Instant messaging (IM) is a common way for technology savvy young people to stay in constant communication with their friends. The question as to whether or not instant messaging could be used as a tool for education is still being debated. Some want to ban it outright from the schools, saying that it is an enormous distraction when students are allowed to use it. Others however, see opportunities for learning situations in which instant messaging can benefit the exchange of knowledge and, they are exploring its uses. This is not a black and white situation. Instant messaging can be a bane and a boon for instructors.
Instant Messaging in Education and its Usage
Instant Messaging (IM) has become a ubiquitous tool for communication via the Internet. The key points that distinguish it from other forms of communication are that it is text-based and in real-time. Email is text-based, but you must wait for a reply. Phones are real-time, but people around you can eavesdrop on your conversation.
The IM programs used today seem to vary quite a bit from laptop to cell phones, but there are several commonalities in which they all seem to participate. You have a username that may or may not be your real name. You maintain a list of other people with whom you chat, and you can see when they are available for chatting. You can set your availability status to show that you are 'in' when you want to chat, or 'out' or 'busy' when you do not want to be disturbed. Text is the primary element of communication, not pictures, video, or audio, although some or all of those extra elements can be combined with the text message.
While considering the usefulness of IM, there is an obvious division that should be established. In regards to education, IM can be used inside and outside of the classroom. On the surface this may seem like a trivial distinction, but it does impact the usefulness and the purpose of IM in schools.
In the classroom, the established rule is that anything interrupting the attention of the students from the front of the room is a disruption and should be stopped by the teacher. Passing notes and whispering in class have never been permitted, and now some schools and instructors hold IM in the same regard. Since IM became widely available to students via computers, laptops, and cell phones, it has become a major method of communication for them. "Studies show that some 75 percent of teenagers use instant messaging, making it one of students' primary modes of written communication" (Martineau, 2007, ¶ 2).
However, some advocates for its removal from schools say it can be used as a way to share answers and cheat. In 2007, the Toronto Canada District School Board banned the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the school citing the easy ability to cheat as one of the factors. One unidentified 9th grade student admitted to cheating and said, "You take notes by text message and save them, then you pop [the cellphone] out. It's quiet and nobody sees. It's not like paper. It doesn't crinkle" ("Toronto Students Banned," 2007).
In addition to cheating, there is the distraction factor. Many in education subscribe to the idea that students must be in a focused environment to learn, and any allowed deviation from that focus invites laziness or daydreaming. After some discussion at the Smoky Valley High School in Lindsborg, Kansas, the school's technology committee decided to allow the students to use IM, via the Apple chat client iChat, during class as they took notes and worked on their laptops. Sharon Texley, a member of the committee, said:
As time went by, the folly of that decision became apparent. Students did use iChat to communicate, but not the way we idealists had envisioned. The constant 'iChatter,' instead, included who's going out with whom, who went to the party last weekend, who's bored in class, and so on. In addition, many of them shared answers on tests and other work meant to be done individually. (Texley and DeGennaro, 2005, p. 2)IM does make chatting and cheating easy. Anyone with experience in front of a class full of children would agree that students can create enough distractions on their own without one extra being given to them. In classes where individual work is important, maybe allowing IM is a bad idea, but what about situations where group work is appropriate?
Many say that since students already know how to use IM (most use it with a high proficiency) why not make educational use of it (Martineau, 2007, ¶ 4). There can be learning situations where communication and shared work is suitable. Elena Nehrebecki is an English language instructor at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, NJ. One way in which she uses IM in the classroom is to ask students to translate some of their instant messages into grammatically correct sentences. She feels that she connecting with the students by using something already know, and it shows them the difference between casual and proper language (Martineau, 2007, ¶ 7).
IM holds a special place in Distance Education class. Since the classroom is already conducted virtually, IM becomes the fast way to communicate. Even though audio chat usage is on the rise, many people still do not have the bandwidth necessary to make that a viable communication tool. Many universities that have a Distance Education program use a Course Management System (CMS) to manage the classes and give the instructors a secure place to post a syllabus, assignment list, receive assignments electronically, and etcetera. Many CMSs have an IM feature built into their courseware. This benefits the student in several ways. The instructor can have office hours in a chat room that is only open to the class. Since the IM client is integrated in the CMS there is no additional account to sign up for and manage. If the instructor is not online the student can leave a message that the instructor will see the next time they log in.
