Help! My Students Have a Bad Case of Instamania

I never liked Instagram, and I don’t think I ever will. But, ignoring it is not an option anymore especially after I noticed my students’ addiction to checking their Instagram feeds, begging each other to like their pictures, and making sure that they all follow each other.

After failing at directing their attention to other social media apps, I realized that their Instamania is out of hand! I had no option but to accept the Instamania challenge: rather than looking for ways to restrict it or avoid it being a distraction, I needed to find ways to creatively integrate it in their learning process, hoping that it would make them more active and interested. And, to an extent, I can say that it did.

What is Instagram?


Figure 1: Instagram’s homepage (http://instagram.com)

As explained on its homepage (see Figure 1), Instagram is social media provider for users to share photos and, as of 2013, 15-second videos. It is barely four years old, launched in October, 2010. However, it is as popular as 200 million active user per month, as 20 billion pictures shared through it so far, as its average 60 new pictures a day, as its 1.6 billion likes a day (see Instagram’s press page). Its popularity is not limited to ordinary people; celebrities and famous figures like Barack Obama, John McCain, Lebron James, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and many others have active Instagram accounts with millions of followers. So, why isn’t Instagram in our classrooms yet?

To make it clearer, you can mainly categorize Instagram as a photo (and recently a 15-second video) sharing tool. Others can interact with your posts by following your account, and liking your content and commenting on them. They cannot forward your posts or save them (although they can illegally take screenshots of them). Furthermore, To facilitate its main basic function, Instagram offers filters that can be used to enhance your images or videos. It also allows you to post a one-line caption (no word-limit though) with your posts, to tag (i.e., mention and refer to) people in your photos or comments, and to add your photos to a photo map.

How Can it be utilized?

Instagram isn’t designed with academia in mind. In terms of educational applications, there aren’t clearly structured tools to be used in classrooms, but when did this stop teachers from finding ways to integrate a new tool that can foster active learning? Before sharing ideas of activities that helped me in my classes, Instagram offers you the ability to have your students produce content or consume/use content. While they can produce their own content by taking pictures, recording videos, and taking screenshots, they can also consume available content by commenting on pictures/videos, searching for content, and exploring hashtags1. These functions might seem limited at first, but you will be surprised how engaged, competitive, and creative students can become.

To start with, Instagram can be nicely used to target vocabulary skills. One easy task is to ask each student to pick a word from their vocabulary list or from their reading, and post a picture that visually explains/relates to the picture. Students will surprise you with their creativity and their out-of- the-box ways of visually imagining these words. Requiring them to post a caption with the word used in a sentence can also help them in using these new vocabulary items in context. Not only will this activity help them practice words in context, you can direct students to these pictures to use as flashcards/study tools for their vocabulary quizzes. You can also use these pictures, with your students’ permission, as materials for your classes. Another activity that many of students like and that brings out their creativity is to ask them to think of a story and take a picture or a collection of pictures (a collage) with one requirement: using X number of vocabulary items (see Figure 2).

As for consumption, you can post different pictures that can be described using some words in your vocabulary list, an ask your students to post comments using as many vocabulary items as they can.

Instagram’s relatively new 15-second videos feature can be helpful to develop listening and speaking skills. You can post your own videos (easily and quickly made with your phone camera) with comprehension questions. You can also ask them to record themselves practicing the pronunciation of new vocabulary items.


Figure 2: A story created by beginner-elementary students

It can also be used to address writing skills. One simple activity is to use their Instagram accounts as their online writing portfolios where they post their paragraphs with pictures that visually represent these paragraphs. Their classmates can post their feedback/peer-review as comments on these pictures. You can also ask them to brainstorm ideas for their essays/paragraphs, and post pictures/ screenshots of these brainstorms to be given feedback by others (as comments). In terms of consuming content, you can post a picture asking them to write their own stories about this picture as comments. This can encourage them to work harder as they try to come up with better stories that what others have already posted. Reading skills can be addressed by asking students, for example, to post a screenshot of their favorite part of a reading/story with a caption that explains what they liked about it. You can also design activities to have learners interact with their readings. For example, they can take pictures that represent main ideas discussed in the passage, or they can imagine what a character looks like and post their drawing of it, explaining how they got it.

Figure 3: A student shares her answers to an activity in class

Personally, I found Instagram to be most useful when my strong learners finish earlier than others. Rather than having them wait for others to finish, I usually ask them to login to Instagram and com- plete a few bonus activities I continuously post. It’s a nice change of pace, and they don’t end up wasting their time waiting for others to finish. These bonus activities were also helpful when some of my learners reach a point where they “shut down.” They usually find these bonus activities re- freshing. Instagram also proved to be useful to provide me with a platform to display my students’ products without the hassle of creating or collecting anything. All I needed to do was to assign a hashtag that can be tracked/viewed by everyone. Also, I rarely, but usefully, use it as a tool for students to share their model answers (see Figure 3). The students get to feel that sense of accomplishment and others benefit from what she/he posts.

