Differentiation in Online Coursework

Published on: Author: Becky Parton

written by Cameron Torti ….

Differentiation is a common tool in education, used to allow for each student’s needs to be addressed in an individualized way (Braidic, 2009). In its truest form, which is “consistently using a variety of instructional approaches to modify content, process, and/or products in response to learning readiness, interest, and learning profile of academically diverse students” (Tomlinson, 1999), is difficult to attain in an online learning community. Regardless of the subject matter, it is difficult to create and deliver individualized content when you have dozens of students, many of whom you have not met in person and have no way of knowing their needs.

However, differentiation is not impossible in these settings. By borrowing strategies used in classroom settings and modifying them for your online needs, you are able to still provide engaging, individualized, and supported instruction for your students.

Differentiation Principles

First, there are three questions educators must ask when they are looking to created differentiated learning opportunities:

  1. What do I want my students to know, understand and be able to do? (content)
  2. What will I do instructionally to get my students to learn this? (process)
  3. How will my students show what they learned? (product)

Each of these questions provides different avenues for differentiating instruction.


This tends to be the most essential focus in education, and online educators must grapple with this constantly as they build and facilitate their courses. While there are not many opportunities to deviate from the course description and outline, you can always add more options to diversify the learning experiences of students.

For example, if a class on business practices needs a case study, an online educator could always find more than one, and instruct students to read through and respond to two of the three, or one of the five. By having choices in the content students interact with, they are more likely to find an option they are engaged with, and have a more impactful learning experience from the activity. Additionally, a benefit of online learning is the access to incredible resources online. Simply by curating more options, educators provide more depth and breadth into their curriculum.


In online learning, this is potentially the most difficult. Learning the way to implement differentiated content for individualized students can be taxing for an educator who already have research and other teaching responsibilities. However, there are simple ways to complete this while still benefiting students.

If working within the learning management system seems too complicated or there is simply not enough time to learn a new way to deliver the content, additional learning opportunities can still be provided to students who demonstrate need. For example, if an online quiz is administered, the educator could group questions with like content. Then, if students do not show mastery on that part of the quiz, additional resources could be sent to that student. This can be delivered by email or in the form of a required login to an online forum or chat.


Looking towards the end goal of a curriculum set, whether it is a lesson, unit, or the entire course, provides the most options for students to show what they know and for educators to deploy differentiated practices.

The easiest way to do this is by allowing for student choice. For the same reasons choice can be beneficial in content mastery, it can also allow for students to be more engaged and their products to be more meaningful. While there are some cases when a class has a specific product that is required or best for showing mastery (such as a final exam, creating a website, or writing a paper), there are plenty of other qualitative assessments which can provide the same feedback and assessment of mastery.

Instead of assigning a short paper, students could create a video and upload it to Canvas or YouTube. Crafting a paper is an important skill for college students, but it is easy to see creating a video requires many of the same essential skills (researching a topic or position, formulating and outlining ideas, and writing a script) while also employing additional, useful skills (video editing, working with multimedia files, and working with software applications).

Instead of having students create a website, students could create a social media campaign. Unless the class requires coding or the specific skill of creating a website, the same goals of creating a presence online can be achieved when students come up with a marketing campaign, as they must not only provide information  but also find a way to advertise and get exposure for their cause.


Differentiation can be a lofty goal for educators to achieve in their classrooms, especially when the classroom is an online learning community. However, even in taking small steps to provide differentiated content, process, and product for students, educators create more engaging and impactful educational opportunities for their students.


Braidic, S. L. (2009) Fostering successful learning communities to meet the diverse needs of university students by creating brain based online learning environments. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 5(4), 18-25.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. ASCD.


Note from the Editor, Dr. Becky Sue Parton:  

Differentiation is a big part of a philosophy called ‘Gameful Learning’ so I have included some information and a couple of links on that topic as well.

What is Gameful Learning?

Click on the link to explore more on the topic and see sample syllabi.  The authors state: “Gameful learning is a new pedagogical approach that takes inspiration from the engagement  seen in video games, and uses it to re-imagine what traditional learning environments could be like – particularly, what role students can play and how the design of assessment systems supports student engagement.” For example, two features of gaming that people enjoy are reaching goals and choice.  So perhaps you have assignments in different point categories and let them choose how they will arrive at the total # of points they want to earn an A or B.  Our team recently attended a presentation so we will have more examples later but the GradeCraft Website is a good site to explore.