Instant Messaging in On-Site and Online Classes in Higher Education
In the past, instant messaging (IM) was considered "a teen thing"1 rather than a serious tool for education. As teenagers who rely on IM as a communication tool arrive on college campuses, however, IM usage will become more prevalent in higher education.
IM has generated increasing awareness of its value for educational purposes despite its slow adoption in educational settings. Cohn2 urged universities and faculty members to adopt IM and train themselves in using it, as IM use by prospective and current college students has become pervasive. Walther, meanwhile, expressed some pessimism about the readiness of adults, including faculty, to use IM.3
Schools can use IM for emergency communication needs, as well. For example, IM was used with other online learning tools in the course of school closings in Asia due to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.4
Research on IM in educational settings is growing. Based on a study of 30 students, Nicholson5 reported that students who used IM services found it easier to communicate, felt a stronger sense of community, and had more venues for informal and social communication about class material, the school, and their common degree program. Farmer6 briefly addressed IM's benefits and drawbacks in educational settings. Benefits include a heightened "social presence" for distance-education students and a growth in collaborative opportunities, due to its millions of users everywhere. Drawbacks include adding additional layers to the learning environment, a growing expectation among students of unlimited access to instructors, and the related time issues for faculty. Farmer went so far as to describe the drawbacks as a "potential faculty nightmare."
This article presents my findings from a study of IM use in both local and distance courses, focusing on student-instructor interactions.7 Surveyed students appreciated not having to wait for answers to questions and the more informal context of IM conversations. They felt that the potential for IM to be useful in the distance-learning environment was high.
While previous studies of IM in educational settings offer general overviews of IM usage in education, particularly with quantitative data collected through surveys, few provide the in-depth "story" of students and instructors using IM. Understanding these interactions is very important to creating the optimal environment for using IM in educational settings.
Purpose of the Study
The study used feedback from students who participated in IM communication in a class setting to identify the technology's potential, obstacles to its use, and ideal conditions for its use.
I collected data from the summer of 2001 through the spring of 2004 in 19 classes I taught. I asked the students to use IM during each semester-long class and to complete a survey at the end of the semester (see the sidebar).
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The average rating of my IM communication as instructor was 7.17 on a 9-point Likert scale (with 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest degree of satisfaction). I believe this high rating results from my ready availability during the courses, as I was online over 12 hours per day. For the question concerning the potential of IM in a traditional (face-to-face) class setting, the mean was 6.48. Finally, the mean was the highest concerning the potential of IM in an online setting, at 7.49. IM understandably received the highest satisfaction rating within a distance-learning setting, but it is notable that even in the traditional class setting, students found IM quite useful.
The collected data set includes potential dependent variables for inferential statistics for the ratings: student level (graduate versus undergraduate), aspect (nontechnical versus technical), mode of delivery (online versus face-to-face), and participation characteristics (optional versus required). A multivariate SPSS analysis, however, showed no significant difference for any of these factors.
Data-to-concept is the usual method for grounded-theory research, as it is considered best for this kind of "storytelling" qualitative study, particularly in behavioral research. I used the method to derive three aspects of IM usage in classes:
- the positive aspects of using IM,
- the negative aspects of using IM, and
- resistance to participating in IM activities in classes.
Positive Aspects of IM
The positive aspects of IM are that it
- encourages instant communication,
- expands the student comfort zone, and
- facilitates flexible office hours.
Encourages Instant Communication. The first question on the survey asked what students liked best about using IM in their class. Comments mostly concerned the availability of IM and the instant responses it enables. Students felt that I could respond to questions and the need for clarification in a timely manner. IM was viewed as a better tool for communicating with the instructor than e-mail or the telephone. Students could ascertain whether I was online and proceed accordingly. Distant-education students were pleased with IM's efficiency in asking questions, and on-site students enjoyed the rapid responses they received. This timeliness factor was especially appreciated when students were working on a deadline and had questions about a class assignment or project. Student comments note these benefits:
Expands Students' Comfort Zone. In addition to helping clarify areas of confusion, IM fostered a more intimate student-instructor relationship. IM made it easier for students to approach me, which helped ease their anxiety about the course work. Distance-education students especially valued this aspect of IM communication. IM fostered a rapport that can be difficult to establish in a distance-education setting by making me readily available to the students and vice versa. Rather than feeling isolated, students using IM felt connected with me, the class, and the university. When students were confused about class lectures or assignments, they knew I was available through IM to support them. Many felt that the IM was more personal than voice mail, e-mail, and chat rooms, which also increased their comfort level with me and with the class. Student comments included the following:
Facilitates Flexible Office Hours. Since IM is available at any time and anywhere, the instructor and the student need not be in the same place at the same time to communicate. IM may replace traditional faculty office hours and allow students better access to their instructors outside class. Distance-education students in particular benefited from my online office hours, but time-pressed on-site students also valued the scheduling convenience IM affords:
Negative Aspects of IM
The negative aspects of IM include
- the potential for miscommunication due to lack of verbal and visual cues,
- privacy and intrusiveness issues, and
- instructor availability and the informality of the medium.
