Differentiated Learning v. Blended Hybrid Learning

Contributed By

Lauren Davis

EdTech Editor, Former Department Chair and Instructional Coach

Differentiated Learning v. Blended Hybrid Learning

Posted in Evolving Ed | April 13, 2020

Differentiated learning and blended hybrid learning are trendy concepts in education. But what are they? How are they implemented? Can we have both? And, more recently, how in the world will we do all of this while navigating a new distance learning environment? These are tough questions, and nobody has all the answers, but you are not alone in asking them. 

Blended hybrid learning may be (and should lend itself to) differentiated learning, but it doesn’t follow that this will automatically be the case. You must be deliberate in your approach. Here are some key differences between, and opportunities regarding, differentiated learning and blended hybrid learning and how you can grow both approaches in your school community through the diligent and purposeful use of your learning management system (LMS). 

What is Differentiated Learning? 

Differentiation guru Carol Ann Tomlinson has consistently defined differentiation in terms of an educator’s response to student needs or a “variance among learners in the classroom.” According to Tomlinson, educators differentiate mainly through content, process, product, or the overall structure of the learning environment itself. Content is generally the “what” of learning, process the “how,” the product is how we know what students know, have learned, or are able to do as a result of learning, and the learning environment is everything from the physical classroom space to learning materials and resources that reflect the varied backgrounds and needs of the students. 

What is Blended Hybrid Learning? 

Beyond differentiation in terms of content, process, product, or modifying the traditional learning environment, blended hybrid learning combines face-to-face instruction with some form of “computer-mediated instruction.” Blended hybrid learning “has the opportunity to provide personalized instruction with some element of student control over path, pace, time, and place.” Thus, it is a mode of instruction that adds a significant amount of student agency to learning that is not otherwise possible through in-person differentiation, which still occurs synchronously and, in practice, largely at the direction of the teacher. 


Differentiation is one of those concepts that we all want to implement because we know it’s best for kids, but struggle to do so because it can seem so overwhelming, particularly if we teach in a classroom (or especially online) with a yawning gap of ability levels. Relinquishing some control and providing student choice while differentiating readings, materials, and the very process of how you teach a class can fill even the most masterful of teachers with trepidation. Tomlinson encourages us to start simply, differentiating one lesson or project at a time, and not trying to do everything at once. 

By the same token, blended hybrid learning presents challenges because you have to think both in terms of in-person, synchronous, brick-and-mortar instruction and computer-mediated, often asynchronous, online instruction. In a distance learning environment, that might be synchronous online instruction modeled on the traditional classroom experience—a class videoconference or study session perhaps—and asynchronous learning, like a weekly discussion board that students can post and reply to on their own schedules. 

This can be a lot to juggle, especially if you don’t consider yourself technologically adept, but a true hybrid experience has to be more than collecting student work via email or a dropbox; the blended hybrid classroom must bring true computer-mediated instruction into the mix, creating learning outcomes that aren’t possible through traditional methods. It takes technology infrastructure, planning, and hard work to make that ideal a reality. 


Once you start differentiating, you’ll start looking at all your lessons and units a lot differently. You’ll see opportunities for differentiation everywhere, and your students will respond accordingly. Classrooms, physical or virtual, come alive when you build in opportunities for students to choose content pathways, when the learning process is adjusted based on their needs, or the ways in which students are able to demonstrate that they know what you want them to know. Not only is differentiation an opportunity for you to show how you have become a master teacher, but it helps you and your students create more joy in the classroom. 

Regarding blended hybrid learning, just think of the benefits for your students (and you!) when you do things like “flip” your instruction, front-loading critical content and setting aside in-class time for “inquiry, application, and assessment.” You can still do this if your classroom is currently online! You can front-load the content and meet with students at a pre-designated time via videoconference, or by taking a virtual field trip together to apply the material and discuss the results. 

In a blended hybrid learning environment, your classroom community is always together. Student discussions and questions can occur long after school is out for the day or after a group video chat has ended. Learning can become more of a process of discovery, with students actively looking for and sharing things that are interesting to them. 

Differentiation, Blended Hybrid Learning, and your Learning Management System 

Your LMS is where the benefits of differentiation and blended hybrid learning can reach their fullest expression. Here are just a few short examples of how this might play out in your blended learning environment: 

  • You curate and store materials and resources via the learning management system, sorted for student needs, difficulty levels, etc. Students use the LMS as a one-stop shop for learning choices during lessons, and then meet with you in a face-to-face manner to discuss those choices. 
  • Students set goals with you during individual meetings, then track their progress asynchronously via the LMS. 
  • You post a video to your online classroom and ask students to produce a reflection or edit and embed a video in a short lesson or quiz using a program like EdPuzzle. You use the feedback from these “flipped” activities to drive the beginning of the next day’s class or your next virtual meeting. 
  • For a class project, students are permitted to select a specific example related to the general topic. They then create a digital mash-up that covers all applicable learning objectives and share their creation with the rest of the class and selected members of the community, all via the school’s LMS. As part of the project, students have at least one in-person meeting or videoconference organized on their own time. 

From the brief list above, you can see how differentiation and blended hybrid learning can overlap seamlessly and complement each other. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, they are not limited by the physical walls of a school, and implementing them in tandem only strengthens your pedagogy. 

Personalized, flexible, and more important than ever 

The world is receiving a crash course in 21st century learning, minus the in-person component, thanks to an unprecedented public response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Students, families, and educational professionals have experienced a near-instantaneous paradigm shift. From all of this, there is the potential that more students and educators than ever before will come into contact with the benefits of online learning. Although this is a difficult time, it could also be an invigorating one. By the time American life returns to normal, we could all take part in building learning systems that are more personalized and flexible than ever before in our history. 

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