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Differentiation - enhanced by technology?



If we focus on the idea of content, process and product, educators, when differentiating, must think about the source material and employ a variety of source content that starts at different levels in terms of difficulty; for example: books, articles, newspapers, quizzes and vocabulary lists.  Moving on there are multiple processes; teacher-led, cooperative, collaborative, individual or group-work and these processes can lead to varying outcomes or products such as posters, presentations, summaries and essays.  At each stage consideration must be given to the modes of working as some pupils will engage more with audio material, others visual modalities, whilst there will be some who are happy to work with the written word.  In all of these elements technology need not necessarily play any part in any of this.  Furthermore modes of working can be differentiated; students can work in classrooms with peers, in carefully considered groups or pairs or of course, individually.  Again, technology need not impinge on this process in any way.


However, as differentiation and consideration of individual pupil needs are vital to ensure that pupil progress takes place it is important to consider whether differentiated instruction can be delivered more effectively via technology and if using technological methods can make differentiated instruction more successful than more traditional techniques. 
Information technology can be viewed as the teacher’s favorite workhorse, in as much as when it is integrated creatively and authentically into instruction, it can be used to enrich, to extend, to accelerate, and to supplement learning to meet the instructional needs of the wide range of students present in today’s classrooms. (Kyburg Michigan Virtual University Lansing, 2007)
Technology enhanced learning increasingly is recognised as having a positive impact on education and institutions from primary through to university are well aware of its power and how it can enhance learning. This video on a study carried out by the University of Birmingham on the use of technology with medical students sums up successfully the affordances of Technology Enhanced Learning  (2013). A study by Durham University states that ‘Overall, the research evidence over the last forty years about the impact of digital technologies on learning consistently identifies positive benefits’ (Higgins, Xiao, Katsipataki. 2012: 3).   Language learning is not immune from this impact and technological advancements have always played a part in language teaching.  From the early stages of CALL and Warschauer's approaches, educators have looked to incorporate technology into their language lessons:  from tape to CD, from video to interactive whiteboard, from projector and computer suites to the increasing use of tablets such as iPads. Schools are now wise to the affordances of technology, not just in the language classroom, and many educational institutions look to create BYOD policies to maximise the potential of such appliances.  Such technology affords a number of benefits to the language learner.  Opportunities to be free of anxiety when speaking a foreign language, to access higher-order thinking skills and to allow learners to create their own content and build on knowledge garnered originally in class or via teacher guidance. If technology has a part to play in delivering successful language lessons it can surely be considered an instrumental part of differentiated instruction. Or can it?
What can technology do that can not already be done in a classroom without a jot of technology around?  Let’s take the in-vogue process of ‘flipping the classroom’ which allows for students to read or view content prior to teacher contact time, leaving time in class for collaboration and higher-order thinking skills.  A flipped class can be defined as “one that inverts the typical cycle of content acquisition and application so that
• students gain necessary knowledge before class, and
• instructors guide students to actively and interactively clarify and apply that knowledge during class.” (University of Texas at Austin 2013)
Flipping can easily occur without any technology whatsoever.  It is possible to send pupils away to investigate an array of articles and text books about any subject matter and then invite them back to class to share their thoughts and ask their questions.  These students will return having digested the content at their level and the teacher will have “flipped the classroom” even though technology was not used in the process.
However, technology assists instructors in what they already do in the classroom.  Indeed technology helps ‘us to envision and meet new goals for language learners’ (Egbert, 2007:3)
So how, exactly, can technology play its part in enhancing differentiated instruction?  If one understands that in order to meet the diverse needs of the learner the focus must be on content, process and product it would be insightful to consider how technology can play a part in each of these steps.    Egbert goes on to clarify her statement on the power of technology by listing “what technology can and can’t do”.  As regards content the study mentions a number of well-thought out and well-known suggestions. 
- Providing language and content resources on a variety of levels for a great number of interests.
- Presenting real-life problems and raw data from which learners must discover a solution. (Egbert 2007: 8)
The importance of this second point must not be underestimated; the ability to use real-life situations and scenarios that are much more engaging for students provides excellent learning opportunities that can be tailored precisely to individual needs.   For example online journals, news reports, videos, social media, direct contact to a whole host of online experts, Web Quests[1], e-twinning[2], online games, virtual worlds to name but a few.  These are all up-to-the-minute, content-rich, authentic and relevant resources which are of high student interest and for the teacher the trick is to know where to start and how to manage this content effectively and in context.  “Access to the content is seen as key” (Hall, 2002: 3) simply because of the different modalities of the student learners.   As with all elements of differentiated instruction it is essential to recall that students have different means of learning and technology can enrich the content in a variety of ways that take into account that learners are audio, visual, kinaesthetic  and  verbal learners (to name but a few).  Consider again the flipped classroom model.  As previously suggested, a flipped classroom need not rely on technology to make it successful.  Indeed, there is evidence of such practices dating back to the early 19th Century when engineering students at West Point were responsible for researching and collecting their own principal evidence and content before returning to class to complete group work.   However, “with the advent of new technologies, specifically the ability to record digitally annotated and narrated screencasts, instructional videos have become a common medium in the flipped classroom.”  (Musallam, R 2011).  Simply being able to listen and watch voice guided notes taps into new modalities that the 19th Century engineering students at West Point may have hankered after to enrich their experience and make it more targeted to their individual needs instead of the books and diagrams they undoubtedly had as their starting point. 
This is just one area where technology can enhance differentiation.  What about motivation, ability to collaborate more effectively and different modalities of learning?  The list is endless and technology, when used appropriately and contextually, is rich in solutions. 



[1] A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web. The model was developed by Bernie Dodge at San Diego State University in February, 1995 http://webquest.org/ (retrieved 12/01/2014)
[2] a platform run by the British Council that enables students to connect, share ideas and collaborate with other students in Europe.
References:

Egbert, J. (2007). ‘Asking useful questions: Goals, engagement, and differentiation in technology-enhanced language learning’. Teaching English with Technology. 7/1. (no page nos)  
Hall, T (2002) ‘Differentiated Instruction’  National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum 2002 
Kyburg, R Information Technology (2007): Unlocking the Door to Differentiation in the 21st Century Michigan Virtual University Lansing, Michigan
Musallam, R (2011) ‘Should you Flip your Classroom’  (26/10/2011) http://www.edutopia.org/ date accessed 12/1/2014
University of Texas at Austin Centre for Teaching and Learning (2013) ‘What is the Flipped Classroom’ date accessed 12/1/2014 http://ctl.utexas.edu/teaching/flipping_a_class/what_is_flipped










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