Differentiated Instruction in an Online Classroom

Fri, Jan 3, 2014

Distance Learning, Uncategorized

by Theresa Melenas, Ed.D.

My role as an administrator and instructional coach in K-12 public education has me working collaboratively with teachers to create better learning opportunities for students. A majority of teachers I encounter need support in how to differentiate their instruction to reach all learners. The concept of differentiated instruction (DI) may seems to be only applicable to the bricks and mortar setting of a traditional classroom, but many DI strategies can enhance the educational experience of online adult learners. According to Tomlinson (2000), differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs, by differentiating the content, process, products, or the learning environment. Online learning already addresses a differentiated learning environment; therefore, online differentiation should focus on the content, process and product. In my role as an online facilitator, I ask myself the following questions regarding differentiated instruction:
How can I differentiate the content of my online course? Content is what the students need to know or how they will access this information. While the content for all students may need to remain consistent, how students access this information can be differentiated.


  •  Allow students to access videos in addition to, or instead of just reading text.
  •  Post your main lesson in PPT format rather than in narrative form.
  •  Post a video lecture on YouTube.
  •  Provide a variety of peer-reviewed journal articles, text books, blog or websites that center around the same concept for knowledge acquisition and allow students to choose which they read.

How can I differentiate the process of student learning in my online course? The process refers to the activities students engage in to understand the content. Traditionally, in online learning, the processing of information is done through a forum post or class discussion. We, as facilitators, check for understanding and provide additional support if needed. As proposed in an earlier blog by Mandalas (Oct 14, 2013) perhaps forums should be managed by students rather than instructors; posing questions to their peers that work to deepen their individual understanding of the content.


  •  Tiered Assignments to support learning styles
  •  Discussion forums
    • Allowing choice as to in which discussions students choose to engage
    •  Allow students to engage in conference calls or Skype discussions

How can I differentiate the products for my online course? Products are the summative or culminating activities that we expect our students to complete to show mastery of the learning objectives for each lesson. This is perhaps the easiest area to differentiate; however, do students really have to demonstrate knowledge by writing another 3-5 page paper? Instead try:


  •  Providing choice in assignments
  •  Write paper OR create a video using Movie Maker, Screen-o-Matic,or other video makers to demonstrate content mastery
  • Allow students to work collaboratively on projects
  • Assign products that mirror real-world, career specific tasks
  • Allow students to demonstrate content mastery through blog posts
  • Allow students to take advantage of any number of Web 2.0 technologies to demonstrate mastery

Differentiating instruction in an online classroom necessitates the use of a variety of instructional materials and practices. Keeping current and experimenting with new technologies increases options in creating an online classroom environment that is differentiated for all students.


Tomlinson, C. (1999). Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction. Educational Leadership, 57(1), 12-16.
Tomlinson, C. (2000, August). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/.

Theresa Melenas received her doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2009 and her MA.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction in 2003 from the University of Phoenix. She received a B.A. in history from the University of Arizona in 1995 and went on to receive a post baccalaureate degree in secondary education from the University of Phoenix in 1996.
Dr. Melenas is a full time Instructional Coach for a public school system in North Carolina. Her focus is on improving curriculum, instruction, and assessment in high school classrooms. She has been in education for 17 years and has a particular interest in supporting new and struggling teachers.

In her spare time, Dr. Melenas enjoys traveling, cooking, and spending time with her three children.

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