I launched an online course on Instagram, here is my lesson learned


During the COVID-19 outbreak many people relied more and more on web technologies like such as video calls and social networks, to fulfil their social needs. I decided to design and release an online course on Instagram so that users while consuming content could be engaged in learning activities. In this blog post, I will describe how I designed the course and the challenges I had to face to produce the learning material, as well as my showing my considerations about the whole idea.

1       Introducing the idea

At the beginning of 2020, the whole world witnesses the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19, an infectious disease that affects human’s respiratory system and can lead to serious consequences. In about two months, this virus spread like wildfire across the globe and in order to cope with healthcare system capacity, many governments enforced lockdowns and social distance, forbidding people to get out of their house unless strictly necessary.

The natural reaction for people was to certainly be physically distant but socially connected. Indeed, confined in their household and facing loneliness and boredom, people relied more and more on web technologies like such as video calls and social media, to fulfil their social needs. They moved their face-to-face activities online, not only confined to their working duties but expanded also to their social activities, such as aperitives, celebrating birthdays, training sessions, karaoke and others. They were gathering in large chatting rooms, sometimes with more than 10 invitees, in video conference using software like Whatsapp, Houseparty, Zoom, Jitsy, Webex, Skype, Microsoft Teams and others.

This activity was paired up with seeking of entertainment on social media, such as Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter. Social media belong to the category of Web2.0 technologies which gives users the power to be simultaneously consumers and produces, often defined as prosumers. It is up to the users to decide how much they want to produce and consume over such platforms.

To this end, considering the amount of time we end up consuming over these platforms, it comes naturally to ask: can we use them in a more constructive way and for social good? Or in other words, can we use it to exchange knowledge from an educator to a learner?

Urged by curiosity, I started designing and creating a video course for Instagram: Fun with Barese. In this video course, I teach figurative expressions – or idioms – that make the Barese, the language form the place I come from, very colourful and full of emotions.

In general, this experiment would both i) help me to understand how easy is to use a platform like Instagram for developing an online course as well as enabling students to learn, and ii) help me in disseminate the Barese culture.

The whole idea behind the course is that students would navigate through a set of multiple stories, in a slideshow format. Each story consists of a mix of media, like video, picture, animations, and sounds. Among the several features: i) stories on Instagram scroll automatically after 15 seconds, although users are allowed to move backward and forward by tapping respectively on the left and right side of the screen, ii) stories can be paused by tapping and holding onto the screen, and iii) stories are in a portrait mode typically 1920×1080 pixels. This combination of features define the current advantages and constraints, and thus challenges, set by the platform. For instance, as each story is displayed for a limited amount of time, we need to make sure to correctly dose the amount of information in each story so to be digested in up to 15 seconds.

However, there are several other considerations that a course designer needs to take into account when producing new learning material for online courses. In the next section, I will describe more in detail some principles that allowed me to design this course. In section 3, I will describe what are the facilities that Instagram itself offers to create content. In section 4, I will describe how I evaluated this course in term of student retainment. Finally, in section 5, I will outline my lesson learned.

2       Design

When designing an online course, educators should take into account certain guidelines to make pedagogically informed decisions. Indeed, during the design of this course I was heavily influenced by Sharples (2015) guidelines. One of these guidelines suggests having an idea about the intended learners. In this case, my intended learned are those who speak English and are planning to go on holiday to Bari and knowing some idioms can make their staying even more pleasurable. Among my intended learners there are also people from Bari who certainly know the language but unaware of certain idioms. This extends also to second-generation immigrants living in other countries who learned Barese from their parents and they want to improve it. It is clear that the learning objective of the course is to teach idioms available in such language.

Another suggested guideline is the support of a narrative. In this course, each idiom is showed through at least two stories. The first story shows the idiom in both Barese and English, with a narrator voice that reads the idiom in both languages. This is then followed by another story, which in the form of storytelling provides more context, explains how this idiom originated, when it applies and others.

Following these guidelines, I had a clear idea on how to structure the course. Now it was matter of understanding whether Instagram provides enough support for the creation of such learning material and if not what kind of technologies are available out there.

3       Which technologies I used to prepare this learning material?

o better understand what kind of technologies are required to prepare the learning material we will start with analysing the tools offered by Instagram itself to produce stories and therefore the venue of this minicourse. However, even if Instagram provides a quite versatile tool to produce content, it is still limited to a set of functionalities that hinders the full power of human creativity. Indeed, to take full advantage of one’s own creativity, one need to complement Instagram with other technologies, which can be used for free, and under subscription to access to more advanced functionalities.

As social network, Instagram can be used either through the phone with an app for both iOS and Android, or via its web interface. However, users can create stories only from the official app from the phone.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the Instagram Stories editor from a phone screen.

In general, Instagram offers quite a few tools, as shown in Figure 1, for creating stories and in this particular case producing learning material. Stories can be created starting from a either pictures or videos, and then a user can add more content such as text, GIFs (preloaded from Giphy), quizzes, polls, music (provided by Instagram), open questions, and it allows also to draw using a pencil or other markers. In addition, it is also possible to create a story starting from just a piece of text, pool, question, or quiz without the need of picture or video as background. In this case the user can choose among some preloaded backgrounds which can be either solid coloured (black, red, green etc) or patterned. Another way to create Instagram stories is through a live broadcast. This feature is an interactive way to share what one is doing while doing it. Live videos allow you also to engage with you followers that, while watching it, can interact by texting you or asking questions. In addition, you can invite up to one person among your current viewers to join your live. This will then split the screen in two parts to show the two simultaneous lives.