Best Practices on the next page.......


Best Practices?

After a few trials, I developed a few guidelines that shape the way I use Instagram in class. As it is an on-going learning process, these guidelines are still open to improvement, but they’ve helped to a great extent. First of all, using personal accounts is not wise. Students will reach a point where they refuse to participate to not ruin their online images or to not spam their followers. Hence, asking students to create academic Instagram accounts is a requirement. Have them use their IDs and college emails to create these accounts. Make it clear that these accounts are only used for classroom purposes, that they should not share any private information, and that all their accounts must be set to be publicly viewed. This will eliminate the “it’s embarrassing to post this” complaint that can greatly limit your activities. It will also limit the amount of irrelevant posts that will spam your feed. It’ll also make it a lot easier to identify students; anyone can be a @blueprinces29, but only one student can be @9238273 in section 2 for example. Another technique that helped me identify students is to post a picture with their section’s name from the beginning and to ask students to post a comment from their accounts with their names. If there was ever a need to learn who is posting from a certain account, you can always go back to that post to identify that student from his/her comment.

Having learners post their content without your acknowledgement is a demotivater. Following their accounts is a good start. Acknowledging their content and appreciating it can be done in many ways: displaying it in class (via projector), liking their pictures, and posting comments. Also, having others interact with their posts, as part of activities, is a great source of motivation. They love it when others comment on their pictures, no matter what kind of comment it is. Formal acknowledgements are also helpful. You can assign badges for students who post X number of posts or comment on Y number of posts by others.

Another main issue to keep in mind is to make sure the hashtags you use for your classes are unique and not previously used (you can explore the hashtag before using it to ensure that). Otherwise you’ll risk having your students explore hashtags that might contain inappropriate or irrelevant con- tent. Assigning a hashtag for each week was the easiest way for my classes, for example #EN- G100week1, #ENG100week2, and so on. Also, after noticing that many students like to share photos just for the sake of sharing (with English captions of course), it could be useful to create a general hashtag for your class, a lounge hashtag.

Avoid posting questions that have one correct answer. Students will end up copying each other (including each other’s mistakes). I tried to require students to answer only one question, but some students could get excited and answer all questions. And, avoid making these tasks too challenging or unclearly related to their learning objectives/needs. I would also generally call for avoiding having students search for content that is not controlled by you (like general hashtags or keywords). 

One last best practice advice is to not burden yourself or overuse it. Sometimes, we could get excited about a new tool that we could overuse it to the extent that it become redundant and boring. It’s not a goal to reach; rather it’s a tool that should only be used when relevant and needed.

Final Thoughts

Using Instagram in my language classes was a challenge at first. Not all students were excited at first because they only saw it as a way to “ruin” their Instagram experience by using it for class. I think this was mainly because they couldn’t see the possibility of using Instagram to learn more than makeup techniques or fashion tips. However, after improving the way Instagram is integrated in class, students loved it! These activities got them highly engaged and motivated to actively complete tasks. The excitement of being the sole owner of a picture that is displayed in class and seen by others got to them. They do not only love to take pictures, but they enjoy the challenge of following a set of instructions without limiting their creativity. They also were happy about the fact that they were finally able to post English captions that make sense without using Google translate, something they usually struggle with.

What grabbed my attention the most is their reactions when I assign an activity that require them to produce something written. Once they know that they’ll be posting it on Instagram to be viewed and commented on by their classmates, most of them would ask for another paper to redo their assignment or frantically go about trying to make their assignment look neat and be correct. Although, this could be mean spending more time on a task that was already supposedly done, it was always worthwhile to have them pay more attention to their products and make sure they meet expectations if not exceed them. I also found it noteworthy that they often log into their academic Instagram accounts after class (on their own) and respond to bonus activities I continuously post, without being asked to do so.

After using it for two semesters, I’d say: give it a try. If not for in-class use, then think of using it as a backup plan that is always there for you. Keep posting content whenever you see something that can work for you and address your learning objectives and keep it for later use, or post it to your bonus activities hashtag. You can see more of these activities on an account I’ve created for conference presentations: http://instagram.com/confinsta

1 A hashtag is a keyword that describes your content. It should start with a # and no spaces separate words. Once its used for the first time, an archive is automatically created for this hashtag to view all posts that use it.

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About the Author
Author: Sebah Al-AliWebsite: http://sebah-alali.com
Sebah is a passionate learner who never stops looking for new things to learn. She is also an ESL lecturer and an adventurous web developer and programmer. She's presented at local and international conferences, and published a few articles about educational technology. Sebah has recently started a blog to share her teaching eurekas: http://sebah-alali.com/blog/

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