April 2019
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Kevin M. Wong, New York University, New York, New York, USA

Social media is a powerful platform for people to engage with the world around them. Users have the capacity to participate in various communities by communicating, sharing, collaborating, publishing, managing, and interacting with others (Mao, 2014). Connecting to specific communities and engaging in conversations across borders, social media users often form collective identities that respond to critical issues in society (Gerbaudo, 2015). Moreover, in education contexts, social media may serve as an opportunistic platform for raising student awareness and engagement in critical issues (Manca & Ranieri, 2013; Selwyn, 2012).

The study discussed in this article investigates Instagram as a platform for learners to post thought-provoking images, powerful captions, and unifying hashtags related to critical issues in education. More specifically, this study examined (1) how education students in an undergraduate teacher preparation program used Instagram in a classroom setting; and (2) the extent to which Instagram raised student awareness of and engagement with critical issues in multilingual and multicultural education.


The study took place in an early childhood teacher preparation program at a university in the northeast region of the United States. I was an instructor of a required class on teaching English Learners and multicultural issues in education. Each week, for the duration of one semester, students posted pictures on Instagram according to prompts that highlighted tensions in their readings and class discussions (e.g., Post a picture “about using Spanglish in classrooms,” “about incorporating culturally relevant texts,” “about the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities among emergent bilinguals.”). In class, I engaged students in activities to reflect on how students presented pictures on social media and how these images were interpreted by an audience.

This study adopted a mixed-methods approach to address these research questions. A total of 30 undergraduate students completed a quantitative survey at the end of the course, which included eight items on a 5-point Likert scale and four additional open-ended response questions. These questions asked students to evaluate Instagram as a tool to raise awareness of critical issues in multilingual education, and the extent to which it cultivated in students a deeper understanding of these issues. To qualitatively examine Instagram use and learner engagement with these issues, students analyzed the same Instagram post before and after the study, comparing them for analysis. Students also wrote a brief reflection on two of their favorite Instagram posts. Moreover, using findings from the quantitative analysis, seven students were selected to engage in a focus group discussion. The discussion was transcribed for analysis.


As a whole, both quantitative and qualitative findings demonstrated that students enjoyed using Instagram and that it raised awareness of and engagement with critical issues in multicultural education. Three statements that students agreed with the most included “I believe Instagram is an effective platform for raising awareness” (M = 4.77, SD = 0.50), “It was easy for me to use Instagram” (M = 4.63; SD = 0.76), and “Instagram made me think about how to present critical issues in social media” (M = 4.50; SD = 0.82). Despite these findings, students seemed less likely to continue using Instagram to talk about critical issues after the class (M = 3.86; SD = 1.09). Corroborating these findings, qualitative data provided rich examples of how Instagram impacted students in three different areas.

First, Instagram was able to deepen students’ understanding of critical issues. For example, many reflected on how using the black and white filter to highlight “The Silent Period” in second language acquisition personalized the issue for them. One student reflected, “I was exposed and more aware of some of the obstacles that emergent bilinguals are faced with.” Secondly, Instagram appeared to raise student awareness about the importance of taking perspective. Leveraging the ability to cultivate community on social media platforms, one student said, “The Instagram project really allowed me to see other people’s point of view on critical issues.” A third finding demonstrates that Instagram was able to build students’ resolve to advocate for students; one student said, “Instagram will allow us as future teachers to state our opinion on certain topics.”

In sum, findings from this study suggest that Instagram and social media use have the potential to influence student awareness of and engagement with critical issues in teacher education programs. Moreover, extending research to this specific media platform, students were able to develop a collective identity through Instagram to engage in conversations across borders in response to critical issues in multilingual and multicultural education.


Gerbaudo, P. (2015). Protest avatars as memetic signifiers: Political profile pictures and the construction of collective identity on social media in the 2011 protest wave. Information, Communication & Society, 18(8), 916–929.

Manca, S., & Ranieri, M. (2013). Is it a tool suitable for learning? A critical review of the literature on Facebook as a technology-enhanced learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(6), 487–504.

Mao, J. (2014). Social media for learning: A mixed methods study on high school students’ technology affordances and perspectives. Computers in Human Behavior, 33, 213–223.

Selwyn, N. (2012). Social media in higher education. The Europa World of Learning, 1, 1–10.

Kevin M. Wong is a PhD candidate at New York University in literacy education. He is also a full-time instructor in the early childhood teacher preparation program at Monroe College. His research interests include multilingual education, educational media, and teacher education.
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