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How to use Snapchat as an educational tool

At a presentation about test prep tutoring for students with learning differences last month, I was struck by how anti-technology both the speaker and most attending educators were. The presenter insisted that technology use while studying or completing homework should be avoided without exception by students, especially those with learning differences.

Attendees lamented the use of systems such as Schoology and WebAssign. “All of their homework, classwork, and even some tests require laptops now, and you can’t get them off their phones,” said one participant, “How do you get away from it?”

But why do we need to get away from it? While there are many important critiques of online or computer-based education programs, the conversation often ignores the possibilities for educators to meet students where they are, using the apps and digital media students already consume.

I believe technology allows tutors to engage students in more nuanced and tailored ways.

Before I elaborate, I should clarify. Some limits on technology use do seem sensible not just for students, but for most people. Since giving my gadgets a bedtime of 8:45 PM EST five nights a week for example, I have noticed a qualitative improvement in my sleeping and thinking habits. I may experiment next with a weekly tech sabbath–a day without phone, laptop, television, etc. appeals to me. But I am not alone: tech limits also appeal to my students. Several of them recently used an app called Moment to figure out just how many hours a day they spend on their phones. They did this voluntarily, and the results alarmed them.

Tech in moderation, then, can seem sensible to most of us. After all, some cognitive skills develop best in the absence of distraction. But if our students are hooked on their mobile devices, why not make an ally of the apps that have them hooked?

Let’s take Snapchat as an example. This app has been and continues to be notorious.

But for years, I have been using Snapchat as an educational tool to reinforce material covered in tutorials. I will either take a picture of an existing review question or formulate a question myself, give my student a time limit depending on their learning differences and needs, and send it off. The app is ideal for tutors: it tells you when your student received the question; it lets your student take a screenshot should the time you allotted to complete the question exceed the 10-second max permitted by the app; and it encourages them to keep the exchange going because they do not want to break their streaks.

The same point system that hooks them on Snapchat hooks them on answering your questions. And since they will spend time on the app every day anyway, answering your question does not feel like a chore.

The app also allows you to make very short videos for students who have visual processing issues or are better auditory learners, and it is has proven invaluable with students who have memory issues or large amounts of material to memorize.

All in all, Snapchat works as an excellent educational tool for tutoring, and much like Snapchat, there are numerous apps students like that can be repurposed for educational ends.

I should reiterate of course, as someone who has worked as a tutor for over a decade, that there is no substitute for giving a book one’s undivided attention and really thinking through an argument. There is no substitute for developing the muscles for long-term concentration and deeper critical thinking, among other things. But a complete education requires honing different kinds of skills. There is no need to break our students of their tech habits, so long as we practice moderation.


  • Ellen May 6, 2016

    This is brilliant. I’d love to hear how else you use apps to teach!

  • Charles Major May 7, 2016

    I definitely agree that we’ll have much more success working with things like cell phones than trying to fight against them! And I love your description of how Snapchat in particular is useful.

    I wonder what the best way to encourage the “Snapchat generation” to get lost in a book is? It will probably require additional discipline since there is so much that encourages our short attention spans these days. Perhaps we could figure out a way to get technology to help?

  • IaR May 8, 2016

    Reminds me of Murrow in 1958: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

    Also, I love how this use of snapchat integrates education into the daily routine of your students. This is the key point that many “educational games” miss: education shouldn’t be parceled off into its own world; it should be part of our daily activity.

  • Nelly May 19, 2016

    It appears to be a tool that can contribute tremendously like you wrote about.

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