Using Instructional Websites to Differentiate - Tech Learning

Using Instructional Websites to Differentiate

 In the past, teacher websites were often used only as an introduction to personality, or a repository for class syllabi.
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by Chris Alper-Leroux 

In the past, teacher websites were often used only as an introduction to personality, or a repository for class syllabi. Though this approach provides a means of contact, it misses the huge instructional potential of a class website as a tool to systematically and comprehensively differentiate instruction.

My role as a co-teacher (LD licensed) in an 8th grade Earth Science class at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul, Minnesota, is to provide methods and strategies to differentiate instruction for students with IEPs. But another opportunity open to an LD/general ed co-teaching team is not only providing accommodations and modifications, but also going beyond that to offer multi-modal, engaging instruction and assessment for all students. The question was always, how?

When I started co-teaching with general ed science teacher Jamin Mckenzie, our curricular tools were a textbook, spiral notebooks, an overhead and the rare video. Now, going into our fifth year, we have incorporated reflective, deliberate use of multi-modal strategies, frequent formative assessment and a variety of instructional technology into our teaching. But beyond the smart board, document camera and the Flip video, the single most comprehensive differentiation tool we use is our instructional website.

A Focal Point for Collaboration Planning
One of the key challenges (and greatest opportunities) in developing any co-teaching relationship is broadening expectations about how students approach a concept, because not everything written in a textbook is crucial.

We start by discussing what comprises critical vocabulary, including only the most salient words; Mckenzie insures we still cover key concepts matching state science standards. We still expect students to meet the standards, but available learning paths are mapped out in a more diverse way. Putting structured key content on a website, tied to daily learning goals and chapter assessment questions, also helps us unit- and lesson- plan not only for struggling learners, but also for proficient learners, who can be challenged by online enrichment activities we might not offer in class.

Providing Multiple Means of Representation and Remediation

Universal Design for Learning promotes the importance of using multiple means of representation to reach all learners. Using video (LCD projected or smart board) and integrating other strategies, such as a document camera, co-teachers can seamlessly provide multiple means of access to a wide variety of content for learners. Because we capture critical in-class content (such as vocabulary or lab demonstrations) in quick video clips, and post them on the site, students can review content more easily.

Websites are an outstanding way to reach students who are kinesthetic/tactile learners. A dynamic animation of a concept on the smart board (many recent textbooks provide access to free links) can get kinesthetic learners (and students who flourish with attention) up and moving.

Instructional websites also provide in-class individual engagement for students with behavior management issues, perhaps at a computer station with an aide, keeping students in class rather than out in a behavior room.

Online textbooks and textbooks on CD provide an alternative for low readers, but managing CD players and other equipment can be an issue. By posting textbook audio clips to the site, scaffolding for low readers is easily accessible--in class, during the review cycle, or out of class with support staff or family.

Facilitating Review And Re-Assessment
In fact, the anywhere, anytime availability of a learning-goal based instructional website, organized to match the sequence of a chapter or unit, allows in-depth, structured remediation for a student working with adults in resource rooms, study skills classes, support periods or outside of the school environment.

Reassessment, an important policy point at Battle Creek Middle, is greatly aided by an instructional website. I use a test generator program (included with our textbook) to make a short multiple-choice test, saved in two online formats. One is Practice, where students get feedback for incorrect answers; the second is called a Qualifier, a one-chance test, which on completion sends a student name and score to my co-teacher. By passing the Qualifier, students have demonstrated they are truly ready to retake the original test.

Time Requirements For Content Production

For all teachers, time is at a premium. However, the benefit of investing the time to build a content-rich instructional site, for a subject with a recent adoption, is that curriculum elements, once posted, will be useful for years. So in fact, it saves prep time over the long run.

For us, typical web content for a chapter includes an introduction video (shown in class, then posted on the web), three to five chapter sections (text with audio, diagrams and images, and a short vocabulary video), and a web-based mid-chapter review. After an initial learning curve for the software (I use iMovie), a chapter/section takes 45 minutes to create, including video. The mid-chapter review might take 15 minutes; the Practice test and the Qualifier, 20 minutes.

2009-2010 School Year Results
We log traffic to the site using Google Analytics. September 2009 traffic was about 100 sessions, with no test retakes. By February 2010, the site was getting 550 sessions per month (there are only 130 eighth grade boys) with at least 20 test retakes per month.

We look forward to another year teaching using the site, most of all because we now feel we have provided consistent, substantive differentiation for our students. The kids can learn in a variety of engaging ways, in many locations and times, and, most importantly, have become more successful and proficient, and that is what our teaching practice is really all about.

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