff, have been reaffirmed.

Also referred to as Differentiation, teachers must apply a range of techniques and methods if they want to enhance the learning outcomes of every student. In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s book, The Differentiated Classroom, she highlights six components that form to create a focused teaching and learning method.

The teacher modifies content, process, and products based on student readiness, interest, and learning profile. Carol Ann Tomlinson.

‘Content’ is the area which, in most respects, is out of the teacher’s hands. It is likely already selected as per the curriculum and represents the destination in this process. The ‘Process’ and ‘Products’ are elements that can, and often are, directly enhanced by technology e.g. research and media creation like photographs, movies, and podcast creation.

Assessment of a student can identify their ‘Readiness’ or entry point to a topic, and the ‘Interest’ component highlights a learner’s curiosity about a topic. The sixth element, which I find most interesting, is the ‘Learning Profile’ of a student that is developed in a number of ways. But of uppermost importance, it is crucial not to pigeon hole a learner within a traditional learning profile, e.g. auditory, visual etc, using these containers ignores the reality of the whole person.

“Assessment is today’s means of understanding how to modify tomorrow’s instruction” Carol Ann Tomlinson

Developing Learning Profiles

To make a real difference, a collective effort from all teachers should be made to teach to a student’s needs. But this can only be achieved if all staff are privy to the same information. It is here where many schools and their choice of Learning Management System (LMS) fall short.

The challenge we face is how can each staff member contribute to form an overview of a student’s learning profile, and how can that data be easily accessed by dozens of teaching staff? I am referring to data beyond NAPLAN data. Observational data, character data including personal interests, and data that evolves throughout the weeks and terms.

This challenge remains a focus for my colleagues and myself, and we are very near to a solution.