My Year Online


By Mike Shepard.pic1

In autumn 2014, I began an online investigation regarding the educational use of two apps, Snapchat and Instagram. Twitter and Facebook are nearly dead to the 12–14 year old students that I teach, so a replacement needed to be found. Through casual conversation, most students admitted to having a Facebook account only so their parents could ‘monitor’ their online activity, leaving many parents absolutely clueless to the fact that there are hundreds of other social media apps that students can access. While I did find some suggestions on how to incorporate Instagram, the suggestions were no more creative than what many other teachers were already doing with a digital camera – bland and boring.

It would appear that teens are far more likely than any other age category to be directly linked to their phones. Taking this into consideration, I thought that there must be a way to have students actively engaged in my social studies class discussions outside of the classroom, without making it seem like it was school related. My inspiration came from the 90s TV show and computer game ‘Where in the World is Carmen San Diego’. Would it be possible to engage students in a ‘Where is Mr. Shepard’ game of sorts?

There were three different groups that I needed to have on board for this social experiment. The first and most important was my wife. She had a list of concerns that ranged from our own personal privacy to addressing the line of student/teacher relationships. The second group was technology-minded coworkers. Some staff members were well versed in the world of technology while others were not. Feedback from the former was essential to the success of this project. The third group was the district administration. The curriculum director was quick to point out two things: 1. Make sure that students understood the terms of service associated with both apps; and 2. Make sure that students were reminded of web privacy. Both were very valid and key parts for developing a student population who lived online.

How it Worked

Introducing this to the students went far more smoothly than I had anticipated. For a month or so leading up to the project’s release, I began asking questions about the apps by combining words to make me seem technologically illiterate. Words such as Spacebook, Snapfish, Instasnap and others were thrown out daily. It seemed the fact that their teacher was entering their world piqued their curiosity.

I started with an explanation of the terms of service – the little box that students always click yes to. Almost all of them had no idea of the language used in these documents, specifically with respect to the ownership and storage of photos. Many questions were asked about what this actually meant and what happened to photos that had been deleted. The second thing we discussed was online safety. Lastly, we discussed how I would be using these two apps. Students were told that their participation was entirely voluntary. Their grade would not be connected in any way but, if they did participate, all school rules would still apply.

Student participation was staggering. By the end of the school year, I had accumulated nearly 50 Snapchat followers and well over 100 Instagram followers and most had directly commented or followed up with me within a week of my postings. Like any new toy, students were eager to see what I had to offer. I began by taking pictures around town of different businesses and local landmarks and the responses were incredibly accurate and almost immediate. It made me think about how much time my students were spending on their devices. The very first picture was taken in the local hospital’s rehabilitation room at around 6:40am. I had responses within seconds of posting that first picture. Think about what that means! Early in the morning, in this case, long before the sun had risen, kids were on their phones. In some situations, it was completely opposite. One night, after having fed my daughter a 2am bottle, I posted a picture to Instagram which was liked within five minutes of it being posted.

How it Evolved

Eventually, I learned that I was going to far fewer places than I had anticipated. There were two trips to Colorado that the students enjoyed, but they quickly tired of seeing the inside of the same grocery stores or the local oil change businesses. In order to maintain their interest level, I needed to adapt. I asked myself what students took pictures of – selfies, group pictures, goofy things, family and pets.

So, I began letting students into my world. Pictures included my dogs and cats, meals that I had created, my daughter’s first time wearing sunglasses, memes and more. This was even more common while I was home on paternity leave. It became my way of staying connected with my students while being separated for an entire quarter of the year.


My wife’s biggest fear, and I totally agreed, was the ever present what if. To live one’s life through a series of what ifs limits them from experiencing things that may have substantial consequences. However, there are occasions in which those consequences have to be weighed. This was one of those times. Any educator that attempts to use apps such as these must have a way to protect themselves from the what ifs. Personally, I did not experience any of the situations that my wife feared. This happened for one of two reasons. Because this online connection was not connected to student’s academic standing, I had full authority to limit access to students who demonstrated a lack of trust. Simply blocking the student from accessing my account immediately solved that problem. Laying down very specific expectations, I believe, was the main reason that no issues were encountered. Sometimes daily, more often weekly, we would have class discussions about online etiquette. This, combined with the knowledge that I was aware of almost everything that was happening online, helped to model my expectations.

Another concern raised by my wife and echoed by some staff members was personal privacy. Early on, my wife and I established guidelines for what could and could not be documented for student view. Things like personal possessions were to be limited so we were not inviting undue attention from people looking to take them. As we do with Facebook, we tried to limit how many pictures were posted while we were out of town, again so that we were not alerting unwanted people to the fact that we were not home.

Using an Android platform was an obvious disadvantage. Unlike Apple products that can take screenshots almost effortlessly, being able to take a screenshot on an Android takes a little more work. I have just very recently learned how to make this happen on an Android platform. The ability to do this from the very beginning is an absolute necessity.


This school year was the best I have had in over a decade of education, and I believe that it was directly related to the relationships that I forged with students. When I began taking and sharing pictures, students would:

  1. comment on pictures or videos I had posted via one of the two apps. If the image was of a location, their response would be their attempt at a correct answer. If the image was of a funny picture, they would provide a witty remark or simply ‘like’ the picture.
  2. find me the next day and inform me that they had seen my post and provide a one-to-one commentary about either the location or to have a brief discussion regarding the posting.
  3. both comment on the post and find me. These I would classify as students who were very actively engaged in the online connections I was creating, as well as the social studies content discussed in class.

As my use of the apps changed, so did the way students interacted with me online and in person. Both apps evolved in different ways. On Instagram, students began tagging me in pictures they felt connected to me or to something that we had discussed in class. Snapchat became a whole new world. Students began snapping pictures and video of the places that they were travelling to, the meals that they were having, their pets and their families. One student even contacted me with a babysitting question while she was ‘on the job’. These connections were monumental! Several key things were happening:

  1. I was becoming immersed in their online world. Students were unraveling their online lives in a way that I would never have been able to understand through candid conversations in or outside of the classroom. It opened my eyes to what their world really was like, and I believe that gave/gives me an edge in dealing with middle level learners.
  2. I was connecting with students in a way that I never done before. I see most students for 45 minutes per day. While that may be enough time for some teachers to really get to know their kids, it has never been quite enough for me. I now had, for those 50 Snapchat followers especially, a better sense of who they were, where they were from and their sense of humour.
  3. Probably the most important aspect of this adventure occurred when students sent me pictures of their lives or of something we discussed in class; whether it was their horse, new baby brother or Superman ice cream, it meant that I was on their mind. It had worked – students had become actively engaged in my social studies content outside of the classroom!

My Transition

Much to the disappointment of my wife, I am spending an increasing amount of time trying to calculate my next move. While it has been around for some time, YouTube has been the most recent addition to my online existence. The channel I created is a combination of personal videos as well as school videos, helping to reiterate the idea of a blended personal and professional life. Skype has been another tool that I use more frequently when I am not in the classroom. Recently, I stayed home with my daughter and used Skype to have students share their project progress with me. Recorded messages have also been vital to the success of my classes when I am absent. If there is a pre-arranged absence, I record short videos and share them via Google Drive, giving students direction for the day. This has simplified the job of the substitute teacher immensely.

Throughout this process, I have been forced me to think about how technology has and will continue to impact my family. I am much more aware of how, as an educator, I am perceived online. As more colleagues, parents and former students attempt to ‘friend’ me on Facebook, I have to be cognizant of every submission I make, for every time I click that final button there may be a direct consequence on both my personal and professional lives.


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