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BELLTONES: Picture This! Using Instagram With Students

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Sep 1, 2013
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One of my favorite things about Web 2.0 applications is the plethora of options for working with images. My interest in photography goes back to childhood and my devotion to my trusty Brownie Hawkeye camera. One of my favorite things about my smartphone, an iPhone, is its camera. It is always with me! For that reason, I am taking pictures and looking for photo ideas every day.

All this has made me the perfect candidate for Instagram. Before my phone camera days, I used a small digital camera, and it served me well on trips. I was not photographing my daily experiences, though. My new phone and Instagram changed all that. Like many Instagram users, I found that the community changed the way I see the world. Also, I love the fact that, daily, I see wonderful pictures from all over the world shared by my virtual friends.

Just recently, I started to think of ways to use Instagram with students, and that is what I’ll talk about in this column. I am far from alone in my enthusiasm. Since its inception in 2010, Instagram has skyrocketed in popularity. Young users were said to be leaving Facebook behind in favor of it. Facebook knows a good thing when it sees it, so it acquired Instagram in 2012. Now users can post to Instagram and simultaneously share the photo via Facebook. Educators and parents will do well to be acquainted with Instagram due to its popularity with teens.

First of all, what is Instagram? It is a photo-sharing application used by smartphone photographers to post their own pictures and enjoy those posted by other participants. I started out with it back in 2010 at the behest of some virtual friends from another online app that was losing traction. A few of my contacts suggested Instagram as a way to keep communicating. I joined in and these people, none of whom I have met face-to-face, became my first followers. Within days I was hooked, and now it’s a rare day when I don’t post at least one picture. I presently have several hundred followers and follow several hundred other people.

As with any network, it takes a little time to get to “know” people. I started expanding my small circle by following people whose work I admired. I like shots with unusual or quirky viewpoints, nature shots, interesting close-ups, and pictures that try new and different ways to use editing tools. Instagram itself has a selection of filters and other options to enhance pictures, and I often crop and tweak images using those. I also found other editing apps to use with my iPhone and use them if the Instagram offerings do not satisfy me.

Once you click to follow a person, he or she will almost always follow you in return. The more friends you have, the more you continue to gain. Just as with Twitter and Pinterest, you can find your collection growing. I really like being able to see pictures from all over the world, thus having virtual visits to places that I will never see. One of my favorite photographers is from Istanbul and posts pictures of the Old City every day. Others hail from Buenos Aires, Hawaii, Singapore, Japan, Russia, and a number of European countries. I also enjoy pictures taken close to home and follow a number of Texas Instagrammers.

For quite a while my interest in Instagram has been personal, but recently I have been thinking about how this app can be used in education. Since my main interest is teaching master of library science students, the idea of combining these two passions is very intriguing. Furthermore, in recent months, I have been made aware of other teachers and professors who are starting to talk about this idea also, and not just for college students. A bit of looking around yielded some good examples:

?• Personally, I am using Instagram with a class called Field Study in Library Science, in which students visit libraries, museums, historical sites, etc., and thereby expand their horizons about how to use such locations as school libraries. Each student is to join the community, post pictures, and tag them with a common term so that we can all enjoy one another’s pictures.?

• Obviously, if your K–12 students are going on a field trip, this is a great way for them to share impressions. ?Art students and teachers can certainly find Instagram a rich resource. ?

• Schools that offer elective photography classes are a natural fit.?

With younger students, the limits to lesson ideas are really just the imagination of the teacher. One thing that I have enjoyed over the year is photo alphabet books where students look for shapes and occurrences that can represent each letter. Recently, I was visiting the Houston Zoo and there was an 8th grade photography class having a wonderful time. They were working on several tasks, one of which was to find alphabet letter shapes in nature. Another great example of this kind of alphabet project was one done in New York City using shapes from city scenes. ?

• I will share some excellent resources about Instagram at the end of this article. Reading them can cause ?you to come up with other ideas of your own.

• Remember the days when students collected leaves or insects for science? A much safer and ecologically sound alternative is to post and share pics. That way, if one kid sees an elusive Luna Moth, everybody in class gets ?to see it too.

?• As a former English/reading/language arts teacher, I can think of a number of ideas for use. I kept a clipping file with magazine pictures to inspire creative writing back in the 1970s, and obviously a class Instagram account would be an easy way to do this. Also, students could snap pictures of books they have finished and then use them at the ?end of a term to compose a photo tour of their reading.

?• Instagram is a great way to put together photo stories or essays. Just post the pics and, since you can add comments to your own as well as other images, key in a description of the place you visited and any other interesting details.?

A fellow librarian, Anne Hebert from Palm Springs High School, California, offered these tips: “I’ve begun a rogue IG account for my library because I think it’s a fun and innovative way to [connect]with students and a larger library community. I like being able to share our library activities with a simple picture rather than these dang emails I have to send to the entire staff.” This led me to think about possibilities for working with faculty and staff as well as teachers. Several of my colleagues are Instagrammers, and they are already doing this. In addition to informing your faculty about goings-on, it’s a great way to promote collegiality.

