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Can Snapchat Bridge the Communication Chasm in Online Courses?

By Jon Ernstberger, Melissa A. Venable / February 2016

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What is Snapchat? Simply put, Snapchat is a video- and photo-sharing app built only for smartphones and tablets. Using directly shared usernames, phone numbers already in your contact list, or Snapchat-based QR code or "snapcode" (see Figure 1), you can share images and videos of things going on near you or about you, which are called "snaps." A user can choose to share with one person, several people, or everyone in their contact list.

Figure 1. Snapcode for Jon Ernstberger.
[click to enlarge]

The app has caught on because sending a snap can be easier than sending a text message, and a snap conveys picture, sound, and nonverbal communication. Also, each snap has a limited number of views for those who receive the message. This "self-destruct" feature helped to spark interest in Snapchat by creating a feeling of security [1]. A snap can be up to 10 seconds in duration, and only be replayed once by the receiver, unless an upgrade is purchased. Videos appended to a user's "story" may be viewed for 24 hours. In stark contrast to Twitter and Vine, neither the user's snaps nor their story are searchable.

Who Uses Snapchat?

While a younger population has found significant value in the use of Snapchat for personal communication, there is also evidence of potential use in higher education. Several recent social media and marketing surveys found Snapchat's user base is perhaps the youngest among popular social media platforms. According to Business Insider, 45 percent of users range from 18 to 24 years old [2]. A similar report from Comscore found 71 percent of those using Snapchat in the U.S. are under the age of 35 [3]. Additionally, 35 million monthly Snapchat users in the U.S. engage in more than 4 billion video views daily [4].

A survey from marketing firm Sumpto reports 77 percent of college students use it on a daily basis [5]. This same survey asked students to share why they use Snapchat. The most frequent responses were: "it's creative" (37 percent), "to keep in touch" (27 percent ), "it's easier than texting" (23 percent ).

Why Snapchat?

In an era when the telephone is no longer used as a telephone, Snapchat presents an opportunity to return to more personal forms of communication. The same elements that sparked the universal adoption of the telephone are present in Snapchat and are especially helpful in online education.

Discussion forums and emails can be inefficient ways to communicate due to the quantity of time consumed in creating coherent thought. Further, text-based messages have a propensity for being conveyed and interpreted differently than the intent of the original sender. Tools like Skype, Blackboard's Collaborate, and even Google Hangouts are hindered by their security procedures as well as the tools required to properly use them. Although Snapchat and Twitter share the notion of intentional brevity, neither Twitter, Facebook, or G+ can be used to communicate easily using audio and video elements, like those available from Snapchat.

Snapchat was built to be highly portable (i.e., mobile) and was constructed for the purpose of audio/video communication. Since there are no "likes" or "favorites," social prejudices or preferences of other users are less likely to negatively impact the perception of each snap. Plus, responses are likely to occur closely after the viewing of a snap due to its time-limited availability.

What is most intriguing about Snapchat is its ability to convey the persona of the "Snapchatter" [6]. Not only can you communicate tone of voice, countenance, etc., but you can add playful doodles, text captions, or filters where necessary. Snaps are not searchable therefore you can be relatively assured only your recipient will see those messages as long as they exercise discretion.

But the real creative opportunity lies in the Snapchat story feature. One can record a video clip, no longer than 10 seconds, and add it to his/her personal string of clips—creating the story. With varying levels of permissions, others can see this story that can be used to tell a tale or communicate an idea. Since you cannot upload a video or picture directly from your device's gallery to do this (without a third-party tool) you must use timing, scenery, filters, and basic production techniques to generate the story you want to display to the world, all with your mobile device.

A New Class of Social Media

It is clear Snapchat may be a progenitor of a new type of video-intensive social media. The emergence of these tools is due in part to greater broadband Internet access in homes and workplaces as well as the widespread availability of mobile data plans, smartphones, and free public Wi-Fi. This new social media breed partners with the infrastructure to deliver what many educators have dreamed about: Fast, high-quality communication with individuals and groups that fosters presence [7].

