Top EdTech Tools for Digital Differentiation

My latest post for the Neo Blog is, “Top EdTech Tools for Digital Differentiation.” You may recognize some of the tools I recommend, such as Newsela and the one I blogged about yesterday, Immersive Reader. But you might be surprised by some other gems that are less ubiquitous right now.

One of the messages I hope that gets across with my Neo post (and everything I include on my own blog) is that differentiation should be happening for all students, not just the ones who are struggling. With technology, we can help all students to learn more, and teachers can have more time to give children the personal attention they need.

My previous NEO articles have been: From Normal to Better: Using What We’ve Learned to Improve Education, Applying Universal Design for Learning in Remote Classrooms, How Distance Learning Fosters Global CollaborationHow to Use Design Thinking in the Classroom, and How to S.T.E.A.M. Up Distance Learning.

Next month’s post for Neo will be, “How to Facilitate Meaningful Discussions in the Hybrid or Virtual Classroom.” If you have any advice, I would love to hear it!

Students at Sutton Middle School use online research to answer questions during a lesson in history class. Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Levaraging the Immersive Reader tool during Virtual Learning

For one of my current consulting jobs I am making short how-to videos for different technology tools that are helpful in distance learning. One of the recent ones that I have been recommending to teachers has been the Immersive Reader tool from Microsoft, which can be used within many of the company’s own products, like Microsoft Word, but can also be used on the Microsoft Edge web browser and in other ed tech products like Newsela and Wonderopolis.

I first wrote about Immersive Reader in a post from 2019, where I included several ways to support diverse readers and speakers with technology that I had learned about at TCEA in 2019. Leslie Fisher had done some quick demonstrations of Immersive Reader and other tech tools that could help students with translating, reading, and writing on the internet. Unfortunately, the teens and tweens I was teaching at the time did not have adequate equipment to support some of these during class – such as headphones and private screens – without making them feel singled out. Because of the pandemic, more technology has been dispersed and many students are working independently, so students may be more inclined to use these tools – if they know about them.

For the web version of Immersive Reader, students need to be using the Microsoft Edge Web browser (though there is an unofficial chrome extension that mimics Immersive Reader if you want to go that route – read my post about extensions first). When using Edge, students can generally right-click on a web page, and choose to have it read aloud. But many pages with articles will have an extra feature that you can see in the URL window – a book icon. If the book icon is visible, you can click on it. (Please be aware that the icon is only available on articles – and even then may not be present if the article is heavy with advertising and photo galleries.)

After you click on the book, you will be in “Reader View,” which takes away all of the distractions on the page. You will also get a menu right under the URL window that gives you many more options.

You can still have the page read aloud (and choose from dozens of voice options as well as the speed). But you can also use Text Preferences to change the size of the text, its spacing, and the background color. Under “Grammar Tools” you have the option of splitting words into syllables, and/or designating parts of speech with any color(s) you choose. “Reading Preferences” allows you to focus on one or more lines at a time, enable a picture dictionary, or translate the page into a different language.

I have no doubt that students will be distracted when they are first introduced to the tool. Even I got a little off-task trying to hear words read to me in different voices. But once students have explored it, and have it available to them at all times, the novelty should wear off, and students can use Immersive Reader to enhance their learning. To de-stigmatize its use, I would encourage all of my students to learn how to use it, so that it becomes as normalized as grabbing a dictionary off the shelf. (Okay, that’s probably not as normal anymore, but I think you get the picture.)

For some more ways that Immersive Reader can be used, including other apps that support it, I recommend reading this article, “3 Ways to Support Your Students Using Immersive Reader,” from Ditch That Textbook.

Using Hexagonal Thinking Virtually

One of my top favorite ways to encourage deep thinking among my students has been to use Hexagonal Thinking. I have written about it several times on this blog because I always so impressed with the discussions I hear in small groups when we use this strategy. Here are some of the previous posts I’ve done on this topic, where students make and explain connections using hexagons with words or pictures.

Hexagonal Thinking can be used with any subject. I’ve used it to introduce topics (kind of a fail that time, but I learned what could make it better), as a formative assessment, and as a reflection activity. Creating the hexagons for in-class discussions is fairly easy using this hexagon generator. (Even easier if you have a Cricut or Silhouette Cameo) But, how can this strategy be used effectively during these times of social distancing and virtual classes?

Fortunately, you can find that answer in a guest post that Betsy Potash (@BetsyPotash) did for Cult of Pedagogy called, “Hexagonal Thinking: A Colorful Tool for Discussion.” In her detailed post, Betsy explains how you can use Google Slides templates as well as tools like Flipgrid to facilitate group discussions and analysis with Hexagonal Thinking. She also provides a link to get your own free Digital Hexagonal Thinking Toolkit, as well as a video explaining how to make them.

Building on Betsy’s ideas, I created a simple Google Slides activity that uses images instead of text inside the hexagons. The example I did used symbols from Tuck Everlasting, but you can follow the instructions for changing the images to for your own unit theme. (For more ideas to use with Tuck Everlasting, click here.)

Click here to get a copy of this Google Slides template with instructions for changing the images.

Since many of you may be using this activity in a virtual breakout room, I urge you to take a look at this post for some pedagogical tips on incorporating breakout rooms with distance learning (if you have not introduced these to students yet). Also, here are some more interactive Google Slides activities in case you missed them.

