Study examines use of Pinterest by education professionals

Jessica Buterbaugh
February 02, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With more than 110 million monthly users, Pinterest is in the top five of most-used social media sites. Its popularity has even led to the creation of the hashtag #pinterestfail for users to showcase their unsuccessful attempts of recipes or arts-and-crafts projects.

But its scope goes beyond the basic do-it-yourself tutorials. Research shows that a growing number of educational professionals are using the platform, which allows users to “pin” content on a personalized virtual bulletin board, as well as find and share instructional and student-intervention ideas with fellow educators.

“As a training program for future school psychologists, we teach our students how to be good practitioners,” said Cristin Hall, assistant professor of school psychology. “And that involves the use of evidence-based strategies and practices to evaluate and intervene with students.”

But when it comes to online resources such as Pinterest, it is difficult for users, including educators, to know which practices are effective methods of intervention supported by research and which are ideas that may not have as strong of an evidentiary basis, Hall said.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What do we know about these [online] tools and how can we help people use them better so that they are recommending strategies that we would consider to be the best practices?’” she said.

To answer these questions, Hall and her group of student researchers who are part of the TeleSchool Psychology Research Team — including lead student investigator Nicole Breeden — partnered with Nicklaus Giacobe, research associate and lecturer in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), to better understand the pinning behaviors of school psychologists who share content related to their profession.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What do we know about these (online) tools and how can we help people use them better so that they are recommending strategies that we would consider to be the best practices?’”

— Cristin Hall, assistant professor of school psychology

Their study included a random sample of “professional” Pinterest boards and pins of 499 randomly chosen Pinterest users who followed the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Pinterest account. Boards and pins were identified as professional if they included predetermined keywords or phrases associated with the school psychology profession. For boards with a large number of pins, only the 150 most-recent pins were included in the sample. In total, the researchers looked at 1,162 boards and coded 49,627 pins.

In order to analyze the pins, Giacobe and Douglas Heller, an IST student intern, adapted a web browser automation tool known as Selenium Webdriver to capture each Pinterest board image and store pins offline. Pins then were coded based on content-related areas, analysis of exact matches of images and analysis of pins. During the coding process, the researchers specifically looked to see if any of the techniques and strategies being shared were parts of existing evidence-based programs.

“We wanted to get a better understanding of the quality of the pins that were being shared in a more critical way, so we decided to do a more specific content-level analysis,” Hall said.

While the preliminary study revealed that NASP pinned content that included largely evidence-based practices, the same cannot be said of its Pinterest followers. Of those sampled, most pinners primarily use their Pinterest boards for personal use — less than one-third of their boards or pins were related to education.

“Of the pins that were identified as professional, we found that most pins were topics related to themes of social-emotional adjustment such as coping skills, divorce, mindfulness and grief,” Hall said. “This finding was significant because previous research tells us that NASP members often do not feel prepared to adequately deal with social-emotional issues for students.”

Since school psychologists do not always have access to peer-reviewed journals and other gold-standard research resources, it makes sense that they are exploring the use of online tools to help them, Hall said. Pinterest is just one of a number of sites available that provides free access to information, a characteristic that Hall said makes online resources so attractive.

“People have gotten really excited about online technologies because they provide a way to get information that doesn’t require you to pay,” she said. “All that is great. But what we don’t know is how those tools are actually working. Are they effective and are they helping us as scientist practitioners to utilize strategies that are evidence-based?”

The research, which is under review in Contemporary School Psychology, is just one in a series of studies related to practitioners’ use of Pinterest that Hall’s team will complete.

“This study gave us some baselines, but there is still a lot we don’t know,” she said. “We need to know more about users’ attitudes around pin selection. Are practitioners selecting pins because it is an area of need for them or are the pins attractive and look interesting? We don’t know.”

There also is a need to better understand the underlying algorithms and programming that determine how pinning behavior influences pins to which users are exposed, a goal that requires an interdisciplinary collaboration with IST.

“We have a close working relationship with IST which has afforded us the programming support we’ve needed,” Hall said. “We plan to continue that collaboration and maintain the interdisciplinary focus of the research.”

As the team continues to delve into the world of online tools and resources, Hall’s hope is that the research will lead other scholars to take responsibility for information that is posted online.

“The purpose of this research is, inevitably, for researchers and scholars to start taking ownership of what’s happening online and using it to better serve the people that they’ve been trying to reach for years.”

  • Cristin Hall

    Cristin Hall, assistant professor of school psychology at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017