Differentiation in Online Learning

Throughout my teaching career I have been exposed to numerous sessions, classes and courses on differentiating instruction for students.  Whether learning online or face-to-face in the classroom differentiating instruction has several commonalities.  First of all, instruction involves the use of multiple means of engagement and instructional methods.  Teaching with podcasts that incorporate the audio with the visual, use of other types of graphics and visuals, hands-on learning and other methods of presenting content that address multiple learning preferences.   Secondly, customizing content to address individual needs. This may involve the method in which the content is delivered or the means by which the student demonstrates content mastery.  Thirdly, providing the student choice when personalizing content and assessment methods.

When differentiating instruction online there are features that have a much greater impact in virtual instruction than in the face-to-face environment.  Presenting content in its most readable form is important in the virtual world.  For instance, in my classroom I have a projector that enlarges graphics, notes, Power Point slides but online the image on the computer screen has many features that control the quality of the material being presented.  Contrast, screen brightness, moving graphics, etc., impact how we engage with the content being presented.  I find that I would much rather read an article in print than on the computer screen yet I don’t mind a novel on a Kindle, although I am constantly adjusting the screen brightness.  Additionally, their are many criteria and standards that guide us in the development of acceptable websites for equal access by all students.  Equal access in the classroom often occurs during the face-to-face teacher-student interaction.  For example, content can be read aloud as the student follows the written text.

After exploring the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) website and reading the “What Works in Online Learning” article, I decided to look for websites or articles on differentiating instruction in an online course.  I was hoping to find more content specific sites or sources.  I did come across an article entitled “Differentiated e-learning: What is it and five approaches.  (https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/CSD4903.pdf)   Both the website on UDL  and What Works in Online Education article opened my eyes to the fact that designing online courses and programs involved far more design standards than I had ever considered.   Secondly, in the article that I selected I discovered that differentiation via technology is very complex and requires lots of data mining and evaluation.  Thirdly, most online courses began differentiating instruction by offering lots of variety in order to address everyone’s needs.  As online learning expands more personalized learning has quietly slipped into online learning products (Hopkins, 2004).

In exploring the UDL and online learning I was left with a few questions.  Is it really possible to make all online learning equally accessible to all learners?  The section 508 standards for web design had me wondering whether school systems would be able to design online courses or have we made it so difficult that only professional, pre-packaged courses can meet the needs of all students.  My second question comes back to the idea of student control over the learning environment?  Can all learners choose wisely?  Do they have the maturity to make such decisions?  The jury is still out on this one.

As for the module that I am designing, the article reminded of several good practices when differentiating instruction.  Focus on breaking down complex components into smaller steps with specific instructions.  Create a learning sequence with specific goals that helps to guide students while providing choice.  I also need to think about the many means of expression and try not to limit their choices.  I always try to present content in many different ways and hope to focus more on adding graphic representations of the content to be learned .  So often in Chemistry you need to be able to visualize what is taking place as things happen on such a small scale.  Lastly, I always try to encourage discussion between and among students.  Hopefully the real-world application portion of the module with spark some debate and discussion.

4 thoughts on “Differentiation in Online Learning”

  1. Lynn- I really think you have raised a great question about accessibility and how easy it is for a classroom teacher to design an online course versus buying a pre packaged one- teachers are well familiar with the idea of not having enough planning time and having these added concerns make this even more difficult. I am trying to wrap my head around how to make my module online and interactive and more than just adding links and uploading documents– but I don’t have a background in online design. It became even a bit more stressful after attending a training at the Fed where they showed us a lesson they had created – lesson was designed for 1 block and they are creating another lesson– but it will be 6 months before it is ready– wow — thats a lot of design time for one block worth of lesson.

    1. I agree. I don’t see how we could ever do the programming part of the online lesson. We could design the content but would need help from web designers. So how does Virtual Virginia design their courses or do they buy prepackaged courses?

  2. It does take a lot of time, but if my child was taking your course, I would rather have the course designed by you rather that a company somewhere else. I think teachers understand the demographics of their schools and can develop more effective online courses. It does take time, and you guys are just in your first introductory course, but I am confident over time tat you will be able to translate what you know about f2f teaching in your content area to virtual environments.

    In terms of “programming”, the tools that are being developed for virtual instruction are getting better and better and require less and less “programming” knowledge.

    Lynn, great post!

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