4 Ed Tech Ways to Differentiate in the Student-Centered Classroom

Posted by AVID Center on 10/7/2019

Puyallup STEM Academy By Educators Steven W. Anderson and Shaelynn Farnsworth

In all of the work that we do with teachers across the US and beyond, we see educators creating amazing learning environments for students. From the use of 1:1 technology to enabling students to learn authentically, these really are incredible times to teach and learn.

However, among all the flash and pageantry, there is struggle. Educators are looking for ways to personalize the learning environment for every student, while trying to find ways to differentiate; it can become paralyzing. On the one hand, they have the traditional methods of accessing content and assessing what students have learned. On the other, they have rooms full of devices but aren’t yet taking full advantage of what technology can do for each student.

Carol Ann Tomlinson said it best:

“At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.”

Differentiation isn’t just something that some students need or some teachers have to do; differentiation is responsive teaching and a part of every classroom. Each student comes to the classroom with a variety of past learning experiences, prior knowledge, and individual learning needs. Whether it is to help a student who struggles to understand basic content, a student who just needs a little push to go deeper, or a student who far exceeds our expectations and needs the opportunity to go further, differentiation should be and must be a part of every classroom.

There are many ways to meet student needs through differentiation. Teachers can differentiate in four classroom components, based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

  1. Assessment – Understanding what students know and still need to learn
  2. Content – What the student needs to learn or how the student will access the information
  3. Process – Activities in which the student engages, in order to make sense of or master the content or skill
  4. Product – Culminating projects ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what they have learned in a unit

When we layer technology into these four components, the process of differentiation becomes less daunting and more accessible to each student.

Assessment often has a negative connotation attached to it in the world of education. When done correctly, assessment can provide a mountain of valuable information that can help teachers determine where students are in their learning and where the teacher needs to go in their teaching. Particularly, formative assessment is the driver of differentiation of assessment. Formative assessment acts as a GPS for both the teacher and the learner. It provides timely feedback to inform instruction and lets the student know if they are headed in the right direction. When assessment is used to adjust instruction, it is known as “formative assessment.” Formative assessment moves acquiring knowledge from an event to a process.

Technology isn’t necessary to do any type of formative assessment. However, if we layer in the effective use of technology into formative assessment, we can not only reach students where they are in their understanding but also look at trends over time and respond accordingly in our teaching. Technology provides a fast and easy way to accomplish this gathering of data and analysis over time.

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Many teachers think of “content” when they hear the word differentiation. Content is the foundation of learning and is the mean in which skills are applied and practiced. Therefore, if we can provide a way for students to access that content at their readiness level, we can better meet their learning needs. Each student is (and should be) held to high standards, but we know that not every student is on the same path for their learning. Through the differentiation of content, we can level the playing field for each student.

Technology has made it much easier and, frankly, more possible to differentiate content in new and exciting ways. In some cases, students can be given the same content; however, that content is tailored to their individual needs, either through raising or lowering the reading level, providing more visualizations, or still meeting standards but providing content that is interesting and exciting for students.

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Differentiation of the processes by which students learn is another traditional way that teachers provide multiple learning paths for students. For many students, the instructional practices are outdated and do not meet their needs. If we want to create an environment where each student can find success no matter their learning profile, then we have to look beyond traditional pedagogy and meet students where they are at and how they want to consume information.

Technology makes the differentiation of process easier. Accessibility tools built into modern devices make it easier for us all to use those devices more effectively and efficiently, and many of those same tools can benefit all students. In addition, the idea of gamifying learning is gaining steam to provide an environment that is familiar to students, while also being fun, challenging, and rich with varied learning opportunities.

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Ultimately, students need to demonstrate their understanding of the content and skill. Traditionally, that is done through a summative project or final exam. However, this method is flawed when we produce a list of items that students must include, such as the specific font to use, the number of cited sources, etc. That isn’t a project, that is a recipe, and recipes don’t belong in the classroom. Students need freedom of choice in how they demonstrate their understanding. That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. We can provide creativity, choice, and freedom within boundaries.