Other apps such as Periscope and Beme (each belonging to this new family of social media) have arisen to address issues of "presence" in their own ways. Periscope seeks to accomplish something much like this, only it leans toward still having a clear leader—the one controlling the device—for amazingly real-time communication. Beme, seeks to remove the device that acts like a physical barrier between you and the event you want to; Beme functions using your phone's built-in sensor instead of the record button. Each promise to be valuable, but none enjoy the strong user base (yet) of Snapchat.

Institutions as Early Adopters

While the platform's beginnings led to a less-than-academic reputation, many colleges and universities are rushing to actively integrate Snapchat into a variety of marketing and communication initiatives. Current students can receive Snapchat reminders (e.g., lecture series dates, registration deadlines, etc.) and alerts (e.g., campus closings or weather updates), which are typically sent through website announcements or SMS. Other uses include campus-awareness and community-building campaigns. At the beginning of the Fall 2015 semester, the University of Florida ran a contest to engage students who captured their campus move-in on Snapchat. This initiative may be helpful in connecting online students to physical campus locations and fostering a feeling of belonging as future alumni.

Snapchat's platform also provides a way to convey the institution's culture via image and video, which is not easily accomplished through printed media. Prospective students can follow college accounts to learn more about academics, student life, and athletics. Some schools, such as the University of Michigan, are using Snapchat as an alternative to the traditional brochure [8].

Ideas for Online Classes

Successful Snapchat use is evident at the course level as discussions, debates, and collaborative activities take place through pictures and videos. Fortunately, educators are sharing their experiences with this tool as they use it to connect with students in a variety of disciplines. The following examples illustrate a few of the possibilities.

Storytelling assignments. Chris Snider, journalism and mass communications professor at Drake University, introduces students to storytelling with Snapchat. He provides a storyboarding template to aid in planning, and integrates the use of different Snapchat features in course assignments [9].

Foreign language learning. Teachers at Denver High School in Iowa use classroom Snapchat accounts to help students learn foreign language vocabulary. Drills involve having students respond to the instructor's image or video prompt of a word or phrase with images of their own real-world examples using a class Snapchat account [10].

Digital identity lessons. A teacher in the U.K. uses Snapchat to encourage digital citizenship and an awareness of the far-reaching effects and fast pace of social media sharing. This activity involves taking a screenshot of a snap (a simple work around of the temporary nature of the platform), then posting it on Facebook, and asking for shares. This teacher was able to show students how quickly thousands of shares of a "deleted" snap can happen [11].

Uses that require unlimited or extended viewability, such as portfolios, are not suitable for the Snapchat format. But there are other applications to consider. Additional activities could include a mix of administrative tasks and pedagogical strategies. Here are a few:

  • Online course announcements and reminders might be delivered via Snapchat as a tip-of-the-week snap from the instructor.
  • A video countdown to a final exam or project due date could be an alternative or supplement to the course calendar.
  • Student-run Snapchat accounts could allow learners to participate in course-level communication other than the typical discussion boards and synchronous sessions.
  • Instructor feedback could also be delivered to individual students or small groups to give progress checks on big assignments or to announce grades.

Uses for Snapchat are bounded only by creativity.

Benefits and Challenges for Higher Education

Of course, in higher education there are definitely benefits and drawbacks to the use of any tool, including Snapchat.


  • In the classroom: You can reach students with the tools they already use. Most (if not all) carry smartphones and, according to earlier discussed statistics, the majority use Snapchat. Because you can communicate your mood expressly, you control what students see. You can use a Snap for encouragement or to motivate.
  • In the community: The use of Snapchat as a community-building tool may help administrators maintain or improve retention rates. By communicating important events, such as advising or registration, students may be more likely to continue into another term and thereby complete their education. By simply engaging students more readily with their campus community, many who were lost in the crowd may become involved or motivated to seek out high-contact activities.
  • IT considerations: Another interesting impact may be upon the purchases made by IT directors. Software and hardware purchases may be influenced by the presence of a student-provided piece of hardware and freely obtained software.


