Using Instagram as a Teaching & Research Tool: Tips, Resources, & Best Practices

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Instagram is a popular visual social media site. People share all sorts of stunning visuals to share their lives and their stories. However, have you ever thought about using Instagram as a teaching and research tool?

I had the honor to conduct a Facebook live interview with Paige Brown Jarreau, who is a Science Communication Specialist for the Louisiana State College of Science. Paige is an experienced social media user in educational settings especially in teaching scientists to use social media. Among the various social media sites, Paige’s speciality is in using Instagram as a teaching and research tool. She conducts workshops in this area and is also a social media consultant.

Paige engaged in an hour-long conversation with me and my Facebook live audience. We had a dynamic and interactive discussion regarding tools, tips, challenges, and best practices of using Instagram as a teaching and research tool in higher education. You can click on the video below to watch a replay of our live interview or go to my Facebook page to watch it. In this article, I share a few major highlights with you.

          Click the above video or watch the replay on Ai Addyson-Zhang’s Facebook page here

Paige’s Social Media Journey

Paige embarked on her social media journey while she was a graduate student. Her journey began with blogging. She is the founder of a popular science blog called, From the Lab Bench. Through regular blogging and consistent social media endeavors, Paige discovered the power of social media to communicate ideas, to build online communities, and to create impact. She even switched her doctoral study from Biomedical Engineering to a degree in Mass Communication. Wow! What a change. But, she never looked back. And many opportunities arose as a result of her active social media presence.

Why Instagram?

Paige didn’t become active on Instagram until a year ago. Two main reasons brought her to the platform. One is that her students are all on Instagram, but are not using it in professional ways. This is so spot on. I learned from my own teaching experience that our students, so-called digital natives, are not necessarily digitally savvy. They are adept at using social media for personal communication and entertainment purposes, but not in terms of business and professional usage of social media as a strategic communication tool.

The second reason that brought Paige to Instagram is its visual components. People are naturally drawn to pictures. As we all say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” More people are using Instagram to engage in in visual storytelling. Even among scientists, Instagram is gaining popularity and momentum.

Tips and Best Practices of Using Instagram

✅ Use of social media should always be aligned with your purpose. I cannot agree more with Paige when she mentioned that. Failing to first define my “why” was the single biggest mistake I made in my social media journey. We need to think strategically about our social media presence. Here are some questions that Paige suggested we ask before we decide to be on a specific social media platform.

Who’s your audience?
What is your purpose of being on a specific social media platform?

✅ Create visually appealing pictures. How can you bring your image to the next level? Do you have a unique angle when you take a picture? Take pictures of things that people don’t normally get to see. Learn from online resources and reflect on your own skills to get better pictures. Try to be creative with your picture taking and think about the story that you want your picture to convey.

✅ Start building a community around yourself on Instagram. Social media is a community building and two-way communication tool. Don’t use it as a one-way broadcasting platform that focuses only on yourself. Instead, use social media to build a community around yourself. In Paige’s own words,

Social media is called social media for a reason. It’s all about making personal connections with people. If you are just using social media, especially Instagram, as a broadcasting tool, you are not going to get the power out of it that you will if you use it to form a community. Find other people who share your interest. Follow them. Chat with them. Send them messages. Comment on their pictures. starting building a community around yourself of people who are interested in what you are interested in. Then you start to see the power of Instagram.

✅ Leverage hashtags. Paige made a great point that Instagram is not as searchable as Twitter. The search API is not that great. For example, if you enter the word “biology,” you are not likely to find every single person who uses biology in their bios. As a result, everything has to run through hashtags. Doing hashtag searches can also help you find your tribe of people who share similar interests.

You have to constantly and strategically think about what hashtags to use so that you can be discoverable. Think about what hashtags people might be using among those who share your similar interests. Do your research to find the best hashtags to use. Don’t just randomly choose hashtags to use.

If you want to learn more about using hashtag for business purposes, Hootsuite offers a complete Instagram Hashtag guide for Business.

Assignment Idea: Using Instagram as A Teaching Tool

Paige shared a great assignment example of how to use Instagram to document students’ learning journey. For example, in an introductory biology class, she created the assignment of requiring students to create collages to document how certain plants grow overtime on Instagram. With this simple assignment, students can learn how to create science visuals as an art and a science. For example, maybe students can place a ruler next to a plant to give the viewers a frame of reference of how well the plant is growing.

At the same time, teach students to caption their Instagram posts. How much information needs to go there? You cannot just say, “hi, look at this pretty plant.” But, create a context for your picture to tell a story by covering the five Ws (when, where, why, who, and how). Teach students how to create rich information and engage in science writing on social media in a way to engage their audience.

Teachers can also use Instagram and these assignments to create a class community. Ask students to engage with other students and to look at their plants on Instagram for example. And have an intellectual discussion about why someone’s plants grow better and faster than others. Teachers then create a community for students to engage class content outside of the class.

I love this assignment example Paige shared. It shows how a simple social media assignment can transcend class boundaries and its physical walls by creating a virtual community. In this way, students are not only learning from and interacting with one another in the class, but with the broader community as well. To me, this is when real learning happens.

To Selfie or Not to Selfie — How Can Scientists Foster Public Trust on Instagram?

This is a super cool research project that Paige and her team are doing. They want to know if scientists’ usage of social media can improve public trust of their research findings. In other words, will scientists’ humanized Instagram posts influence viewers’ perceptions of scientists’ competence and warmth? (information from their research project page)

If you are as interested as I am in this fascinating project, please make sure to follow their Instagram account @scientistselfies. Paige and her team has just started the project. I cannot wait to hear their findings. Maybe that will be the time to invite Paige to come back to my Facebook live show again.

Highly Recommended Resources &Tools

✅ SocialRank: This tool helps people find, manage, and analyze followers on Twitter and Instagram.

✅ Snapseed: A photo editing tool

✅ Afterlight: Image editing app

✅ Flume: Instagram on Mac [I just discovered this during the show and downloaded the app to my Mac computer. Love it. Why did I just discover this now?]

✅ VSCO: Photography filters

✅ VideoShop: Video editing

✅ A guide to better Instagram pictures — For science

✅ #ScientistsWhoSelfie Extends the Science Classroom

✅ Smartphone Photography 101

Conclusion

Hope this article gives you lots of good ideas about using Instagram as an educational tool. I am certainly inspired by Paige’s story and success. You can follow Paige @FromTheLabBench on Twitter and Instagram. How about you? Have you ever used Instagram as a teaching or research tool? I would love to hear and learn from you.

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