Application triage to enable differentiated learning

Doug Johnson of the Blue Skunk Blog had an interesting post the other day about how to choose from the zillions of software and web 2.0 choices bombarding us every day. He called it – Application Triage.

His criteria:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Ubiquity
  3. Reliability
  4. Usability
  5. Affordability

In a comment, I suggested adding “Extensibility” – the idea that applications selected for students should have ways to accommodate more expert use, without compromising the simplicity and usability criteria. Doug asked if I could provide examples, saying, “I’ve personally always like what I call “tinker toy” software that lets me build instead of just use things that are already built. And a lot of kids do too. Not so sure about adults!

Unfortunately, there used to be more examples in widespread use in schools. Logo, HyperStudio and HyperCard were great applications that provided this “no floor, no ceiling” experience.

Good examples: hardware – cameras, computers, even ipods have hidden features that most people don’t know and don’t care about. You can click the button and get a nice picture or hear a song, but if you want to, there are settings and options that allow greater creativity and artistry. When you are ready, the hardware accommodates your new interest.

I think the key phrases here are: if you want to, and when you are ready

Tools with programming – There are a few programming languages very appropriate for students that offer easy entry and quick ways to do presentations and multimedia projects, but also allow for user control of objects (if you want to, when you are ready…)

For example, why teach PowerPoint when Flash is just as easy to learn, yet can be programmed AND do animations? I hear people say that PowerPoint is a good place to start, but it’s often the end as well. What a shame. For a student who has the potential to develop more expertise, PowerPoint is a limiting technology, not an enabling one.

Sure, use PowerPoint when needed, but it’s hardly worth teaching students endless lessons and activities to improve their PowerPoint use. Move along here, there’s nothing to see.

Or – Why not teach kids HTML instead of making them learn some “easy” editor. Most student web pages use 3 or 4 basic HTML tags. It’s hardly rocket science. I know, I know I can hear the groans from teachers everywhere.

But HTML (if you want to, when you are ready…) is the basic building block of every website from to your own school site.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many issues surrounding teaching technology reflect adult fears, not student ability or needs.

We talk about differentiated instruction, but that concept shouldn’t stop at the instructional door. Everything we put in kids’ hands should have the ability to offer differentiated and leveled experiences for kids when they want to, when they are ready


One Reply to “Application triage to enable differentiated learning”

  1. I definitely agree with extensibility, the low floor and high ceiling are very important for a rapidly changing world where knowledge has a short half life and we want to develop self-directed learners who will have the skills to be life-long learners.

    I would add relevance and authenticity.

    Relevance means that tasks are best when they relate to the things that kids already care about, authenticity means giving kids a task that have real world significance, not arbitary make-work tasks.

    For an example of relevant and authentic learning see Constructivist teaching – virtually

    Game programming languages cover relevance, authenticity, extensibility and affordability, you mention Logo, HyperStudio and HyperCard. These are beaten on the low floor criterion by languages such as Game Maker. There are a number of others including Klick&Play and Stagecast. Only a couple of days ago on a comment to this blog, we learnt of Larry’s use of Sploder

    Even poor old Powerpoint can be used by kids creatively if the education system will allow such “frivolous” use of resources, see student animations at

    Affordability is important too, if kids are engaged with a relevant and authentic challenge in an extensible environment, they will spend many hours at home for each contact hour in self-directed learning

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