The Snapchat teachers: ‘They learn more this way than at school’

The social media app has become an unlikely ally in boosting teaching and learning

Natasha Lynch in Cork: the French-language teacher used social media to teach students online during the recent school strikes. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Natasha Lynch in Cork: the French-language teacher used social media to teach students online during the recent school strikes. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

 

It’s difficult at the best of times to capture students’ attention – especially when they are forever checking their phones. So, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

One app many teachers are embracing is Snapchat. It’s the one where you send a video or picture, and then it disappears 10 seconds after you open it.

For some teachers it makes perfect sense. In Ireland some 85 per cent of 15- to 18-year-olds have a Snapchat account, and most of them use it on a daily basis.

So Natasha Lynch thought, “Why not give it a go?” She’s a French tutor and founder of Essential French, which provides grinds to Junior and Leaving Cert students.

She has been building Snapchat videos into her classes, taking “snaps” of her lessons, posting to the app and building up a huge audience online in the process. The snippets of lessons she posts online aren’t your typical classroom fare. Lynch adopts the persona of Madame Menton, a slightly bonkers French schoolmarm who dispenses colourful lessons with a dollop of good humour.

She uses Snapchat’s drawing feature to add on colourful filters and oversized chin to complete the effect.

“It can get a bit boring listing to me, so Madame Menton comes on and livens things up,” she says. “In fact, she can be very bold. It engages them and makes them laugh.”

Many teachers are sceptical. Isn’t Snapchat used for sexting, or at least for silly filters? What educational value could it possibly have? Lynch insists it is highly effective in reinforcing learning or helping to explain challenging concepts such as demonstrative adjectives.

Carefully tailored

“I’ve found they are learning more on Snapchat than they did in six months at school,” she says. The content needs to be carefully tailored to make sure it is relevant to the lives of students. And it needs to have personality.

She cites a recent example, when celebrity couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie announced they had broken up. “Madame Menton was online within minutes to talk about it. They all learned about imperative and passé composé from me talking in French about it. It’s just making it fun and engaging.”

There are some obvious drawbacks, though. “Snaps” – picture or video messages – last up to 10 seconds after they are viewed before disappearing (unless the receiving party screenshots the message). And although Snapchat might reinforce or supplement lessons taught in class, it can’t replace more in-depth learning processes.

Lynch says its real value is as a tool that keeps students interested and engaged. “It’s about making learning fun and quirky and enjoyable. Some of them are asking their teachers at school to pull out the phone and follow us in class.”

The dreaded picture series

Snapchat is just one way teachers are using new forms of technology to connect with students.

John Gavin, a Limerick-based Irish teacher, is one of an increasing number of educators using online tools to share video tutorials and assignments. It’s a way of ensuring that students are learning even when they’re not in class. One of the most useful ways of using this technology has been preparing students for one of the most daunting challenges: the “sraith pictiúr”.

These are a series of pictures that higher and ordinary level students are required to speak about in detail. It can be stressful for many students, as it accounts for a significant proportion of Leaving Cert marks. It is also one of the most time-consuming tasks to prepare for.

To use class time more effectively, Gavin put video tutorials with downloadable notes online, allowing students to prepare in their spare time.

“It’s what we call ‘obair an asal’, or donkey work. It takes time to prepare. I try to make it as colourful and interesting as possible. In all, there’s about four hours worth of material on there for the students, which would take weeks to get through in class.”

There are a wealth of apps – including Moodle, Schoology and Google Classroom – that allow teachers to store videos and notes online for their students to access at home. Gavin uses Edmondo, which he says has the virtue of a “super-simple” interface that is accessible from all kinds of devices.

The technology, he says, is also helping to raise the standard of students who might not be the most talented at Irish. “You might not be an A student, but with the right preparation you can at least get an A standard in the sraith pictiur.”

Such is the demand from other students for these supports that he has created a downloadable app, Leaving Cert Irish, which contains most of the work he does for his class. The app is free to download, as are some online classes that live stream. Additional resources are available via the app for €2.50 a month, which he says covers the cost of hosting the material.

“It isn’t a commercial exercise or revenue-raising,” he says. “The grinds market is a total injustice for students who don’t have the money or access to extra tuition. I see this as levelling the playing pitch for students.”

Although many people are quick to dismiss online apps as gimmicks, teachers such as Lynch feel they have a crucial role to play in boosting learning outcomes.

The lightbulb moment for her came when she realised students weren’t using traditional social media.

“I asked them if they could have one app on their phone what would it be? They all said Snapchat. Facebook and Twitter are dead in the water for that demographic. I now find that kids are waiting for the Snapchat account to be updated. We’ve doing quizzes and competitions. It’s constant engagement, but it’s very rewarding.”

SNAPCHAT SECRETS: FIVE WAYS TEACHERS USE THE APP Using snap stories for class: Some teachers use “snap stories” as reminders of upcoming homework, projects or tests, as bite-size lessons or as a way to make connections within the curriculum.

Spark a discussion before class gets going: Want to bring up an interesting question in class? Some teachers get things going by asking it on Snapchat beforehand. This gives students time to think about the topic beforehand. Adding fun to learning: Many teachers say letting loose a little and showing students your personality – in good taste, of course – can improve the student-teacher relationship. Drawing tools and speech bubbles can liven up the learning process.

Let students follow you: You probably don’t want to see what students post on their personal Snapchat account. Unlike a Facebook account – where both parties must agree to be friends – Snapchat allows each side to make their own decision. That’s why some teachers give students their Snapchat username and let students add them. Teachers don’t need to add them back for students to be able to see their stories.

The sky is the limit: You can add as many 10-second snaps as you want to your story; it’s like a day-long photo album. Teachers can also see how many students have viewed their snaps to gauge reaction.