  • Log access: With no way to easily obtain transcripts of Snapchat interactions, how can an administrator verify or deny claims made by either students or faculty of inappropriate behavior via Snapchat? Likewise, a defense for the innocent is difficult to mount. With the recent attention given to Title IX cases and the consequences dealt for those found in violation of policy, administrators are wise to be leery of tools similar to (and including) Snapchat when used by school employees [12].
  • Cyber-bullying: Tools like YikYak, which enable cyber-bullying, have brought this concern to the forefront. Would Snapchat create similar circumstances of privacy invasion or encourage harassment? What if students or faculty members were to engage in indiscreet messaging using Snapchat and his/her snaps were leaked and discovered by members of the campus community? Could the exposed campus citizen re-engage himself or herself easily with the community? Unfortunately, Snapchat's "security" will probably create opportunities for harassment.
  • Resistance to social sharing in class: While many professors are successfully using social media to develop a professional network and share their expertise, and institutions are adopting social media as a way to connect with larger audiences of current and prospective students, not all learners are interested in using their social accounts in a formal educational setting. Privacy concerns factor into these decisions. Students who share very personal information or activities via Snapchat may be unwilling to use that account with teachers and classmates.

Ready to Try it Out?

Snapchat is readily available through iTunes and the Google Play Store. The first step is to search for the free app and download it for use. Users must then set up their account. The process is similar to other social accounts requiring the creation of a unique username and password.

Once the user is logged in, connecting with other users is the next step. Clicking on the "ghost" icon at the top of the screen, as illustrated below, provides access to settings and search features.

Figure 2. A snap with characteristic icons overlaid on the image.
[click to enlarge]

From the Snapchat account view, shown in Figure 3, users can use the "cog" icon in the upper right corner of the screen to adjust settings including username, contact information, and notifications. Users can also choose who can "send me snaps" and "view my stories" (i.e., my friends, everyone, or custom lists).

Figure 3. Location of tools (upper right) and the option to add friends (lower center).
[click to enlarge]

By tapping "Add Friends" the user can search for accounts they know by username or snapcode. The snapcode is a kind of QR code, with the ghost icon at its center. This feature allows users to quickly connect with each other through this unique image-simply point the camera at a snapcode and tap the screen to add a friend.

To get to snapping, tap on the Snapchat icon to open the app on your device. Once you locate the round white circle at the bottom of the screen (as shown in Figure 2), a simple single-tap will generate a still image; while pressing and holding will record a video of zero to 10 seconds in length. Physically swiping right or left will permit "filters" to be overlaid. (Note: Different filters will appear to you based upon your shared location, if enabled on your device.)

You can also choose to rotate, overlay, and reposition text or simply doodle on your image. If you click the arrow in the lower, right-hand corner, you have the option to choose whom you want to share your snap with. If you click the square with a plus in the corner, the snap is automatically added to your story. The 'X' in the upper, left-hand corner will cancel any edits made to a current image and will permit you the opportunity to create a new snap.

In Conclusion

Like many tools in today's digital age, the possibility of Snapchat's limited lifespan should be considered. There is, however, something to be gained through thoughtful exploration and implementation of selected strategies. Were we to discard every tool due to potentially limited use, we would continually fail to reach our students because of fear-driven irrelevance. In contrast, those teachers who left the greatest impacts on our lives as students weren't necessarily cool or attractive but instead worked to meet our diverse levels of understanding (or lack thereof!). The best teachers adapted their pedagogical practices to help us learn, understand, and ignite passion for a topic.

Educational institutions are wisely learning to use Snapchat, and educators are creatively nestling it into their classes to help kindle these fires within their students These efforts are not without labor, cost, and the choice to discard some long-hallowed practice. Yet, the creative integration of new tools (like Snapchat) is important because these are the tools in the comfort zones of those most important to us—our students.

