Mobile social media for cultural and intercultural learning

The last two decades have seen a growing concern of the role intercultural competence plays in contemporary foreign language education. At the same time, the emergence and widespread adoption of computer technology' have brought new opportunities for delivering cultural and intercultural lessons (Comas-Quinn, Mardo-mingo, & Valentine, 2009). Foreign language instructors can move beyond the textbook and design activities that take advantage of different educational technologies to put students in contact with the authentic use of the target language in its situational and socio-cultural variations (Godwin-Jones, 2013; Levy', 2007). One of the most common way's to develop students intercultural competence is through online intercultural exchange (OIE, also referred to as COIL, telecollaboration, or virtual exchange), a set of structured online activities that allow students to communicate and collaborate with peers from other cultures within the supportive context of formal education (O’Dowd, 2007). However, despite its effectiveness (Lewis & O’Dowd, 2016), online intercultural exchange presents several organizational and logistic challenges that may impact its implementation (Thorne, 2003; O’Dowd, 2011).

When online intercultural exchange is not a feasible option, foreign language instructors can still rely' on the Web to foster students’ intercultural explorations and reflections. For example, they can take advantage of the wealth of resources available online to provide students with regular and frequent exposure to authentic and timely information from the target culture (Bush, 2007). Social media seem particularly suitable for this task, as users around the world share snapshots of their daily life and often discuss topics related to their home culture.

In the last few years, the growth of smartphone ownership (Pew Research Center, 2019a) has contributed to change the way people access and use social media (Pew Research Center, 2015), promoting the diffusion of what has been termed mobile social media (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Indeed, “smartphones and social media have melded so thoroughly that for many they go hand-in-hand” (Pew Research Center, 2019b, p. 4). Foreign language instructors can exploit the advanced networking possibilities of social media apps to connect students with authentic target language materials and promote their engagement with the target culture (Laffbrd, 2009).

The Insta-Inter unit

Foreign language instructors can use the pedagogical sequence presented here to design activities that guide students through different steps of intercultural competence development. The possibilities are endless. The first step is choosing one or more sources of cultural information (online sources, but also movies, magazines, realia). I used Instagram, a popular visual social media app, as the only source for cultural information in my foreign language classes. The Instagram for Intercultural Explorations and Reflections unit (Insta-Inter unit; see Fornara, 2018, for more details) requires students to use Instagram to browse posts from selected hashtags and users, and to share information and observations in a class group chat. Moreover, the unit presents a set of individual assignments aimed at facilitating students’ cultural discoveries and eliciting their intercultural reflections. I selected Instagram for the following reasons:

  • • It is a free app that is popular worldwide (Pew Research Center, 2019b).
  • • On Instagram, students can access and explore authentic, current, and timely cultural information.
  • • A typical Instagram post includes one or more images and short videos and can include a caption and geotag. The visual elements of a post might make its textual elements more comprehensible for language learners. Vice versa, the text of a post can help them to interpret its visual elements.
  • • Most US college students have some previous experience using Instagram, so they do not need extensive training on how to browse their feed, explore hashtags, follow users, access Stories, and interact in the chat.
  • • When students share an Instagram post on the group chat, it is possible to see the image or video directly on the chat without having to access an external link.
  • • The Instagram Stories feature allows users to share multiple photos and videos, often embellished with short texts and emojis, in a slideshow format that lets students explore snapshots of daily life in the foreign culture.
  • • A high number of Instagram profiles are public; every' user can follow them. Students can follow foreign users without being reciprocated.
  • • Using Instagram helps overcome one of the critical obstacles to the curricular integration of mobile social media in education, i.e., operating system incompatibility' (Burston, 2014). Instagram can be accessed through every' smartphone and mobile operating system.

The Insta-Inter unit includes a pre-activity worksheet, daily activities on Instagram, a set of weekly worksheets, and a final essay. Following the pedagogical sequence, each activity of the unit aims to help students acquire specific knowledge and develop specific skills for the development of intercultural competence (Figure 8.2):

  • • Pre-activity worksheet: At the beginning of the unit, students complete a worksheet organized on selected topics (i.e., eating and drinking habits, common practices associated with work and the workplace) with information on what they already' know about the target community'. This activity helps them activate their existing cultural knowledge.
  • • Instagram activities: For several weeks, students use Instagram to explore selected topics in the target culture. They browse selected hashtags and user profiles and participate several times a week in an Instagram group chat, where they share posts, write thoughtful comments, and react to the messages of their classmates. The instructor can also participate in the chat to further



......................... Knowledge...........................


Products.'” ica ........

........j Weekly ....... worksheets

Pre-activity worksheet

Instagram activities

Overview of the activities in relation to the factors of the pedagogical sequence

Figure 8.2 Overview of the activities in relation to the factors of the pedagogical sequence

Existing Knowledge guide students and reply to their questions. These activities help students acquire cultural awareness and, to a lesser extent, intercultural awareness of products and practices and are useful to develop and reinforce their skills of interpreting and relating.