Technology is truly transformational, and students should be able to demonstrate understanding through a variety of innovative ways. This differentiation of product can look different for each student; however, at the heart are the same learning goals. Through the effective use of technology, students can do incredible things while still demonstrating what they know and how they know what they know.

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For more professional learning, digital strategies, and resources, attend an AVID Digital Teaching and Learning (DTL) strand at AVID Summer Institute!

The DTL Foundations strands bring educators together to experience and explore digital strategies and resources using collaboration, communication, and choice to engage students in learning and knowledge creation. Come ready to connect with colleagues in building a technology-rich classroom culture, infusing AVID methodologies both digitally and face to face. This strand blends WICOR (Writing, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization, and Reading) strategies with technology tools to prepare students with the skills that they need to be college- and career-ready. Participants are supported during the process with best-practice pedagogy, resources, and guidance on how  to use technology to facilitate student learning and engagement. By completing this strand, educators will have the opportunity to receive a digital badge representing their learning experience.

  • Digital Teaching and Learning – Foundations: Elementary (Grades 3–6)
    This strand is designed to support experienced AVID Elementary teachers and instructional support staff in blending WICOR (Writing, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization, and Reading) with digital strategies to prepare students with the skills they need to be college- and career-ready.

  • Digital Teaching and Learning – Foundations: Secondary Digital Teaching and Learning
    This strand is designed for secondary educators experienced in AVID methodologies in all content areas, as well the AVID Elective.

The DTL Advancing strands are best suited to participants whose schools or districts have been on the 1:1 journey for four or more years. If you are in a school or district that is in the early stages (planning through the first three years) of 1:1 technology implementation, the Digital Teaching and Learning – Foundations  strands are a more appropriate fit. Learning is a story. Participants will learn how to empower students to create a personalized story of their learning as digital citizens in a global society. Through a metacognitive lens, participants will learn how to use the 4 A’s (Adopt, Adapt, Accelerate and Advocate), WICOR, digital storytelling, and eBinders to enhance and extend student voice. Focusing on learning first, participants will develop a plan for intentional integration of digital tools in a student-centered classroom, allowing students to develop into innovative designers and creative communicators.These strands incorporate either Googe or Microsoft 365 digital tools with AVID methodologies in order to prepare students with key skills they will need in the 21st century to be college- and career-ready. By completing this strand, educators will have the opportunity to receive a digital badge representing their learning experience.

  • Digital Teaching and Learning – Advancing: Google

  • Digital Teaching and Learning – Advancing: Microsoft



Steven W. Anderson and Shaelynn Farnsworth Steven W. Anderson is a learner, blogger, speaker, Digital Learning and Relationship Evangelist, author, and Dad. As a former teacher and Director of Instructional Technology, and best known as @web20classroom, he is highly sought after for his expertise in educational technology integration and using social media for learning and communicating. Steven presents at conferences worldwide and is also responsible in helping create #edchat, the most popular educational hashtag on Twitter. He is an ASCD Emerging Leader, Microsoft Heroes of Education, and one of the top educational influencers on Twitter. You can learn more about Steven at http://blog.web20classroom.org.

Shaelynn Farnsworth is a leader in the convergence between literacy and technology. As a high school teacher, she redefined her English classroom as not only a place to learn about literature but also explore how technology is shaping the future of communications. She continues this exploration as a consultant, focusing on technology, literacy, Open Education Resources, and Authentic Intellectual Work. Shaelynn is a Staff Developer, literacy coach, and supports districts in the implementation of initiatives. She is a Google Certified Innovator and has training in Project-Based Learning from the Buck Institute, Instructional Coaching, and Microsoft Inclusive Classroom Partner. Shaelynn shares her musings at shaelynnfarnsworth.com and @shfarnsworth.