Snapchat isn't perfect but it represents a revolution in the way we communicate, asynchronously, with others. Further, in part due to the proliferation of smart mobile devices, Snapchat has received widespread fame and acclaim. It's time to use the amazing tools at our hands, think outside the box, and engage students in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. Give it a try, you might like it.


[1] Taylor, E. Snapchat: How Did Snapchat Reach a Multi-billion Dollar Valuation? GrowthHackers.

[2] Hoelzel, M. Breakdown of Demographics for Different Social Networks. Business Insider. June 29, 2015.

[3] Reisinger, D. Millennials Snapping Up Snapchat, Study Finds. CNET. March 27, 2015.

[4] Cicero, N. The State of Snapchat Analytics. Delmondo. 2015.

[5] Wagner, K. Study Finds 77% of College Students Use Snapchat Daily. Mashable. Feb. 24, 2014.

[6] Shorty Awards.The Shorty Award for Social Media's Best Snapchatter. 2016.

[7] Shankland, S. Fast Fiber-optic Broadband Spreads Across Developed World. CNET. Jan. 11, 2014.

[8] Waxman, O. B. Snapchat Grows Up: How College Officials Are Using the App. TIME. March 31, 2014.

[9] Snider, C. Snapchat Storytelling Template. Chris Snider Design. April 6, 2015.

[10] Ram, E. Teachers and Colleges are Using Snapchat and Vines in Classrooms. The Highlighter 14, 2 (May 2015).

[11] Sterling, S. Does Snapchat Have a Place in the Classroom? Social Media for Teachers. Learning Sciences International. June 23, 2015.

[12] U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education Releases List of Higher Education Institutions with Open Title IX Sexual Violence Investigations. Press release. May 1, 2014.

Additional Resources

Maeve Duggan's "Photo and Video Sharing Grow Online"
Jeffrey L. Bailie's "What Online Students Want Compared to What Institutions Expect"
Jeff Bercovici's "Facebook Tried To Buy Snapchat For $3B In Cash. Here's Why"
Ben Phillips' "The Noob's Guide to Using Snapchat"
Melissa Venable's "4 Ways Snapchat is Going to College"

About the Authors

Dr. Jon Ernstberger is the Director of Online Instruction and Instructional Technology and is an associate professor of mathematics at LaGrange College in LaGrange, GA. He earned his doctorate in computational mathematics from NC State University in 2008 and came directly to LaGrange College where he expressed early interest in digitally-enhanced pedagogical practices. In his fourth year at this capacity, Ernstberger is engaged in online instruction at LaGrange College at every level including teaching courses, training students and faculty, guiding institutional policy, and helping maintain compliance with state, national, and accrediting bodies. Contact information for Ernstberger follows: [email protected], (site) and @jernstberger on Twitter.

Dr. Melissa A. Venable is an education writer/editor for where she provides resources for online students and instructors. Her professional background includes experience as an instructional designer in industry and higher education (public, private, and for-profit). She received her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction-instructional technology from the University of South Florida where she also worked as an undergraduate academic advisor. Venable currently teaches graduate instructional design and project management courses online at the University of South Florida and Saint Leo University. She can be reached by email at: [email protected] or Twitter: @Melissa_Venable.

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  • Tue, 03 Jan 2017
    Post by NaeemAkram

    Yes in 2016 many other social networks try to copy their features, Instagram introduces the live video, Facebook also introduces the live video, and they also copy many features of snap chat. Instagram was getting too much success with new features and increase the community. Many brands already joined Instagram, and it is fastest growing network after Facebook.

    But for new brands need get followers on Instagram

  • Thu, 25 Aug 2016
    Post by joseph

    this is quite helpful for student studying online. online assignment writing we are grateful for magazine editor that he reveals such informative information.

  • Thu, 07 Apr 2016
    Post by Irene Fenswick

    Great tool! Thank you for your article.