Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

My Friend Flickr: A Great Photo Opportunity

How to safely set students loose in the educationally thrilling but fundamentally ungovernable photo-sharing network.

March 12, 2007

It's one thing to teach students about democracies, quite another to set them loose in one. Case in point: Flickr, the vast and rapidly growing photo-sharing Web site.

One of the earliest and most popular Web 2.0 sites -- those that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users -- Flickr is also a social network, a place where people can connect with each other and have conversations. By one count, there were 338,061,633 photos on Flickr as of December 2006, and about a million more are added each day. White-bellied go-away birds? Check. Teletext photo printers? Check. If it exists, chances are there's a photo of it on Flickr. Needless to say, the site is a gold mine for teachers. But, as with most things, too much can mean trouble.

"I read on other teacher blogs that Flickr is really good for the classroom, and I think, 'No way,'" says Jamie Tubbs, a fifth-grade teacher in Cincinnati. "It's open to anybody, and, because of that, you've got to assume people will put stuff there that will be offensive." Tubbs, like many teachers, uses Flickr avidly, but he shies away from bringing it into the classroom. Rather than let students search for photos, he finds them on his own time and brings them into class as writing prompts or for blog entries.

Keeping the Outside Out

Just as teachers seek to control their students' access to the outside world, sometimes they also must keep the outside world from reaching their students.

The Flickr page of Tim Lauer, principal of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, in Portland, Oregon, is a proud gallery of class projects, school sports teams, and drama productions. But look closely and you'll notice you can rarely pick out a single student's face.

"We're a little leery of putting photos of students up," Lauer says. "Most of what we document with Flickr is activities, students' work -- basically, to give families a feeling for what kinds of projects kids are working on." Lauer says that seeing photos of their work gives kids a sense of accomplishment -- of having been, in a sense, published.

Much of what makes Flickr a social-networking site is the ability it gives its users to comment on each others' photos. But Lauer steers clear of this, too. "We're not taking advantage of any of the social aspects of Flickr," he says. Photos on his and his school's site take advantage of Flickr's no-comment tool, so Lauer can always control which words show up on the page.

He can also label photos as "private" and use Flickr's Guest Pass tool to share those photos with invited guests only. "If I've got some private images -- of a kid's science project or something like that -- and I want to share them with the family, I can keep them private and send the family a link to look at those," he says.

Learning the Techniques of the Tool

To be fair, much of what's not kid friendly about Flickr can be eliminated by skipping (or greatly limiting) use of the Search button. One way to do that is with Flickr's Group tool. Flickr's groups are small pools of users who pull photos from across the site and organize them into categories accessible by group members. An association of third-grade teachers, for example, might form a group for photos relating to appropriate curricula.

Groups can be open to everyone or by invitation only; by choosing the latter option, it's possible for group members to control which photos are posted, and, therefore, it becomes more or less safe to give students free reign within that group. Because everything is social on Flickr, groups also function as discussion rooms. And, because everything is enormous on Flickr, there are already thousands of groups to browse -- including 345 on kites alone.

Flickr's privacy risks haven't deterred teachers from finding scores of ways to use the site. This is thanks, in part, to Flickr itself, which continues to develop new school-friendly tools, such as GeoTagging.

Just as Google Earth lets users "visit" any place on the planet through high-resolution satellite images, Flickr's GeoTagging tool acts as a geography-specific photo album. Upload a photo to Flickr, and you will be invited to GeoTag that photo -- in other words, identify where it was taken. Click a spot on Flickr's world map, and photos taken in that place appear.

"Given that Flickr is very much a global community, there's an opportunity to search and engage with content that's created all over the world," says Heather Champ, Flickr's community manager. Champ takes the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami as an example.

"There were photos of the relief effort, the after-effects," she says. "You can almost, in real time, start illustrating what's going on in these communities. You don't have to go back to a geography textbook that was printed ten years ago."

Keeping It (Somewhat) Simple

For every big, complex tool such as GeoTagging or Groups, there are a dozen smaller, more eccentric ways to play with Flickr -- some potentially useful classroom tools, and others better suited for procrastination at paper-grading time. Flickr's "Interestingness" feature, for example, uses a complicated algorithm of most-recommended photos, comments posted on photos, and other indicators to gather a constantly updating collection of "interesting" photos.

One can also search Flickr by camera type, because most digital photos carry metadata indicating what kind of camera took them. Flickr's open Application Programming Interface lets users create their own ways of playing with the site with programs like, for example, Spell with Flickr, which looks like a handy tool for twenty-first-century ransom note writers.

Still, talk to teachers about Flickr, and you get the sense they'd trade in many of the site's bells and whistles for a simple, child-safe filter. "One of my biggest wishes is that Flickr would develop a safe search," says teacher Jamie Tubbs. "People use such random tags that if you want to have a kid go find something in nature, or search "birthday," it's just too easy to have them come across something bad -- and then I'm going to get in trouble."

Of course, if Flickr were completely safe, it wouldn't be Flickr. A million or so photos are uploaded on the site daily, so human monitoring is pretty much out of the question, and artificial intelligence isn't up to the task, either (not yet, anyway). "Teaching computers to know what a picture is of is, I think, still science fiction," says Flickr's Heather Champ. The false positives it would render, he adds, would defeat Flickr's purpose. Like the world its users document, Flickr is too large, too diverse, too unpredictable to be controlled.

She reports, however, that the company (now owned by Yahoo) is working on a filtering mechanism, but, like other 2.0 sites, that filter will depend on Flickr members to identify objectionable photos when they see them. Users with the "safe" setting on will see only photos other users have let pass. There is wisdom in crowds -- witness Wikipedia -- but that means the crowds have to get to the photos before you do. Could a third grader be the first person to see an offensive photo? Sure.

On the other hand, what's the likelihood of that happening in a network of hundreds of millions of users, growing daily? Slim. It's up to teachers to decide whether Flickr's democracy is worth the risks.

Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.

Want to explore the Flickr-and-schools thing a little more? Below is a collection of links to get you started:

Flickr's Great Blue Heron Project (scroll down for explanation)

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