If a Digital Learning Product Doesn’t Offer Differentiated Instruction, Don’t Buy It
The idea of differentiation is simple but profound: instructional materials and strategies should be geared to the needs and interests of each individual student; they should not be targeted to the “average” student. After all, no student is perfectly average. And every student in the room—not just those who approach some mythical average—deserve materials targeted to their needs. While differentiated instruction might have seemed like an impossible task a few decades ago, edtech tools make it a real possibility.
Advances in data analytics and the ability to create personalized “playlists” so that students can engage in precisely the learning activities that will be most beneficial to them make it possible to genuinely and deeply differentiate and personalize instruction—even in large classes. The learning curve for teachers who will need to fundamentally rethink their approach to instruction might be steep, but the benefits are pronounced: differentiation is a key to student success and there are proven benefits to differentiation.
All of this leads to a simple conclusion: if a digital learning product doesn’t offer differentiated instruction, don’t buy it. There are no legitimate technical obstacles to differentiation, which means that if an edtech product isn’t offering it, you should choose another product. Because the technological capability exists and because we know that differentiation benefits students, this is really a non-negotiable. And an edtech product that doesn’t differentiate needs to go back to the drawing board.
There are two ways to think about differentiation, and both are important. The first way is group-based and the second is individually-focused. Group-based differentiation would refer to a learning product that was designed with the needs of English Language Learners, minoritized students, special education students, and other special populations in mind. In other words, the digital learning product will meet the needs of these groups.
The second way to think about differentiation is individually-focused. This means that the performance of each individual student is assessed so that the digital learning product can adapt to the specific deficits, strengths, and interests of that student. A product that meets this requirement will not have the same learning path for every student; rather, it will assess students frequently and then provide them with exactly what they need to progress at a pace and in a manner appropriate for their needs. Again, these things are technically possible, and they are necessary for gold-standard teaching. So if your edtech product doesn’t provide differentiation, it’s time to rethink your strategy.