Teacher's Guide

While iNat might seem like the perfect blend of science and mobile technology, too often it gets misused in the classroom and iNat gets flooded with poor observations and the students participating get bored, don't learn anything, or both. Here are some pointers for teachers seeking to use iNaturalist in the classroom to avoid some common problems.

Use iNaturalist Yourself

Try to add 20-30+ observations before considering how you will use iNaturalist with your students. iNat will make a lot more sense to you after some firsthand experience. This can be as simple as using the app on a short hike or a walk around your block, or better yet, try to use it in a place and time similar to where and when you expect your students to use it. Don't just install the app, observe your dog, and call it a day.

Consider Using the "Seek by iNaturalist" App for Your Students Instead

Check out Seek by iNaturalist which is an educational tool built on iNaturalist. It may be a better fit for your class than iNaturalist because it doesn't actually post observations to iNaturalist, but still provides some tools such as automated species identification and nature journaling. Also, since iNaturalist requires users be at least 13 years of age, Seek provides a kid-friendly alternative. If you are sure you're ready for your class to be posting observations to iNaturalist, keep reading!

Make Useful Observations

If one of your goals is for your students to get identification help, engage in discussions with the iNaturalist community, or make observations that are useful to others, here are a few pointers:

  • Take identifiable photos: Photos of distant trees or speck-like birds will not garner much attention because they're usually hard to identify, so make sure you show your students how to fill the frame with your subject, perhaps using the phone or camera's zoom. Because smartphone cameras are designed primarily for photographing humans and landscapes (and, apparently, food), taking an in-focus photo of an insect or a plant is actually quite difficult. Using your hand to hold a flower or plant still can be helpful, but make sure the plant is not dangerous.

  • Take multiple photos: Many organisms, particularly plants and insects, cannot be identified to species from a single photo. Show students how to take multiple photos from different angles (top, bottom, side, front, back), and/or photos showing different features of the organism. For plants it's especially important to take pictures of flowers or fruit. Photos of flowers or fruit AND leaves are the most helpful. Be sure to add multiple photos of the same organism to the same observation.

  • Focus on wild organisms: Most students seem to focus on the cultivated plants and animals they can find near their classroom. That's totally fine, but in general, the iNat community is more interested in wild organisms and seems to respond more to pictures of weeds and bugs than to cultivated roses and snakes in cages. Many students don't actually understand the difference between cultivated organisms and wild organisms, so this could be a great opportunity to discuss this with them. If you do make observations of garden plants or other non-wild organisms make sure to mark them as "Captive/Cultivated" before uploading.

Be the Steward of Your Class's Data

Since most students use iNat under duress, they are often not responsive to comments and identifications from the community, and often don't respond to data quality issues (wrong coordinates, copyright infringements, etc.). Some members of the iNat community find this frustrating, so we'd appreciate it if you could take responsibility for these issues by looking over all the contributions from your class and following these best practices:

  • Add identifications: Try to identify all of your students' observations to the best of your ability, and consider identifications added by the community. If you agree with community opinions, please help out by adding agreeing identifications, but if you disagree, please add contradicting identifications.

  • Manage data quality: Every observation has a Data Quality box on the right where the community can vote on issues like whether the organism was wild or not, whether the location and date look accurate, etc. Please make sure to use these tools to flag any issues with your students' observations.

  • Watch our for copyright violations: Investigate suspicious images from your students. Google Images is an excellent tool for this. Use the camera icon in the search box to search for similar images by URL. Or, in Chrome, you can right-click the image in the observation and select "Search Google For This Image". This will often reveal whether someone just uploaded an image they found on the Internet.

Test Test Test / How to Test

You definitely don't want to learn how to use iNat at the same time as your students, so make sure you test out your protocols yourself before teaching them. That means recording observations, adding comments, and adding identifications.

As a part of your testing and your students' learning, you'll inevitably just want to make some test observations of subjects close at hand, like your dog or a house plant, but you'll get more out of your tests if you follow these guidelines:

  • DO photograph weeds: Weeds are both wild and always nearby. Take a step outside and find something growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, or a leaf that's fallen to the ground.

  • DO photograph hands: There's always a Homo sapiens nearby and their hands are instantly recognizable to species.

  • DO mark captive / cultivated organisms: If you do photograph organisms like pets, zoo animals, houseplants, or garden plants, make sure you mark them as "captive/cultivated" from the app or use the Data Quality Assessment on the website to mark it as not wild.

  • DO delete your tests promptly: If you have no intention of keeping them around, please delete them.

  • DON'T photograph pets or house plants: These are fine, but they're not likely to get input from the iNat community so you won't be testing community responsiveness very well.

  • DON'T photograph faces: Especially when kids are involved. Many students will be used to posting pictures of themselves to semi-private social media outlets, but iNaturalist is completely public, so please ensure that you and your students respect each others' privacy.

  • DON'T require students to make Research Grade observations: With some exceptions, Research Grade observations must have a community ID at the species level. This motivates many students to blindly agree with each other's IDs, leading to inaccurate data and little actual benefit for the students. Furthermore, many organisms (like many spiders, insects, fungi, and plants) cannot be identified to the species level from only photographic evidence, so observations of them may never attain Research Grade. Instead, focus on exploration, discussion, and use of field guides - valuable skills for any nature enthusiast.

  • DON'T upload other people's photos: Photos should be taken by the observer of the actual specimen observed that day. Uploading photos taken by others also usually violates US copyright law and iNaturalist's Terms of Service (read more below).

Kids, Terms, and COPPA

Teachers working with younger kids need to keep in mind that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 means we technically can't allow people under the age of 13 in the United States to use the site without parental approval, and we don't have the resources to obtain and track parental approval for individual users. This restriction is also reflected in our Terms of Service.

One potential workaround might be to have a teacher add observations on behalf of the students, without including any personally identifiable information. Rockburn Elementary School teachers set up anonymous, general accounts that students were able to use to record data, but these accounts were administered by the teachers. If you go this route, make sure you take responsibility for the general accounts that you create for use by underage students.

Teach Students About Copyright / Require Them to Post Their Own Photos

One of the most frequent problems we have with classroom participants is that students and more importantly teachers often fail to understand that iNaturalist is for posting your own photos from nature, and that those photos should be evidence of your encounters with living things. They should not simply be photos copied from books or the Internet to illustrate the kind of thing that was observed. Copying photos is almost always a violation of copyright law (it certainly is in the US), and is not really what iNat photos are for.

So at a bare minimum, please tell your students to post their own photos and not arbitrary photos from the web. It's perfectly ok to post iNat observations that don't have a photo. You could also use this as an opportunity to teach them about copyright and proper attribution when reusing other people's creative works.


Here are a few notable examples of iNat in the classroom, including coursework, lesson plans, and protocols:

Note to site curators: please feel free to fill this page out with other examples, or attach relevant documents!

Revised on August 09, 2018 01:21 AM by bouteloua bouteloua