In today's selfie world, photo and video sites such as Instagram have become one of the most popular ways for young people to communicate. This makes Instagram an ideal platform for increasing student understanding and engagement in online courses by having students share what they know with one another.
We decided to test Instagram's educational possibilities in an upper division sociology course. We divided the students into two groups. The first participated in a standard discussion forum (i.e., posting answers to the instructor's questions, receiving feedback from the instructor and their fellow classmates), while those in the second group instead recorded short 15-second videos, using Instagram, in which they explained course concepts and processes. We hoped that the brevity of the videos would force students to learn the concepts and processes well enough that they could offer concise definitions. The students in the Instagram group were given a training module on how to use Instagram, and asked to create an account that would be dedicated to the class, rather than use their own if they had one.
Further, students in the Instagram section were required to anonymously rate each Instagram posted by their fellow classmates on a scale of one to five using the available rating system for postings built into Desire 2 Learn. In addition to a grade for their own Instagram, they were given a grade based on how accurately they rated other students' postings, using the instructor's ratings as a baseline. Because students in the Instagram section knew they would be evaluated on their postings, and additionally on the accuracy of their ratings of fellow classmates' postings, we believed they would be more motivated to learn the concepts and processes at a deeper level.
Students in the Instagram section were instructed to thoroughly study the concept assigned to them and then to deliver a concise explanation of the assigned concept in the 15 seconds allowed for an Instagram video. In the first round of postings, it was clear that many students decided to ad lib, but this resulted in poor quality postings in which significant elements of the assigned concept were omitted. Addressing this, the instructor encouraged students to write their own scripts on 3 x 5 note cards—forcing them to limit the amount of information that could be covered and helping them focus on the more important elements of the concept. The quality of the postings did improve after the aforementioned suggestion seemed to be adopted by the students. One student likened it to using 3 x 5 note cards to cheat for an exam—you have to know what's important enough from the course material to write on the cards in order to use them effectively to cheat, but by the time you reduce that material to what can fit on a 3 x 5 note card, you've learned the material and no longer need the note card.
Our intuitions about the benefits of the Instagram assignment were confirmed by students in the Instagram group scoring significantly higher on the 13 exams than did students in the control section. Additionally, students in the Instagram section often provided in-depth analyses to support their ratings of other students' postings even when not required to do so. For example, one student responding to a post on Marx's concept of workplace alienation explained in a written response that while the poster mentioned the first component of Marx's theory, alienation from the work itself, he had omitted three other crucial theoretical elements—alienation of the worker from working, alienation from him- or herself as a producer, and alienation from other workers. By the end of the 16-week course, about half of enrolled students voluntarily provided similar detailed critiques of various Instagram postings on a variety of topics. And while these critiques were generally thorough, none were judged to be unnecessarily harsh or critical of the original poster.
Due to problems with anonymity when attempting to use D2L for purposes of rating postings, a survey instrument was used to collect rating data and thus individual ratings were not made available to posters. A suggestion for future use would be to calculate an average rating for each student's weekly posting using data collected from the survey instrument. This could then be provided to students on a weekly basis and, when combined with the instructor's direct feedback for each posting, have the potential to improve posting quality even more.
As mentioned, we believed that the requirement to condense a topic into a short explanation would improve understanding, similar to a TED talk. We also think that it increased study time, especially because the visual element more connected the content to the student than does a text-based discussion forum posting. Students may take these videos as a closer reflection of themselves, and thus put more effort into them.
This method also has the benefit of making it easier for the instructor to gauge the general level of student understanding. Instead of paraphrasing course text in a discussion forum, students are forced to put the concepts into their own terms with the Instagram videos. The format also makes it easier for both instructor and student to provide continuous feedback on student's postings.
These short videos can be used to increase student understanding in nearly any field—psychology, biology, economics, art, design, etc. Consider using Instagram to supplement, or replace, the traditional discussion forum in your courses.
Richard L. Newtson is a professor of sociology and Jon Haney is an LMS administrator at Columbus State University.