Thoughts on IM in the class (Thing #21)

I’m not a big fan of IM for educational purposes. It may have some role to play (e.g. IM reference service a la Meebo Me), but it seems like it would only be disruptive in the class. Reading the article Instructional Uses of Instant Messaging (IM) During Classroom Lectures only served to confirm my suspicion. Several aspects about IM and the study occur to me:

1. Seemed silly to me that the study did not even mention the pre-IM method for what they were essentially trying to investigate, namely students passing written notes to each other. Apart from now being able to virtually pass a note to someone sitting clear across the lecture hall, I don’t see much new here.

2. IM encourages ping-pong discussions, in this case between two students rather than between student and instructor, which is more typical in trad. discussion sessions. What is missing is the value of a group dynamic which can lead to some very fruitful discussions, and good instructors have many creative ways to initiate and sustain discussions that move beyond ping-pong. It is possible to have group chat sessions, but my own experience with these is that they get very messy in terms of understanding who is responding to whom. Perhaps we still simply lack a protocol for this type of discussion, something which we may have internalized when it occurs f2f. In any case, my initial enthusiasm for the possibilities of group chat has all but evaporated.

3. The content of IM/chat is strikingly poor. The medium discourages lengthy explication of ones thoughts since typing is too tedious. The study results confirm this — less than half the comments were actually on-task and those that were rarely went into much depth. Imagine these dismal results for a trad. discussion section!

4. The authors offered 3 reasons why they think IM would be more beneficial than having a group discussion, all of which struck me as silly: a.) efficiency – no need to leave your seats to break up into small groups; b.) quiet, so conducive to a large lecture hall; c.) students have a written record to use for further study. To a.) I say it helps to have students move around to break up the monotony of the class. To b.) I ask, do you seriously think students will sit around quietly and collectively IM one another? Finally, while c.) initially seems like a strong argument, consider two points. First, given the poor quality of IM/chat content, how valuable is such a record? Secondly, having a written record may also inhibit “thinking aloud” to work out one’s thoughts or test an idea, as the fear of “sounding dumb” is amplified by realizing the fact that now there is a permanent record of your dumbness. Perhaps this potential for self-censorship could be combated by make chat aliases anonymous, but I still have my concerns.

All told, I’m content to leave IM to the private sphere. Maybe others will come up with more creative uses for it in the class, but if nobody does, I won’t be disappointed.



One Response to “Thoughts on IM in the class (Thing #21)”

  1. McMillan Says:

    Darren, you should build your post into a full article. Well said.

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