Although the facilities offered by Instagram make this whole tool for publishing quite versatile, it poses a number of challenges when you need to produce rather complex and elaborated content, like online mini courses. For instance, in the current design of this mini course, it could have come particularly handy the possibility to share pictures, describing an idiom, with an audio message that reads the idiom, so to both facilitate the learner in acknowledging the sounds of a new language and increase the accessibility to the course itself.

Another challenge for developing learning material is posed by the limited size of the mobile screen which makes this goal quite unpractical, even with today’s larger-screen phones. In the complexity vs. usability trade off, app developers tend to prioritize usability disadvantaging complexity. It is rather hard to create something complex on mobile phones.

This is worsened by the single window (or single app) constraint while on our laptops we tend to work with a number of different apps simultaneously.

Inevitably, to create learning material I had to recur to additional technologies using my laptop and the use Instagram just a platform for publishing and not creating.

3.1       Additional technologies

This section is devoted to briefly introduce some of the technologies that supported the creation of the learning material. As each story was built as video with one image and audio, I mainly used Adobe Spark to create images and iMovie on MacOS for recording and finalising the videos.

I used Adobe Spark web app to create images as one doesn’t need any design experience. It works on any browser and it is quite straightforward to create images using text, load backgrounds, add icons, use templates, organise the content in layouts, and if you are using it through the app on mobile, you have also the possibility to add animations too. All of this is free of charge, whereas with a premium subscription you have access to more advanced features that I thought not worth of spending for creating this course. Once all the pictures were created, I imported them in iMovie for video editing. In this process, I recorded the audio of each idiom in both languages (Barese and English), as well as their English explanation and whenever needed I added also some music with no copyrights.

For publishing stories on Instagram there are web tools that can be used without necessarily going through the app on the phone. For instance, one can use Later.com, that allows users to plan, schedule and analyse posts. However, the free version is very limited and allows to post only feed pictures. Stories can be posted with a subscription that starts from £7.5 per month. Eventually, I decided to transfer all the created videos to my phone and publish them one after the other.

4       Evaluation

Unfortunately, Instagram is not designed to be a learning platform and it does not provide tools for assessing the quality of the course,

There are few analytics that can be extracted to assess the quality of the course and

Here I show the retainment curve extracted after 4 days from the launch of the curve. These values report the number of viewers each story obtained during the 24h of its life.

Even if all the stories are gathered within one of my highlights and therefore can be explored after the 24h from their release, Instagram does not make available to its user who has been viewing them after this time frame.

On Instagram you can have a different profile levels: personal, creator, and business. Currently my account is set to creator, which provides some more additional analytics compared to the personal profile, allowing creators to get more insights on how their followers browsed through their stories, such as if they went i) backwards, ii forward, iii) or exited.

As a preliminary analysis, also to have a glimpse on the number of learners retained during the single episodes, I report the following line charts where we can observe the number of unique viewers (y-axis) across the different stories (x-axis) published in the three different episodes released thus far. Specifically, Figure 2 shows the number of unique viewers for the 25 stories contained in the first episode: 224 for the first story and 108 for the last one (-51.7%). Figure 3 instead shows the number of viewers for the 24 stories within the second episode: 138 viewers for the first story and 68 at the last one (-50.7%). Finally, Figure 4 shows the retainment curve of the third episode, which is reduced to 13 stories: 125 for the first one and 72 for the last one (-42.4%)

Figure 2. Retainment curve of the first episode
Figure 3. Retainment curve of the second episode.
Figure 4. Retainment curve of the third episode.

One of reasons why there is a substantial drop (~50%) from the first to the last story of each episode can be justified by the attitude of the learner. Typically, when enrolling to a higher-education course, learners have an active role that can be motivated by their interest in learning new subjects. On Instagram, users are definitely engaged in watching all the stories from the accounts they follow, but they are unaware of the content will be displayed next. In this case, when they reach the course I prepares, they might watch the first stories, out of curiosity, but they might drop out because they are not actually interested. Perhaps, a dedicated account for the course, with a selected pool of interested learners, can be an interesting solution to adopt.

To have a better understanding on the kind of learners who were mostly interested, I organised them in three main groups: i) people either from Bari or they know Barese, ii) rest of Italy, so they know Italian and perhaps they can understand a bit of Barese, and iii) rest of the world, which I assume know at least English to be able to follow the course. In Table 1 and Table 2 we can see the different users organised in those three groups respectively for the second and third episode. I did not manage to collect the data about the first episode as Instagram does not allow us to see the viewers after 48h. From these tables, we can observe that people from Bari, where Barese is spoken, were the mostly interested viewers and were also the viewers that I lost the least (-20% in Table 2). Technically, from Table 1, we can see that people in the second group (rest of Italy) were those who I lost the least but having only 15 samples we cannot consider this result as a statistically significant.

Table 1. Learners from the second episode (24 stories).

First Story Last Story Diff
Bari 75 37 -50.67%
Italy 15 9 -40.00%
Rest 35 11 -68.57%
Table 2. Learners from the third episode (13 stories).

First Story Last Story Diff
Bari 75 60 -20.00%
Italy 15 5 -66.67%
Rest 29 10 -65.52%

5       Conclusion

I created “Fun with Barese” as a way to have some fun and with the mission of exporting and wide-spreading my culture and my language to the world. I embarked the challenge of using Instagram as it is one of the widely used platforms for entertainment. My idea was to support the process of learning while enjoying our time on social media. This has been challenging given the several constraints posed by such platform which was not designed for learning in the first place. Nonetheless, this allowed me to spend time in designing the most appropriate way to organise the content, identify the technologies that would support me through the creation of such learning material. I believe there are interesting insights that can be gathered out of this experience which can support both my future self when designing higher education courses and those who want to embark in a similar experience.

6       Acknowledgements

7       References