Potential for Miscommunication. One survey question asked students what they liked least about using IM in class. Many students were concerned with miscommunication that may result from the lack of visual interaction during IM sessions. People are increasingly using Web cams with IM to get around this hurdle, but none of the students used one during the data-collection period.
The absence of visual and verbal cues can lead to misinterpretation and awkwardness. For example, during an IM session, I responded to a student's question by typing "NO!" The student thought I was yelling at her, even though that was not my intention. The situation was resolved without negative consequences, but not without embarrassment. Students noted miscommunication and distraction as drawbacks of IM:
Privacy and Intrusiveness Issues. Students were quite cautious about using IM because they did not want to interrupt me or be interrupted by other students. Although there are ways to "hide" while online, students were concerned about the visibility and privacy aspects of IM use. Not wanting to interrupt others sometimes discouraged them from using IM for class communication, and they expressed concern about privacy:
Instructor Availability and Informality. Students expressed anxiety about whether I would be available and frustration with having to log on to IM to find out. Their anxiety and frustration increased if I was not online, and some students had a hard time telling if I was online. If students had to wait too long for an IM reply, they feared their question would not be answered.
Other students worried about the informality of IM. They were uncomfortable using a form of communication generally reserved for casual conversations with friends to contact a professor. Their comments reflect their concerns:
IM Use with Classmates. Nicholson's research demonstrated that IM can provide a "virtual hall" for online students, but my experience with inactive IM students makes me doubt its effectiveness. Students may not have the time to be online as much as the instructor is, or they may not be willing to IM with their classmates. Some students did express a desire to increase IM communication with classmates:
Software and IM Service Issues. Probably the most cumbersome thing in IM communication is that a particular IM service cannot communicate with another one (for example, Yahoo users cannot IM AOL users). Several third-party programs let users communicate across different IM services, but the options are still fairly limited. In many cases, students had to install a new program on their computers, and this was met with much resistance. As a result, some students chose not to participate in IM activities.
Environmental factors prevented some students from installing IM software on the computers they used. Schools and workplaces often will not let computer users install software on their computers because of security concerns. Obtaining the administrator's approval to override this ban presents yet another hurdle. In addition, some students felt that IM services adversely affect computer performance. Such environmental restrictions belie IM's claims of convenience. Students expressed frustration with installing and learning a new service:
Usability and Interface Issues. Although new features are constantly being added to IM services, there is room for improvement in terms of usability. Complaints ranged from lack of spell check to frustrations with the time spent learning how to use the IM programs. Some students were unclear about the various features available with IM and failed to fully utilize the service as a result:
Resistance or Refusal to Use IM in Classes
Data was collected from students who did not participate in IM activities to learn more about why they did not participate, even when participation was required. Regardless of whether the reasons stated were valid or merely excuses, it is worthwhile to investigate nonparticipants' comments. The following comment was the most striking one I received, since it seemed to contrast with the general perception of IM's convenience:
Several students explicitly mentioned that they did not need an additional channel for help. For these students, more is not always better. Online students, however, are likely to be more motivated to use asynchronous forms of communication than their on-campus peers, and this do-it-yourself attitude must be considered in efforts to create an effective online learning environment:
Lack of Time or Access
Surprisingly, some students explained that they did not use IM due to time constraints, even though it is recommended as a time-saving tool. With IM, students need not make an appointment to speak to the instructor, and it is available nearly always, anywhere. The following responses indicate that some students did not agree with the ease of IM use, however. Others mentioned accessibility problems, including not owning a computer or not being able to access IM services on campus computers:
Prefer Other Modes of Communication
Some students felt there were enough avenues for communication with the instructor without IM. Their needs were met through e-mailing, posting to the discussion board, or meeting in person:
Many factors play into the success of IM communication between students and instructors. The most important factor is the availability of the instructor. Instructors who are not readily available may experience less success with this form of communication. The instructor's comfort level with using IM influences students' attitudes: faculty with more formal styles of communication may not be comfortable using IM and their students may hesitant to use it as a result. Students' rating of IM interaction also depends on their perception of the instructor's availability:
IM has many positive aspects when used in educational settings, both for on-site and online courses. Despite some resistance to using IM in classes, many students welcome this new method of communication in educational settings:
Educating students about IM's intended role will also help ensure its success. They should understand that it is a tool to improve communication by making it more immediate, efficient, and timely. A brief training session may help eliminate the stress and discomfort students feel when using a new application. It could instruct them to keep IM communication simple and straightforward and alert them to the potential for miscommunication due to lack of visual and verbal cues.
Establishing online office hours is another effective strategy. This ensures the instructor's availability to address students' questions and also alleviates their fear of imposing on the instructor.
My research demonstrated that most students in my classes using IM welcomed this new method of communication in both on-site and online courses. Given some resistance to IM, however, it is important to make clear to students that IM is simply a tool to improve their communication with the instructor. As IM adoption in higher education continues to grow, future studies should investigate faculty perceptions of IM use in their classes.