Right Here, Right Now

from Technology & Learning

Faster than an e-mail, more productive than a phone call—IM is evolving into a useful business tool. But will it make the leap to education?

IM services, including Yahoo (pictured) and AOL, are now able to talk to each other thanks to aggregators.

Instant messaging is a communication tool for real-time conversations (usually text-based). IM users install a program on their computer (or use a browser-based client) and create a list of people or groups to chat with. Whenever they log in, they see who's available, who's idle, who's busy, and who's offline. To start a conversation, users just double-click on a name and begin typing.

Darrell Walery, director of technology for Consolidated High School District 230 outside of Chicago, first started using IM at work for technology alerts. "Rather than send an alert out to everyone by e-mail," says Walery, "IM targets the people who are online." With e-mail, the message remains in your inbox long after the problem's been resolved. With IM, the message only goes to people who are logged in.

To Walery, IM is the least disruptive instant-communication tool. For example, if a math teacher has a curriculum question, he can see who else is online and start chatting. If the recipient is busy, she can set her IM to alert other users of her occupied status. Walery often resolves issues with his technology team like this, without a meeting or a phone call. "It's a more private way to send a message," he says. "If the dean's office needs a student, rather than send a runner with a message or call and disrupt the classroom, he just sends an IM to the teacher."

According to the latest NetDay Speak Up Day survey, 43 percent of high school students use IM daily for personal use, but the professional world has begun to adopt IM for workplace communications too—and technology departments have had to respond in kind. New IM services include more options for security, privacy, and logging for compliance purposes.

Several of his teachers experimented with IM office hours for study groups using Yahoo Messenger. One teacher encouraged students to IM each other while she played the roll of moderator. "Teachers who participated felt like this was a way to involve students," says Walery, "especially those who might not usually participate."

The first IM services could not communicate with each other. If you had an AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) account, you could not chat with a Yahoo IM or MSN Messenger subscriber. But aggregators like Trillian from Cerulean Studios bridge that gap, and the browser-based Meebo aggregator does not require installation of an IM program.

Still wondering if IM really matters to your district, classroom, front office, or professional-development group? Well, it looks like it will soon become standard on most business desktops, and K—12 educators probably won't be far behind. Microsoft Office 2007 includes Office Communicator, an IM client. "Presence awareness," a feature of the updated service, pulls data from contacts and calendars for rollover access to e-mail addresses, titles, phone numbers, and scheduling. Could school district directories be next?

Karen Greenwood Henke is founder of Nimble Press.