Nicole Ediss, an art teacher from Palm Springs High school, described her use as follows: “This year we did have an Instagram semester-long project. The kids picked [a] theme or random phrases really to nominate as themes for each month. I chose four themes a month for them to post a pic hash-tagged with the theme. It was fun for those who did it and its a great way to get to know the kids.”

Another suggestion is to have an entire school share via Instagram. Again, all that is needed is a common hashtag: no need to post or share user names or compromise anyone’s identity. Students and faculty would just use the tag for pictures they want to share in this manner.

Of course, any time a new sharing idea involving teachers inviting students to collaborate using cyber-connections is considered, there are concerns and limitations. Here are a few points to keep in mind.

Is Instagram blocked at your school? The actual computer capability of this app is limited to just viewing pictures online, rather than posting. Thus, students really don’t need an online account. Most users, including myself, just use their phones or maybe iPads.

Instagram users must be at least ?13 years old. I would never suggest that an educator should encourage kids to fib about their age. Instead, you might invite parents to share with students or have those students send pictures to you that you then post to a class account.

What about privacy? Instagram has a feature whereby you can make an account private and, as with Facebook, this should be the recommendation for young users. Furthermore, projects and activities should encourage sharing pictures of things other than fellow students. There are many ways to use the app without taking pictures of people.

Shannon Holden, assistant principal of Republic Middle School, had a couple of great suggestions in his webinar, referenced at the end of this article. One suggestion addressed the problem of students who do not have email addresses, since one is needed to enroll. He pointed out that there are temporary email services that can circumvent this problem. The address goes away after a short time, but it exists long enough to enroll in the service, which is the only time it will be needed.

Holden also recommended that students should not follow anybody. There is no need for them to even follow the teacher, who may want to keep private his or her postings that are not for class. Students mark their pictures with the class hashtag—that way, all class members can see them, but outsiders are not brought into the circle. I think this could be adjusted to let students follow parents.

Finally, Holden suggests that students should disable geotagging. Even though students do not follow anybody and vice versa, this would further ensure that their whereabouts were kept private.

Back to my own instructional use: At the beginning of my summer term, I instructed students to sign on to Instagram and use the following hashtag, which you are welcome to reference if you want to see our pictures: shsuls5376. That’s my institution, Sam Houston State University, and the class title. As students went about their visits to museums, libraries, historical sites, etc., they took pictures and tagged them with that hashtag. Then they added comments to tell a little more about each picture, and fellow students joined in with likes and comments. A couple of students did travel outside Texas, so we enjoyed pictures from Washington, D.C., and Alaska as well as from our own state. About halfway through the class, I posted a brief anonymous survey to allow students to candidly share their comments about the assignment. Responses were universally positive. The only concern voiced was about privacy and young users, which is something addressed in this article. Clearly, this is an issue that should be paramount with educators, and strict guidelines for use should be in place. Here are some comments shared by students:

A student shared how she gets around the fact that she has a Windows phone that does not support Instagram: “I have Instagram on my iPad but carrying around an iPad isn’t as portable as a phone. I am taking pictures with my Windows smart phone, emailing them to myself and uploading them on iPad on Instagram. It’s a round about way, but it works.”

• “It allows students to feel a connection with other classmates and is really enlightening to realize how unique we each are in our interests and educational perspectives.”?

• “I like the way you can use your gps to locate yourself. I also like the way you can tag people in the pictures and put a caption. If you forget something in your caption, you can just add another comment.”?

• “I also think it would be great to use for group or individual projects to document their progress.”

• “Since Instagram is a free app, it should be available to everyone. ?Free apps are always good.”


So why not use Flickr, Picasa, or some other online sharing service? Well, you can certainly do that! And if you choose that route, the ideas I have mentioned for use will apply. Using any photo-sharing app or pursuing any way to get kids taking pictures with those high-powered cameras they carry is worth trying. However, I believe that Instagram offers important features that make it uniquely attractive for sharing photos among students and faculty. The reasons for using Instagram are its popularity and interest on the part of your students, along with the convenience of using phone cameras, and the highly social aspect of the app. It is so very simple and seamless to use Instagram with a phone or mobile device. We all know that the “wow factor” is a great stimulus to student interest and participation. Kids are already using Instagram anyhow, and tapping into that interest seems to be a fun and creative way to have them use a tool they already like to think and learn.


Contact MaryAnn at



This webinar by Shannon Holden describes his use of Instagram as a school administrator:

This blog entry was posted by John Spencer and called “Ten Ideas for Using Instagram in the Classroom”:

This blog entry was shared by Ellyssa Kroski and called “10 Interesting Ways to Use Instagram for Your Library”:

This article by Jason Philips contains great ideas: “Using Instagram in an Educational Context”:

This Scoop-It board, “Badging & Other Incentives,” was created by my colleague, Holly Weimar:

“The Educator’s Guide to Instagram and Other Photo Apps” offers great ideas:

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