A lot has changed in teaching this year, and while it may feel like everything has changed, some of the basics remain the same — like the importance of differentiation and small group instruction. 

As K-6 STEM teacher Andrea says, “Our top priority is to continue to be mindful of individual students’ needs,” so regardless of whether students are studying at home or in the classroom, “they all need something different.”

School shutdowns in the spring of 2020 quickly taught many teachers new ways to use technology to deliver small group instruction and differentiation. And the trend is likely to continue into the 2020-21 school year. According to a recent survey of over 1,000 educators conducted by TpT’s Education and Insights team, 88% of teachers anticipate using more technology to support instruction, and 92% plan to use digital instructional materials multiple times per week. So as blended learning and distance learning continue, the push to learn new differentiation techniques for the virtual classroom could be an important and lasting change. As Della from Della Larsen’s Class points out, “Technology is the best way to differentiate.”

Given the continued importance of differentiation, we asked the TpT community for their best practices for using technology to support it. Here are their tips.

Digital Tools That Can Help You Differentiate

Let’s start with the basics — what digital tools can you use to help you differentiate? Here are a few that the TpT community recommends.

  • TpT Digital Activities. “Teachers can differentiate instruction by creating TpT Digital Activities. They can select different pages and customize directions to target learning experiences for specific learners,” explains Brenda Kovich. If a Teacher-Author has enabled their PDF resource to be used as a TpT Digital Activity, you can make it an interactive resource for students to complete on a device. Start by customizing the resource — with text, answer boxes, and more — and then assign it to students to complete online via Google Classroom. 
  • Boom Learning. Angela from The Speech Serenade recommends Boom Cards — self-correcting digital task cards that allow for easy differentiation, especially for younger students. The cards are interactive and can include audio clips and directions. Says Angela, “Boom Cards are a great way to get in a high number of trials with built-in interactive reinforcement.”
  • Google Classroom. Google Docs™, Google Slides™, and Google Forms are foundational tools that many teachers are using to differentiate. “Using Google Classroom makes it really easy to still differentiate activities for your learners who are at home. You can still reach the most fragile learners (or challenge those who need it) with activities that will support where they are,” explains Kathryn from Make Way for Tech.

How to Use Digital Tools to Make Differentiation More Efficient

Your time is limited, and small groups and individual differentiation traditionally take a lot of time. However, blended or fully online learning both lend a unique opportunity: teachers like you can apply a handful of tech tools to get more done in less time. 

Tanya from Gifted Teacher 305 walks teachers through how she uses breakout rooms in Zoom to facilitate small group work virtually.
  • Assess student progress instantly. Tanya from Gifted Teacher 305 uses tools that provide real-time results, like polls and surveys as formative assessments. With this instant feedback, it’s faster and easier to respond to your students’ individual learning needs. “Google Forms, Plickers, ClassTime, and others allow teachers to differentiate instantly, without the hassle of time-consuming activities like grading and disaggregating data,” she says.
  • Empower students to own their individual learning. Using technology to facilitate instruction makes it possible for students to learn asynchronously, completing assignments and projects at their own pace. Teacher Andrea realized that, rather than taking the time to micro-manage every student, she could empower them to manage themselves. “It made them feel like they were in charge of their day… My students are capable of a lot more independent work than maybe I was giving them before. And it was just a matter of helping them come up with the structure for managing that.”
  • Use ready-made resources to individualize instruction. By going digital, you can take advantage of so many resources on the web, without spending time recreating the wheel. For example, you can send different video mini-lessons to different students based on their levels. “Go online and pick specific videos already made for your class and upload on Google Classroom,” says Don from Mr D Math Class. Additionally, Belinda from BVG SLP highlights the many ready-made digital resources on TpT: “There are a ton of great digital resources that are no-prep and ready to use with your students immediately.” 

Additional Benefits of Using Digital Tools to Differentiate

Here are a few more ways you can take advantage of the added benefits of using digital tools to differentiate:

  • Easy, effective feedback. It’s easy to share feedback with students using the commenting feature on Google Docs™ and Google Slides™. Explains Jenny from DiGiGoods and Printables ELA, “My feedback efficiency increased dramatically when I began doing this. It’s like you’re sitting right beside your students… Written feedback is actually more effective because students can read it at their pace and absorb it in their own way. Students will forget what you say, making verbal feedback far less impactful, but written feedback stays put.”
  • New ways to check for understanding over video. Providing instruction over video opens the door for new ways to check in with students during a lesson. For example, Jessica from The Resourceful Teacher uses Zoom breakout rooms to divide her class into small discussion groups. And when Angela from The Speech Serenade teaches small group activities, she asks students to respond in a private chat, where she can offer individualized instruction and cues. 
  • Keep student levels confidential. Rachel from Teach Through the Chaos uses tech to make sure students aren’t self-conscious about their differentiated work levels. “You can assign students different lessons at varying levels without any embarrassment from others that they aren’t doing the same thing as them,” she says. Susan from Ms Cottons Corner also uses tools like Google Classroom to keep student levels confidential. “Technology can help a teacher match the right product with a student, and can make that all invisible,” she says.

Confidently navigate the 2020-21 school year with expert Teacher-Author and educator advice in TpT’s Back to School 2020 Guide: For Teachers Creating Tomorrow