Instant Messaging (IM) as a service has been around since the 1990s. Instant messaging should not be confused with text messaging, 'text messaging' or 'texting' utilises SMS (Simple Messaging Service) technology to send messages between mobile devices whereby 'instant messaging' uses the internet as the transmission medium (Kasesniemi and Rautiainen, 2002: 170). Originally offering only real-time one-to-one transmission of text, IM has now moved beyond this to include many-to-many (group) transmission of images, files, audio and video. Nowadays IM services are available on almost every device and every platform imaginable. This extension of IM has blurred the lines between IM and online chat.
Online chat is a service that is hosted on servers running chatrooms; users are required to login in order to chat and share with other users. The popularity of dedicated online chat services has declined in recent years due to the rise of Facebook and other social networking sites that provide the same functionality. Online chat services such as e-chat are still available but are generally used by specialist groups. Many organisations also offer a range of services for professional communication. Microsoft Skype for Business (formerly known as Lync) is one such service.
Why and where?
The reasons for the rise in popularity of IM are mainly due to the following.
- The ability to use the technology on almost any device – e.g. you can use Facebook Chat on almost any device including mobile.
- The reducing cost of data tariffs – mobile operators are offering more and more data for less cost enabling users to be 'always on'.
- The ability to use IM on wireless networks whilst overseas – reduces the cost of communication when overseas.
- The ability to see who is online in real-time – most IM services have a status indicator.
- The ability to send richer content such as video and audio.
- The ability to remain anonymous.
The always-on nature of instant messaging, the immediacy of response and the ubiquitious nature of the services make them ideal for communicating with learners. Motiwalla (2007: 584) suggests that the pervasiveness of mobile technologies would make it "foolish to ignore them in any learning environment". However, it is the always-on nature of instant messaging that can also lead to divided attention, creating a distraction from the current task and a negative impact on learning (Junco and Cotton, 2011). The use of instant messaging in education therefore requires an element of caution.
One of the major advantages of instant messaging is in the creation of social networks, relationships and communities of learning, especially in a dispersed student group. The ability to establish these connections has been shown to encourage greater student engagement with learning material outside the classroom and improve communications (Kadirire, 2007). This connectedness has also been linked to increased student persistence and provides a strong predictor of retention (Lange, 2014; Pascarella and Ternzinin, 2005). These benefits can also be harnessed in the context of workshop participants who could use instant messaging to support each other following a training session.
Most instant messaging services are available on almost all devices and platforms. To use an IM service, the users normally have to be on the same service i.e. WhatsApp, Facebook Chat, BlackBerry Messenger or Apply i-Message. Many of the services can be run from a standard web browser, however for a more reliable and enjoyable experience it is advisable to download and install the client software on your device. Wikipedia provides a comprehensive comparison of IM systems. When choosing the system, you wish to use make sure it is available on all the devices you expect to use, that it has the required functionality and that the license meets your requirements e.g. is it free?
Once you have decided what technology you are going to use it is important to ensure that everyone understands the protocols to be used. This is generally referred to as etiquette and setting out the ground rules early on is key to success. If using IM to hold text conversations the following rules should be observed:
- Use real names as this will add a sense of community.
- Don't assume that because someone is logged in that they are available, ask them, they may have forgotten to change their status
- Introduce yourself if you don't already know each other.
- Use emoticons to transmit feeling as the visual and audible cues are not present, but don't overdo it.
- Use clear language and adjust your style to match the other person.
- Be considerate of other people's points of view, it is easy to misunderstand in a text-only environment.
- Be careful of jokes – they don't always translate well.
- Keep it short but be careful with abbreviations and shortcuts such as np (no problem) or u (you).
- If your message is slightly long use line breaks to break it up.
- If your message is important then consider using email as the recipient may want to keep a copy for reference.
- Be polite, avoid barging in.
- Close the interaction with a 'goodbye' or 'thank you'.
An excellent use of instant messaging is in the creation of small real-time discussion groups. The groups can be set a topic for discussion then return to the main body to round up or debate.
Many modern IM clients offer the facility to record the text chat, audio, video or entire interaction. This can be useful as a teaching when a learner has missed the interaction as a copy can be retained for later viewing. There has also been research that has supported the use of IM for student to instructor communication. Much of this research has been in the area of student support, however consider the implications of this carefully before embarking on such a strategy as student expectations may not be met unless you clearly define them at the outset.
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