The Challenges of Instagram in the Classroom

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Last week, I focused on using Instagram Scavenger Hunts in the Writing Classroom. The general idea is that students post photos that illustrate or extend concepts they study in class. Like any digital tool however, Instagram brings some challenges to the classroom. This week I am addressing the three biggest issues that I anticipate: the digital divide, the creepy treehouse, and the workload.

The Challenge of the Digital Divide

Gardner_May03_224_1.jpgMost of my students have smartphones, but not all of them. I obviously cannot require that they own smartphones for the course, so I have to provide them with alternatives. Instagram requires that photos are posted from phones, so students cannot simply upload things from their computers.

While I like the streamlined nature of only using Instagram, possibly the best solution is to offer other places students can post their contributions to any Instagram activity if I have students who do not have phones. The same general activities could be completed using Flickr uploads with hashtags or posting images with hashtags to a Facebook page for the course. The library and InnovationSpace loan cameras to students, so these alternatives could work.

I am not sure that I like the necessity of waiting to see what resources students have before I can set up these activities, but that may be the fairest solution. If you have suggestions, please share them.

The Challenge of the Creepy Treehouse

Gardner_May03_224_2.jpgThe Creepy Treehouse effect is a strange feeling students can get when we ask them to use the social media that they use to connect with friends to connect with us and the class. The idea is that these practices can intrude on students’ privacy and ultimately feel fake or even creepy.

No one wants to blast out their homework to every friend on Instagram. There’s an old ProfHacker article that proposes some ways to avoid or lessen the Creepy Treehouse effect, but it is fairly clear that any time a teacher asks students to use their personal social media accounts for classroom projects, things are going to be weird.

The students I am teaching report that they already use Instagram. In the survey I use at the beginning of the term, 73%–85% have indicated that they use the site over the four terms that I have asked. If random homework assignments start showing up on these students’ Instagram accounts, people will notice.

The best solution is to encourage students to make a separate Instagram login for course work. By creating student personas, students can easily keep their personal network private. Instagram allows each user up to five accounts and has documentation on how to switch between accounts. Students will need to provide the usernames for these personas, but that would have been the case if they used their personal accounts as well.

The Challenge of the Workload

Gardner_May03_224_3.jpgUncovering and tracking all these student posts to Instagram means a lot of work. Specific and unique hashtags can help. Even with hashtags however, you may miss some student posts. That’s okay for class discussion. I am comfortable with focusing on whatever shows up as recent. Missing posts is not okay, however, for assessment purposes. If students are being graded for participation, I need to know I found everything.

I will return to the idea behind my post on Self-Assessment as Final Exam. I will ask students to track and report on the posts that they have made. They can point to their posts two or three times during the term and add some self-assessment by identifying best posts or those they would change if they could. The workload shifts from having to find and assess everything to evaluating a curated list. The process is immediately more manageable as a result.

Final Thoughts

Having worked out solutions for these three challenges, I am eager to add some Instagram activities to classes. They should provide an engaging way to extend the classroom conversation onto social media while taking advantage of tools that students are already using. Do you have suggestions for using Instagram? Is there a challenge I haven’t thought of? Let me know by leaving a comment below

[Photos all from Flickr: Phones—Old school, January 2013 by Rnddave, Treehouse—SDIM0321 by Genta Mochizawa, Workload—Pile of papers by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.