Lessons Learned

I watched this animated Storycorps video today, and almost burst into tears. Between the heroic teachers and principal, Mr. Hill, that William Lynn Weaver encountered during his education and the ones who deliberately shut him out because of the color of his skin, I felt all of the emotions that most of us probably have right beneath the surface just surge through me all at once. Mr. Weaver’s story is set in the 1960’s, but I am sad to see that the racism he describes has not disappeared. Fortunately, neither have the wonderful educators who champion children like him.

This is my weekly anti-racist post. For more Storycorps inspiration along the same vein, you may want to read my post, “Eyes on the Stars” about astronaut Ronald McNair.

Here are my previous anti-racism posts in case you have missed them:

Also, for more amazing anti-racism resources, check out the Live Binder curated by Joy Kirr.


Digital curation is probably 60% of my working life. I spend a lot of time combing the web and social media for helpful resources for educators. I’ve used a combination of several curation tools over the years, including Pocket and Flipboard, and still use them. However, I may have a new favorite in Wakelet.

Pocket ticked a lot of the boxes for me when it came to curation:

  • One place to store everything
  • Accessible on any device and in any web browser, Twitter, Flipboard and other places from which I gather info
  • No more than 2 steps to save
  • Taggable
  • Searchable
  • Maintains the source information (especially if obtained on Twitter)
  • Free
  • Unlimited Storage

One of the problems I had been having with Pocket was that it saved Tweets differently depending on the device I was using, sometimes not allowing them to tag them or showing the original tweet with author, making it difficult for me to search for them later. So, when I kept seeing educators excited about Wakelet, I decided to put it through the paces to decide if I wanted to make a switch.

One place to store everything: Yes, but the advantage of Wakelet is that you can create collections to save to, immediately categorizing the links you save.

Accessible on any device and in any browser: As far as I can see, Wakelet meets this criteria. I use it on my phone with the installed app, within Twitter (on phone or on laptop), and as an extension in my Chrome browser. Extensions and apps can be found here.

No more than two steps to save: Once you install the extension on your laptop and the app on your phone, this is true.

Taggable: As far as I can tell, this is not a feature in Wakelet. However, you are technically “tagging” your resources by sorting them into categorized collections when you add them.

Searchable: I’m not sure on this one. Since I just started, I don’t have a lot of resources on there yet. I can search my Collections, but it looks like the search is looking only for Collection titles.

Maintains the Source Information for Twitter: Yes!

Free: Yep!

Unlimited Storage: As far as I can tell, yes.

Some features that you will find in Wakelet that many other curation tools do not have are:

Sharing: You can make your collections private to you or shareable (Flipboard also has this option, but Pocket does not). Want to make a collection of resources for your students to use in a lesson or project? This is one great way to do it.

Collaboration: Students, teachers, anyone you invite, can add to Wakelet collections if you like. See this page for more information.

Integration with Other Tools: In the screenshot below you can see some of the tools that integrate with Wakelet, making it super easy to share your collections.

Layout Options: You can change the layouts of your collections so they look more visually appealing. One of the options is “Moodboard”, which looks similar to Pinterest.

To test out the sharing option, I’m going to give you this link to my collection of other features and ways to use Wakelet with your students. I think you’ll find it to be a very helpful tool if you give it a try!

Student questions during live videoconferencing

One of my friends mentioned to me that her daughter was participating in a live school session from home while some of her classmates were also in the teacher’s class. At one point, the teacher disappeared from her videoconferencing screen while the rest of the distance learners remained, wondering what to do. When it was clear the teacher didn’t realize the disconnect had happened, one of the virtual students finally texted a friend in the physical class to tell the the teacher.

Another teacher shared on Twitter recently that he began his class with “a big bang”, gesturing profusely and full of zeal, only to find out after he finished his intro that his audio was muted.

These are the real, understandable issues that happen during live online instruction, especially when the teacher is responsible for students in the physical and virtual classrooms simultaneously. It’s frustrating for all of the participants, and I’ve been looking for practical solutions in my social media feeds. It seems that the only common element I can find is that you should have a plan that everyone (students, teachers, and caregivers) is aware of – because it will happen.

Though technology problems were what first brought this to my attention, another obstacle to overcome is privacy. We all know students who are reluctant to ask for any kind of help, but are especially reserved in public. Although some conferencing tools, such as Zoom, have chat windows, that can be set to private, not all have this option and, of course, they won’t work if the video connection is lost or frozen.

Here are some of the ideas I’ve seen, but I would welcome any more suggestions in the comments section for this post or on Twitter (@terrieichholz):

  • Some teachers give out Google Voice phone numbers to caregivers. Similarly, others are using the Remind app.
  • Students can use Classroom Q, an app and website where students can use a “Join Code” and add themselves to a queue to ask questions with the press of a button.
  • In hybrid classrooms, some teachers suggest that you assign one or two students to monitor the live feed in case there is a breakdown.
  • Have a standard Google Form where students can type in their names and a quick comment or question. (Benefits of this are that you will have questions on a spreadsheet in order, and you can keep a log of questions.)

This is all I’ve seen so far. Any other advice out there?

Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

%d bloggers like this: