Thursday, December 18, 2008

Teaching Notes: On Instant Messaging with Students

Over the last year or so at Duke, and with encouragement from the deans, I have raised the caps on my classes, first to 70, then to 100 and above. The larger numbers have required some rethinking about how I do things. One of the great advantages of teaching somewhere like Duke is that one can ask for teaching assistants, and I have had three now each time that I have taking a larger course. And I am lucky to have outstanding Teaching Assistants. However, students still want to talk to their professors (I am speaking in American here) and frankly, I like talking to students and getting to know them. Without regular interaction, crafting the course as you go would be difficult. But how does one cope with interacting with larger numbers of students? Of course I have regular office hours, but only a small percentage of the class will come to the professor's office unless they have to.

A year or so ago I began to experiment with another way of interacting with students -- using Instant Messaging (IM). I decided to tread carefully at first because I was not sure if it would work, and I was not sure if I might find it too much of an imposition on my time. Would my time be dominated by endless IM queries? Did I want a student popping up with an essay question when I was on the second or third glass of the Beaujolais on a Friday night? So I did not advertise my IM contact details on the syllabus, but I let them know that I was available to talk on IM if they emailed me to ask for my details. Several students took me up on this and in each case I found the experience a rewarding one, and I decided to continue the experiment. I now publish my IM contact details on the course syllabus and I have found that many of the students enjoy using this means of communicated with me. It has several advantages.

One of the major advantages of using IM for students is that this is a very natural medium for them. They are using it themselves all the time to communicate with one another, and they find it easier to communicate through IM than they do in other more formal meda, even email. This leads to some productive conversations. They ask you what they want to talk about without feeling that they need to flower it up in an email. I have found myself wasting much less time with mis-firing email conversations. I misunderstand students less and they misunderstand me less. And sometimes I have been able to ask students quick questions about certain elements in the course, which can be very helpful for getting a feeling for the lie of the land.

This is not, of course, going to be an option for professors who do not do any IMing of their own to friends and family. My guess is that it only works for those who are already familiar with the medium, who enjoy using it. But there are practical difficulties that one needs to think through. The biggest one is that there are several different IM clients. Some students have YIM, some AIM, some MSN, some Google Talk, some combinations. When I discovered Pidgin, this problem was solved instantly -- it is a free multi-platform IM aggregator and you can pull everything together in the one programme.

But what about the problem of students imposing on your free time, popping up to chat to you about the course while you are communicating with your mates? So far, this has really not been a problem for me. My students have used this service really responsibly, and if they do pop up at an unusual time, they quite understand if I explain that I cannot talk. It has not made them any more demanding; quite the contrary -- they have been civil and appreciative. And there are also the options of playing with the settings on Pidgin (or whatever you use), hiding yourself when you don't wish to be seen online and so on.

In short, this experiment has been more than just "so far, so good". I have been surprised by how successful it has been.


Danny Zacharias said...

It is good to see that Pidgin also has a Mac version. Mac has another option as well that is very popular and has been around for awhile, its called Adium

Rafael said...

I've had similar experiences with IMing. Though only one or two students have gotten in touch with me via iChat, it's much more common for my students to initiate a chat with me through the new Facebook.