In the latest instalment of the Tech Tasks series, Tom Walton looks at Instagram as an educational resource, exploring how it can be used to help students develop their speaking and vocabulary skills both inside and outside the classroom.
Do your students want to use Instagram for class?
If you’re not familiar with it, Instagram is an app for sharing photographs from a user’s smartphone. It is one of the world’s most popular social networks and one that a lot of your students are probably already using. If they are, they’ve probably become enthusiastically addicted to it (like me!), so wouldn’t it be great if we could take advantage of that enthusiasm for class projects?
The first thing to do is to find out how many of your students (a) have smartphones and (b) use Instagram and (c) like it. You will probably find you do have Instagram users in your class. Roughly half (53%) of internet-using young adults (ages 18–29) use Instagram according to Pew Research Center. You might also find, though, that some of your class don’t like it.
If you get a lot of negative feedback, consider using alternatives (see ‘Alternatives to Instagram’ below for some suggestions). I’d only recommend using Instagram if at least 25% of your students are already using it. However, it is not necessary for every student to become a user in order for you to be able to do the projects suggested below.
10 fun projects with Instagram
What is Instagram?
A great place to start is to get 3–4 of your students who are already using Instagram to give a presentation to the rest of the class on what Instagram is and why it is popular. If they do a good job and go on to start one of the other projects suggested below, you’ll hopefully find that some of the other students then open (free) Instagram accounts. For help with collaborative presentations, have a look at this Tech Tasks article.
Learning taking place
This one is an old favourite of mine to which Instagram brings new possibilities. When I start teaching a new class of upper intermediate level or higher, I like to discuss what they think is needed to learn a language, then do some ‘learning to learn’. As they also soon discover that I am keen on photography (and Instagram!), I like to challenge them: can they, in the classroom (later, also at home), photograph learning actually taking place? That is, people doing things (interacting, accessing educational websites, using a dictionary on their mobile, etc.) that will lead to learning. If you introduce this activity at the beginning of the year, assign a couple of Instagram users to be roving reporters in class while other activities are going on. The comments on Instagram are great for discussion, and anyone who is not yet an Instagram user can still take part if you devote class time to looking at and talking about what people have posted – either directly on their phones or else using your classroom projector.
If you’ve never heard of tape poetry, you’ll find plenty of examples on Instagram itself. It basically involves writing a poem, cutting up the lines into strips (hence the name ‘tape’ poetry) and pasting it on to an interesting background. In street art, the background is always a suitably interesting wall or door, but a classroom or corridor noticeboard makes a great alternative. If you work in a secondary school, enlist the collaboration of the art or technology department, and this can make a great cross curricular project. It could be that you want to specify a particular area of target language you want to be included.
Who are these people? How do they know each other? Where are they going?
Creative writing prompts
We’ve looked at creative writing in a previous Tech Tasks article, and Instagram is a great place to post writing prompts and use comments for generating ideas your learners can turn into stories. I like to look out for things that seem to tell stories, such as these figurines seen in a souvenir shop. You can help prompt your students by asking certain questions to raise their interest (see pic).
It is a good idea to write the actual stories somewhere else – not on Instagram – as they will tend to be quite long. However, ‘50 word stories’ or ‘single sentence stories’ can also be fun, especially with higher level students. If they are able to keep to a 50-word limit, students could post their stories directly on Instagram, and you can encourage more language practice by asking the rest of the class to comment, suggesting improvements they would make, on the original Instagram post.
Do you have students who sit there in class doodling? If so, don’t be annoyed – exploit it! Can they photograph and upload a good doodle, and then either describe it or have other people guess what they, the artist, had in mind? You need to be super enthusiastic about this idea, and careful how you ask, as people can sometimes be a little reluctant to share their doodles.
Everyone loves a good quote. Collecting quotes makes a great project. The quotes can be either on the themes you work on in class or just random quotes that your students find, like and share with the rest of the class. There are lots of apps that allow you to create quotes, which your class’s Instagram users will be able to tell you about! See also ‘Apps’, below.
Instagram as a class vocabulary book
This depends a lot on the level you teach, but if you’ve been looking at clothes vocabulary in class, for example, you can ask your class to Instagram various items of clothes in their wardrobe. They could even model the clothes, and then this becomes a fun homework project. Your students need to remember to hashtag any photos they post (e.g. #cool #faded #jeans), as the hashtags are the vocabulary items you want them to learn.