  • • Weekly worksheets: At the end of each week, students individually complete a worksheet organized on the topics of the week. For each topic, they discuss the similarities and differences between products and practices they observed online and related products and practices in their own culture. Moreover, they reflect on the perspectives that lie behind the Instagram images and videos they observed. These weekly assignments rely on students’ developing skills of interpreting and relating and skills of discovery and interaction to raise their intercultural awareness of products and practices and cultural awareness of perspectives.
  • • Final essay: At the end of the unit, students complete a final essay that asks them to compare and contrast philosophical perspectives and discuss how the two cultures relate to each other. This last activity relies once again on students’ skills of interpreting and relating and help them raise intercultural awareness of perspectives and, therefore, intercultural competence.

The unit can last several weeks, depending on the number of topics selected and the number of days dedicated to each topic.

Analysis of individual cases

I have been using the Insta-Inter unit in my Italian language classes for a few semesters, always with intermediate or advanced students. Usually, the unit lasts six weeks: one week for the setup and the pre-activity worksheet, four weeks for the Instagram activities, and one week for the final reflections. The number of topics students explore can vary from eight (two topics per week) to twelve (three topics per week) and so does the number of messages I ask students to post on the chat every week—either three (two topics) or four (three topics). The following section presents two individual student cases and describes how the Insta-Inter unit helped them develop intercultural competence. Anne and Amani were in the same third-level Italian language class and completed the unit in six weeks. They explored twelve topics and had to post on the chat at least four times a week.


I was looking a little more to kind of confirm what I knew just from my experiences.

Anne spent the first semester of her college freshman year in Italy. This study abroad experience had a strong influence on how she approached the activity. On Instagram, she was mostly looking to confirm what she learned during her stay in

Florence, focusing on familiar products and practices and reflecting on perspectives she had already grasped. The analysis of her chat messages and online assignments reveals that there are some evident parallelisms between what she already knew about Italy and Italians (pre-activity' worksheet) and what she discussed during the activity. For example, during the first week, she shared a couple of messages about how Italians look and dress, commenting, “Italians seem to try' to look nicer most of the time rather than just every' once in a while, which is how most people here in the U.S. dress.” This comment is not very' different from what she wrote during the activity, “Italians seem to dress a little more ‘fashion forward’ than Americans usually' do.” However, she did make an effort to look for revealing details in the posts, for example, when she described what passers-by' were wearing while taking a walk on a normal weekday:

I know this picture is more of the architecture but you can get a good look at what people dress like on an average day. The family on the left are all dressed in dark colors and the parents still look pretty' fashionable, while the boy' is a little more casual like most kids around the world are. You can also see the fancier coats worn by the woman and man in the background that are more fashionable than the usual coat that we Americans usually throw on over anything.

Among all the posts, Anne chose a picture whose main focus, the architecture, was not related to the theme students were exploring that day, how people look and dress. However, she focused on the people in the background to understand how people dress on an average day. She noticed the prevalence of dark colors and what she considered fancy coats; from this information, she inferred that Italians dress “pretty' fashionable.” Then, she compared those coats with coats that “we Americans” usually' wear and concluded that the people in the picture had a better sense of fashion. The sum of existing knowledge and new information informed her cultural and intercultural reflections on perspectives. On the weekly online assignments and final essay, for example, she commented on the importance that Italians give to the concept of fare una bclla figura, e.g., making a good impression. Then, she contrasted this typically Italian belief with her belief that a good look makes people “appear better or more successful.”

In the post-activity' interview, Anne confirmed that she intended the activity as a way to draw parallels between what she already knew about Italy and Italians and what she observed on Instagram. In addition to her careful observations, she used the chat to ask questions every' time she was curious about something or lacked information to properly' interpret a specific product or practice. For example, when she found a picture of people attending a soccer game, she wondered whether every' team in Italy had such fervent supporters as the team from Florence, which she once saw playing at the stadium. Later that week, she asked whether Italians watch dubbed versions of foreign movies or the original version with subtitles. My' reply, “All the foreign movies are dubbed,” helped her to complete the weekly online assignments and to develop intercultural awareness on the topic, “Italians seem more interested in foreign films than most Americans even though the foreign films are usually dubbed into Italian from their native language.”

In her opinion, the Insta-Inter unit meets the goal of encouraging students’ cultural and intercultural discoveries and reflections. While she recognized that other class activities can also help to reach this goal, she pointed out how Instagram allows students to observe a foreign culture through the eyes of a foreigner. She especially liked being able to see how individual people live their life without the uncomfortable filter of her presence. In her opinion, these observations can help students to start to distance themselves from their home culture and to reflect on their own beliefs and values, “It definitely makes me think a little more in depth about what American culture is about, what our perspectives are on everything you took for granted.”

Anne would like to go back to Italy. She explained that, next time, she will feel a little more prepared to interact with Italians, “because, you know, the first time I went there I knew absolutely nothing except pizza and pasta.”


The favorite part was just being me as someone who is open to learning about other cultures, just seeing everything, whether it’s reading the stories or looking at the pictures.