Another use for IM in the classroom comes from classes with a large number of students present at once. When teaching large classes, instructors often have little time for taking questions. If the students could submit questions via IM then during a pause, the instructor could quickly review the submitted questions to see how well the students understand the lecture. In some large classes the instructor has an assistant, and that person could answer questions in the chat room while the instructor proceeds with the lecture (Kinzie, Whitaker, & Hofer, 2005, p. 158).
Outside of classroom, IM has a much more developed and accepted educational support role. For instance, it is a useful supplement to a second language class. When learning a second language, classroom work is important, but that is only a few hours per week. To learn a language well it must be practiced daily. IM can help the student by giving that instant communication to clarify a problem or just extra practice with the instructor or the instructor's aid outside of the classroom. One of the most helpful methods of learning another language is the understanding of short messages. Eventually reading long passages from a book will be natural, but understanding short communications helps to foster the ability to think in the other language. Even though IM cannot help with pronunciation problems, is very helpful for fostering understanding of the written text (Sotillo, 2006).
IM's educational assistance can be as simple as to help people in different locations communicate. "IM was viewed as a better tool for communicating with the instructor than e-mail or the telephone" (Jeong, 2007, p. 32). Many instructors make themselves available for contact via IM instead of holding regular office hours. The local student population (not Distance Education enrollees) who use IM as much or more than email communication, almost unanimously approved of this practice. Also some students are shy and reluctant to ask a question in front of a classroom of twenty, thirty, or more students. But, IM expands the comfort zone of the student and they are able to ask those questions (Jeong, 2007, p. 32 - 33).
On the whole, students like the ability to use IM to communicate with their instructors outside of the classroom; it is an improvement over past methods and at least equal to email in the ease of use. Before such technologies, if a student needed to contact an instructor they had to wait for designated office hours and either physically visit the office or telephone; both were a hit or miss approach. With email and IM, office hours can become whenever the instructor is willing.
There seems to be very little reason not to use IM outside of the classroom. Of the students that preferred to not use IM as a contact method for their instructor, they either had usability issues or would have rather used other methods of communication. The students that did not use IM still appreciated the option, as long as it was not required for the class. As for the students that were able to get along fine without it, they were indifferent about its use (Jeong, 2007, p. 33 - 36). For the students that needed the extra method of contact, it was helpful, and for the students that did not need it, it did not interferer with their learning. That sounds like an ideal tool.
It is agreed that as a communication tool, IM is useful and omnipresent. However, on the topic of whether or not to use it as an educational tool, the answer is affirmative, but with limitations. The highest value of IM seems to lie outside of the classroom as a method for contacting instructors. Although, inside the classroom there are also uses to be explored for language class, group work, asking questions, and others. The value that IM adds to in-class work should be weighed against the potential for lost student focus.
Consider the phrase, "If you give them an inch they will take a mile." I am not sure whom that that phrase originally referred to, but it applies students. If IM is freely allowed in the classroom, the virtual notes will be flying even while the instructor is facing the class; no longer would students need to wait for teachers to turn their backs. It has been shown that outside of the classroom the value of IM can be great. And it has also been shown that IM can be used in the classroom to benefit the learning situation, but it must be controlled or limited in some fashion.
Martineau, P. (September 2007). Tapping Instant Messaging: Once frowned upon, IM is now used in schools for language lessons. Education Week's Digital Directions. Retrieved February 14, 2009, from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2007/09/12/02im.h01.html
Toronto Students Banned From Using Cellphones in Schools, (April 19, 2007). CBS News Canada. Retrieved February 15, 2009, from http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2007/04/19/toronto-cellphones.html
Texley, S., and DeGennaro, D. (2005). Should We Ban Instant Messaging in Schools? Learning & Leading with Technology 32 (7). Retrieved February 14, 2009, from http://eric.ed.gov:80/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/2a/19/6c.pdf
Kinzie, M. B., Whitaker, S. D., & Hofer, M. J. (2005). Instructional Uses of Instant Messaging (IM) During Classroom Lectures. Educational Technology & Society, 8 (2), 150-160. Retrieved February 15, 2009, from http://www.ifets.info/journals/8_2/14.pdf
Sotillo, S. (2006). Using instant messaging for collaborative learning: A case study. Innovate 2 (3). Retrieved February 15, 2009, from http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=170
Jeong, W. (2007). Instant Messaging in On-Site and Online Classes in Higher Education. Educause Quarterly (No. 1) Retrieved February 14, 2009, from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/EQM0714.pdf
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