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INSTANT MESSAGING IN EDUCATION

I think it's worth emphasizing that this posting is not meant to be a comprehensive
guide or definitive article on instant messaging in education. It is merely an account
on my first experience with it.

Introduction.

Instant messaging (IM) has been around for many years. I started instant messaging
in graduate school at Brown University in the early 1980s. My first experience with
IM was on an IBM mainframe running VM/CMS, using a program called tell. With
tell, I was able to chat with people connected to the same mainframe as well as
across the globe, provided they were on BITNET. I used tell to converse with my
thesis advisor, other graduate students, prospective employers, and friends. I
continued using tell during my time at the Cornell Theory Center (1988-1993). While
I was at Cornell, the first Gulf War broke out and the thugs in Saddam Hussein's
regime fired scud missiles at the civilian population in Israel. I happened to have a
friend doing a post-doc there at the time. I can tell you that I sometimes knew that
the scuds were being fired at Israel before they showed it on the news channels in
the US. During more than one instant message session across BITNET, he sent the
message, "I'm going down to the bomb shelter." Okay, he could have just gone
down to the bomb shelter and explained later, but he was a particularly polite chap.

It was also during my Cornell days, that I began using Unix. The popular IM
application on Unix in the early 1990s was talk. Since then many other programs
and services have been developed for IM, along with a set of acronyms, such as lol
(laugh out loud), brb (be right back), and ttys (talk to you soon). These acronyms
were developed to shorten the time needed to type messages. It's mildly interesting
that UNIX commands like ls (list directory contents), ps (process status), and cd
(change directory) are short and cryptic for a similar reason. They were developed
at a time when, due to limitations in the technology, keyboard entry was slow. The
IM ttys acronym is especially interesting. In Unix, it stands for "terminal
initialization information." See http://www.aim.com/acronyms.adp?aolp= for a IM
acronym dictionary.

At any rate, the popular IM services today include AOL Instant Messenger service
(AIM), ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN, Jabber, among others. I've used AIM, Yahoo!,
MSN, and Jabber to communicate with relatives, friends, and colleagues across the
world. In general I use Apple's iChat (for AIM and Jabber), but I've also used
Adium, Yahoo! Messenger, Mercury Messenger (for MSN), Coccinella (for Jabber).
In addition to chatting one-on-one, I've had electronic conferences using iChat and
the collaborative editor SubEthaEdit. More recently, I've taken a number of online
seminars (aka webinars) from Apple and The MathWorks, using cast:stream, and
WebEX, respectively. Although I've used email with students since the early 1990s, I
only recently began using it to help students.

The Ascendancy of IM: hindrance or help to education?

Instant messaging has recently become extremely popular with young people.
According to a survey, conducted
by the nonprofit Pew Internet and American Life Project and made public last week,

"email is increasingly seen (by teenagers) as a tool for communicating with


“adults” such as teachers, institutions like schools, and as a way to convey
lengthy and detailed information to large groups. Meanwhile, IM is used for
everyday conversations with multiple friends that range from casual to more
serious and private exchanges."

That survey confirms what I've observed in my students during the last couple of
years. In particular, I've seen an increasingly large number of students use IM,
typically with AIM. I've also taken note of just how some students use email. I may
be reading too much into it, but I've noticed that some students email a question,
and, within an hour after sending the email, send a another email asking for a
response. I'm willing to hazard the guess that the students' attempt to press email
into service as an, albeit slow, instant messaging system is an outgrowth of their
experience with IM, among other things that produce immediate results. I don't
know if young people are inherently more impatient than older people, but if they
are, it's actually understandable. After all, to a two-week old infant, one week is half
a life-time. On the other hand, to a one year old child, one week is only 1/52 of a
life-time. Maybe this is why, as we get older, years seem to fly by, whereas when
we were younger, a year seemed to be an eternity. At any rate, a real downside of
IM in school is that some students use it in class to converse with friends, and some
use it on cell phones to cheat on exams. But there is a potential in the popularity of
IM to use it to enhance education.
I had the idea to use IM during office hours several years ago, but IM was not yet
that popular with college students. This was the case at least at smaller institutions,
that in the early to mid 1990s, were just getting connected to the Internet. This past
year, I decided the time was right to introduce the educational use of IM to my
students. Why is this useful? Since some students are reluctant to come to office
hours or ask questions in class, IM gives them an alternative way to ask for help.

First experiences with IM Consulting to students.

At the beginning of each semester this past academic year, I gave students my AIM
screenname in addition to my office telephone number, office hours and email
address. I chose AIM because most of the students seemed to use it, but next year I
will use Yahoo!, MSN, and Jabber, in addition to AIM. (Though I use AIM, I don't
care for it, because it doesn't support SSL connections, and consequently, your
screenname and password are transmitted across the network in plain text. You can
encrypt IM sessions, but I don't believe that there's a way to encrypt your
screenname and password.)

I didn't ask students for their screennames, because I wanted them to decide
whether or not to get help with course material via IM. Though I did learn some
screennames when students initiated IM sessions with me, I never initiated any IM
sessions with them. Rather, I made myself available via IM during my five
scheduled office hours as well as during some evenings and weekends. It was then
up to the students to contact me.

Some Observations.

After a few IM sessions, two or three students who had been reluctant to do so
before, started coming to office hours and asking questions in class. They also
continued to seek help via IM. I received most IM requests for help the day before
exams and during some evenings just before assignments were due. This was not
surprising since I usually expect last minute questions before an exam or
assignment. I also made sure to stay logged in for longer hours during these times,
and this may have accounted for some of the increased IM activity. About 13-15% of
my students took advantage of the IM help at some point over the course of the
academic year. Eventually every student who asked for help via IM also came to
my office hours in person. An additional two or three students came to my office
hours in person, but never asked for help via IM. I didn't do any careful assessment
on the educational impact of my use of IM. Although I plan to continue using IM in
my courses, I'm not currently planning on engaging in any formal assessment.

Final Thoughts and Plans for the Future.

In the future, I'd like to employ more sophisticated collaboration tools to help
students. Distance education, which has been growing in popularity in recent years,
provides a wealth of experience and motivation that can be drawn upon to enhance
non-distance (local?) education. Moreover, companies like Apple and the
MathWorks, for example, conduct regular online seminars using collaborative
software tools. Others have used quite sophisticated collaborative tools in
education. For example, Phil Shapiro has an account of his use of SubEthaEdit to
collaboratively write an essay with students. Apple's iChat together with Equation
Service can be used to send and view mathematical equations. I think both parties
need to use the Mac-only iChat, though. I'd like to make use of cross-platform
collaborative tools that allow drawing and mathematical typesetting. Various
institutions have recently established online, real-time tutoring. For example,
Brooklyn College ran a pilot online math chat tutoring program, last spring.

I'll have more to say about IM in education in future postings.