Amani spent only two days in Italy during her high school senior trip in Europe. Although very' brief, that experience encouraged her to approach the study of the Italian language and to declare Italian as her college minor. When she started the Insta-Inter unit, Amani had already some knowledge of life in Italy, primarily through movies and online videos. Her comments in the pre-activity worksheet go beyond the stereotypes and denote some familiarity' with products, practices, and even perspectives of Italians, something that was not always true for her classmates.

The Insta-Inter unit gave her the opportunity' to delve deeper into the life and beliefs of Italians—and she gladly took it. While the students who participated in the activity had to post on four different day's of the week to receive a full grade, she regularly posted five or six times, “Sometimes, it was like ‘I’m not sure if I posted four times’ but, sometimes, I honestly' would just be like ‘OK, I find this interesting, I’ll put it in’.” Her observations on the chat are usually rich in details. While she focused her analysis mostly on the images, she often read also the captions, in Italian on in translation using the “See translation” feature. Her messages usually' started with a description of the products and practices in the picture and continued with some cultural or intercultural reflection or with a reflection on the perspectives underlying the behaviors of the Italian users,

Swimming didn’t seem like a common sport to me, but Italians engaging in swimming reflects their value in health and longevity. Now I know that this is a more common sports practice to the point that young Italians engage in it at an early age.

Her worksheets are equally rich, with comparisons that go beyond the description of factual information to include reflections on meanings and connotations in both the foreign culture and her home culture—or rather, cultures.

Amani is bi-cultural. Although she was born in South Florida, her parents are both from the Virgin Islands. She grew up in a Caribbean-American household, “like we live in South Florida but we still associate ourselves with the island.” Thus, her intercultural reflections mostly used this specific cultural identity, “my culture,” as a reference. However, sometimes she turned to her Southern Floridian (or American) identity to compare and contrast products and practices that are foreign to Caribbean-Americans, “Italians who live in areas that snow [sic] engage in snow sports like skiing, snowboarding, and riding jet skis. This is also common here in America for places that get snow!” In one occasion, she even included the three cultures in just one intercultural reflection:

Even on their worst days, Italians dress nicely. My assumption is that the common American tradition of “Casual Fridays” does not exist in Italy. My culture works differently, we continue to dress professional, but not as stylish as most Italians.

Amani’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes helped her to uncover perspectives of Italians with surprising regularity. Her comments on the weekly assignments almost always included a reflection on perspectives, “Italians value dressing nicely regardless of their destination or the specific occasion. The importance of dress in Italian culture allows me to infer that Italians value the opinions of others on their appearance.” Similarly, her final essay is rich in intercultural reflections:

Italians value things such as family/personal relationships, a strong work ethic, cultural awareness, health, and personal success. Caribbean-Americans value similar things as well. We hold personal success and work ethic to the utmost standard. With Italians, these values were seen in the importance of education (graduation photos) and pictures of young adults at work. However, Caribbean-Americans are less likely to venture outside of their culture simply because unknown territory is “dangerous” or “unusual.” Italians, on the other hand, take pride in their own culture, but can indulge in the practices and products of others without hesitation. Rather than miss an opportunity, they are not afraid to try something and comment on their experience. Italians also value health and the necessary physical steps to prolong longevity. They are a more adventurous people who like to think and act “outside the box.” This is pertaining to sports, other outdoor activities, trying new foods, etc. Caribbean-Americans stick to what they know. We value living a productive life even if one isn’t the healthiest. We’re a sedentary people who see doing adventurous things as dangerous or disadvantageous.

Amani’s ability to identify and to contrast cultural beliefs and values may be the result of her habit of looking with a certain detachment at both of her cultures, the one of her household and the one of her American surroundings. Amani seems to be approaching her bi-cultural identity already from a third place (Kramsch, 1993) and this in-between cultural stance prepared her to critically approach a third culture. Her intercultural reflections and discoveries are, indeed, a clear sign of her ongoing development of intercultural competence.


This chapter introduces a pedagogical sequence that foreign language instructors can use to guide students’ cultural discoveries and intercultural reflections for the development of intercultural competence. Designed on this sequence, the Insta-Inter unit can help to integrate the study of a language with activities that help students develop intercultural abilities and declarative cultural knowledge, which can potentially become procedural knowledge in situations of intercultural contact. For this reason, the Insta-Inter unit is not meant to substitute but integrate instruction for the development of communicative competence. The unit, thus, is best suited for language courses that focus almost exclusively on the study of the language and do not provide opportunities for fostering the concurrent development of students’ foreign language and intercultural communication skills.

I designed the Insta-Inter unit with a specific audience of American undergraduate students in mind. It is only one example of how instructors can use the pedagogical sequence presented in this chapter to give students the opportunity' to explore a foreign community' and engage in structured cultural and intercultural reflections. Different settings and situational factors may' invite instructors to use a different tool or set of tools and to design a very different sequence of activities. In any case, the goal of the sequence is to prepare students to participate in an increasingly' globalized society' and to actively promote dialogue and understanding between different cultures.


1 The arrow for the skills of discovery' and interaction in the home culture “triangle” has a dashed line because students may already be aware of some or many' of their own beliefs and values.


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