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Using Instagram in Higher Education

Using Instagram in Course Discussions for Online Learning

Although rarely viewed as an educational tool, using Instagram in online course discussions is an opportunity for enhancing the traditionally digital classroom discussion experience. Dr. Candace Parrish, Director & Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication at Sacred Heart University, presents an overview of how Instagram can be used for online course discussions in distance learning.


There’s no question that Instagram has remained one of the most successful social media platforms since its creation in 2010. Given its visually dominant nature, it allows viewers to be entertained by photos, graphics and videos that can be accompanied by varying amounts of captioned text. Like many other social media platforms, Instagram has also been utilized for business purposes, like managing communities, mediated messages and promoting advertisements.

Over the past three years I have been using Instagram as an online discussion tool in my public relations courses (both on-ground/campus and online). As a professor, I have definitely struck gold in the area of student engagement because Instagram chats are a type of “sneaky” assignment that allow the fun of our interactions to mask the reality that this is a graded course requirement. From a pedagogy standpoint, it’s an opportunity to teach students how to use a platform, which they may only use socially, for communication and business objectives. From a student’s perspective, it’s a totally cool break from a normal collegiate course environment and an opportunity for natural, low-stakes discussion among peers.

Instagram chats have been such a success in my communication courses that I have written tips about hosting chats and consulted various professors/instructors on how to host Instagram chats for their courses. The following are three top reasons to use Instagram chats in online course discussions:

Create a “Cool” and Low-Stakes Course Discussion Environment

As a student, it’s usually a “cool” or “fun” time when you’re able to have an educational experience outside of the normal physical of digital classroom experience. For years online classroom discussions have taken place on educational platforms, which are great. However, having a classroom discussion on social media breaks down the feelings around “required assignments” and makes the experience feel much more free-will for students. To make the opportunity even more low stakes, I do not grade the quality of their comments, yet, the quantity. Therefore, students don’t have to worry about the “right” answer and have more of an opportunity to have organic discussions with peers. At the end of the assignment, they are stoked to know they just earned points toward their grade by chatting on social media, which they were most likely going to do anyway!

Expand Experience with Online Community Engagement

It makes perfect sense for all students, regardless of their major or program, to have experience with online community management. Many professions and professionals are interactive on digital and social media platforms in today’s world. Social media provides a direct way of communicating with publics and also managing an organization’s brand and reputation. By participating in Instagram chats, students can learn a new way to engage and foster communication with various publics online. I always encourage my students who have participated in an Instagram chat to then take it back to their internships and jobs and try it out. Students can also learn to network on social media via this assignment as you can sometimes feature guests or ask industry professionals to join the chat.

Keep Discussions Organized

Hosting chats on social media didn’t begin with Instagram and I am certain that some folks are wondering how this differs from other platform chats, like Twitter chats. While I definitely encourage professors and instructors to explore their opportunities with social mediated classroom chats, I can say from experience that Instagram chats offer a more central and organized experience--both for students and professors. When participating in an Instagram chat, students will “meet” on the instructor’s page and comment directly under one post at a time. Therefore, it is easy to see the entire discussion in one central location. Twitter chats are a bit less organized in this manner as you will have to keep track of the discussion using a hashtag--which can become confusing at times. Check out this chat question for an example on how organized the discussion is for the professor and students alike.

All-in-all, hosting Instagram Chats could be a positive and easy way of shaking up course discussion and engagement in online courses. Additionally, there are many opportunities to tailor the experience based upon your assignment goal and pedagogical discipline.

Candace Parrish, Ph.D. is the Director & Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication at Sacred Heart University and owner of the consulting agency, Textured Eight, specializing in the areas of Public Relations, Social Media/Tech, Visual Communication, Health Communication and D&I. Connect with Candace on Instagram and Twitter.


For more ideas and guidance around other higher education strategies, like content marketing, visit our Resources page.

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