Video vocabulary book
As well as photos, you can upload a 15-second-long video to Instagram. A fun project that can be ongoing throughout the year is to see who can say the most related vocabulary items in 15 seconds. It works best in pairs, with students taking turns to say an item, with no hesitation, repetition or irrelevant items. Anyone who doesn’t want to be videoed can still take part by doing the filming. If you encourage pre-recording rehearsal, learning vocabulary becomes fun! As an alternative, try tongue twisters.
Videos of me (etc)
This can be an entirely voluntary project, and it could be done with photos as well as videos. Do your students have cute, lazy or funny pets? Do they have amazing collections of stamps or Warhammer figures? Do they participate in extreme sports like kitesurfing or downhill mountain biking? If so, they can share a video or photo and provide an accompanying explanation on Instagram.
Students have only 15 seconds, but that is what makes this a great challenge: can they tell a story in that time? This probably works best when students are of a sufficiently high level (B2 or above) to really exploit the opportunities afforded by the brainstorming and write as much dialogue as they can pack into 15 seconds. ‘Valentine’s’ gives you a great theme, as does ‘A Christmas Story’, and the title of the popular TV series How I Met Your Mother another: can your students tell (i.e. act out and film) a ‘How I met…’ story in just 15 seconds?
If your learners don’t have the level of English necessary to brainstorm scripts, there are still so many other things you could do on Instagram. If you only teach songs and simple dialogues with them, video those and Instagram them!
Some of the ideas suggested in the two previous Tech Tasks articles on using mobile phones in the classroom would also work on Instagram. If you’ve done other things with it, do tell us in the comments below!
Who posts photos and where
The ideal situation is that all of your students are already Instagram users and are happy to share photos and videos on Instagram using their own accounts. However, as that may not be the case, fortunately there are other options, so not everyone is obliged to become an Instagram user.
You could create a class account which is managed by a single volunteer. The rest of the class then send in their pictures to that person, who uploads them to Instagram. Alternatively, everyone else could upload images to Google Drive or Dropbox, and the account manager then uploads them to Instagram. If you do your projects as groupwork, you can also have one Instagram user per group uploading.
A third option is to ask your students to provide you with all the photos, and then you do all the work. However, I strongly recommend you only do this if you intend to have very few posts in your Instagram projects, as it can be very time-consuming.
I’m not a big fan of getting learners to download apps (other than Instagram, of course). There are lots of additional apps for Instagram, but if your learners are already Instagram users, they don’t need you to tell them about editing apps! But if you want to suggest cool Instagram apps, by all means do so in the comments.
But before you begin…
Before you begin with any tech tool, you want what I call ‘the 3 Ps’: practice, permission and privacy.
The only way to get some practice is to create an account and start using it. If you aren’t already an Instagram user, consider becoming one only for class projects.
If you are already a user, you might want to think about setting up a second account to use with your classes. This will avoid the issue of sharing your private life with your students. However, you might need to get yourself an app to enable yourself to manage two accounts on one device.
Remember that you don’t need to be an expert on Instagram (or any other Web 2.0 tool) in order to use it successfully with learners. You already have experts in your class – some of your students. Ask them to provide their classmates with any help they require!
If you teach anyone under the age of 18, it is important to get permission from parents and your school. Note that you are more likely to obtain this if you can show that you are doing what is possible to guarantee as much privacy as possible (see ’Useful links’, below).
With any tech tool, it’s always a good idea to establish a few rules before your students start to use them. With Instagram in particular, it is a good idea to follow these:
- Insist students use tags (see ’Useful links’, below). You want a tag for your projects – one which no one else is using. For example, I might get my students to tag every photo they post for our projects with #twbcn16ih (my initials, ‘bcn’ for Barcelona, a couple of easily remembered digits and the initials of their school).
- Everything posted, including comments, has to be in English (see also this information on how I correct errors).
- Nothing used is to be inappropriate, unkind or rude to anyone else in the class.
- ‘No faces without consent’. This is so that no one posts a picture of someone who doesn’t want to appear there and/or posts a photo that is in some way unflattering.
- What other people post, we comment on. (We want people to participate and use their English, and it’s our job as teachers to encourage that!)
Alternatives to Instagram
If privacy (or other) issues are going to mean that you cannot use Instagram with your students, all of the suggestions for project work above could also be done on a class blog, on an Edmodo group or on a private G+ Community (the latter best with adults).
Personally, I feel more comfortable using Instagram with adults. With younger learners, I would probably pick an alternative. NB. to register for an Instagram account, Instagram requires users to be over thirteen.
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Tech Tasks: Ten fun projects with Instagram