Using Universal Design to Differentiate Instruction

"Universal Design for Learning" by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

“Universal Design for Learning” by Giulia Forsythe CC 2.0

As part of my recent exploration of peer coaching, I have recently explored what it means to peer coach and what 21st century learning looks like in the classroom. Now, my attention has progressed to think about lesson improvement within the peer coaching process. As previously discussed, effective learning challenges students to shift from simple consumers of information, to producers of knowledge in the real-world (Foltos, 2013). For many, this type of learning is not easily integrated into daily teaching (Foltos, 2013). What steps are necessary to co-plan an effective lesson plan?

Creating a Task

Foltos (2013) wrote that first you need to create a task that is complex and real-world. It shouldn’t be too simple or too easily solved (Foltos, 2013). While this concept sounds good, it can be difficult to translate into a learning activity that is both relatable and digestible for students. Foltos (2013) suggested that real-world problems presented are aligned with student interest and that requirements can be easily defined and understood by students.

Defining Standards

Next, it is important to define the standards being focused on. There can be multiple categories of standards to consider: curriculum standards like those found in the Common Core, 21st century standards such as those with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and technology standards like the ISTE Student Standards.

Crafting Student Directions & Assessments

From here, the learning context can be defined. This might be more easily understood as a “series of carefully sequenced learning activities” (Foltos, 2013, p. 125). It is, of course, important to determine how the learning activities correlate with the standards (Foltos, 2013). Finally, student directions can be crafted, assessments can be created, and resources can be identified, all through a process of receiving and sharing feedback.


One of my collaborating partner’s current focuses is differentiation. As such, I thought it relevant to align this week’s guiding questions about co-planning lessons to questions of differentiation. Differentiation is easily discussed but not as readily implemented into the classroom. It remains a great theoretical concept that is difficult to implement on a daily basis, given time constraints and curricular demands.

What protocols can be used to collaboratively design differentiated instruction effectively?

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Creating Book Trailers: A Lesson Exploring Personal Craft and Creativity


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My final blog post of the academic quarter in my graduate program in Digital Education Leadership is here and I am eager to share my finished individual project: Creating Book Trailers: A Lesson Exploring Craft and Creativity. This is a topic that I previously explored in my post,  ISTE 1: Digital Storytelling with Book Trailers. Eager to return to book trailers and design a lesson for my students, the lesson was crafted using the ASSURE model. Until this project, I had never used this model before. Although I found it to be overly detailed for regular use, it is also a very thorough method of lesson design.

I also had the opportunity to implement this lesson during its creation, revising the lesson in real time to meet student needs. While this project was new territory for me, allowing more student choice and use of individualized technology than ever before, I can attest to its success. Check out the media gallery above to see some screenshots of their work. I hope to share some of their fully finished products soon! If you already use book trailers in your classroom or are interested in trying to, I encourage you to review the lesson and provide your feedback in the comments.

Creating Book Trailers: A Lesson Exploring Craft and Creativity

ISTE Student 3: Digital Independence in the Classroom

Choice can have a significant impact on student learning. It maintains engagement and drives a desire for inquiry. O’Connor and Sharkey (2013) shared in “Establishing Twenty-First-Century Information Fluency” that the performance of students is at its peak when learning is individualized (p. 35). However, in offering student choice of technology, one of my challenges as an educator has been challenging students who tend to repeatedly gravitate towards the same digital tools. My direct instruction has encouraged students to use various new tools, however this approach is seemingly unsustainable. Instead, students can be guided to find their own digital tools, as outlined in ISTE 3, which is the focus this week’s post. I also encourage you to check out past two posts, exploring ISTE 1 and 2. ISTE 3 states that students should be able to evaluate and select digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks. This shift towards individualized and student-driven learning is reiterated in 21st century skills, which states that a students should be able to judge the effectiveness and impact of various technologies. The Common Core Standards also outline that students should be able to critically navigate and evaluate media. This type of information fluency is a key component of cultivating early adopters of innovative technologies.

As educators we can “innovate pedagogically to help students develop a high level of aptitude to interact fluently with both information and technology” (O’Connor, L., & Sharkey, J., 2013, p. 33). Our ability to innovate might at times be aided by the digital tools we chose to implement. Unfortunately, I have often assumed that quality instruction requires the mastery of digital tools prior to sharing it with my students. While technological aptitude is a necessary part of being an educator, innovation in the classroom comes in the form of allowing student-driven evaluation and choice (Dooley, 1999, p.38). A student’s ability to discriminate between useful and useless resources is also a necessary career skill. And, as Bates (n.d.) writes about in Teaching in the Digital Age, learning by doing allows for reflection, understanding, and experience. We need to give students the opportunity to practice these decision-making skills.

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ISTE Student 2: Collaborating in a Digital Space

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As part of my ongoing exploration of how ISTE Student Standards can be implemented in the classroom, I am focusing this week on ISTE Student Standard 2: Communication and Collaboration, addressing how students  will communicate and collaborate in a digital space to construct new meaning. I am specifically looking at the following performance indicators:

a. Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.
d. Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.

Assigning collaborative work in group projects is often a difficult task, especially at the middle school level. Students range in their ability to contribute productively to assignments, and are frequently left frustrated by the inconsistency of contributions. Assessment can also pose a challenge; final products do not necessarily reflect individual productivity. Desanctis (1987) researches the effects of technology on group work in “A foundation for the study of group decision support systems” and confirms our long held assumptions that certain members tend to dominate communication, while other less dominant members exert less effort overall (p. 596-7).  Regardless, as educators we know that collaborative learning is important for students because it  “fosters the development of critical thinking through discussion, clarification of ideas, and evaluation of others’ ideas” (Gokhlad, 1995). And regardless of the challenges, collaboration is an important 21st century skill to teach. Forbes magazine regards virtual collaboration as one of the top ten workplace skills for the future; so, “Whether you’re a fan of it or not, working and collaborating effectively virtually, whether on a simple task or a very complex challenge is a necessity as the nature of our work is globalized” (Gorscht, 2014, para. 12).

How do we as educators effectively use technology for student collaboration? If we rethink the group project as a means of developing skills alone, we may be guided in the right direction. Bates (n.d.) reinforces in Teaching in a Digital Age, that there has been a shift from teaching content, or academic knowledge to teaching skills, or applied knowledge (p. 37). Therefore, we should focus on fostering the skills of collaborating and communicating effectively, rather than on the final product of the group work.

Currently, I am in the midst of designing a  lesson with a silkscreen artist out of Toronto (my sister-in-law) for a lesson art designed for social movements. We developed a project in which small student groups will use their background knowledge of the middle ages to design a visual message. They will collaborate to design a poster that champions a cause from the perspective of a specific, medieval community. This project has emerged as a ripe opportunity to enhance their collaborative design process with the aid of some digital tools.

How can students collaborate creatively in small groups to design a visual product in a digital space?

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