Nine Strategies for Using IM in Your Online Course

Instant messaging can be an effective online learning tool that can build community and foster collaborative learning. The following are some suggestions from Debby Kilburn, computer science professor at Cero Coso Community College, for making the most of this tool.

1.) Explain how to get set up. Although many students may have used IM, they probably have not used it for academic purposes. The syllabus should explain how to set up students’ IM accounts. Have students use a multiprotocol instant messaging application such as Trillian or Gaim to make communication across different IM systems easier. Remind students to add each other to their buddy lists.

2.) Offer group chats at different days and times. IM can be used for group chats. In order to keep chats manageable, limit them to eight students per session and offer them at different days and times, so students can find a session that is convenient for them.
3.) Ask for students’ undivided attention. Online learners often balance many responsibilities and can get distracted during synchronous chats. Ask that they focus exclusively on the chat. This will improve the quality of the interaction and help students get the most out of the sessions.

4.) Form study groups. Group chats are an excellent way for students to make connections with each other. Encourage them to continue their chats in groups or one on one.

5.) IM your students. Isolation is one of the dangers of online learning. Simple, synchronous messages from the instructor can open up communication and encourage students.

6.) Invite students to IM you. Because you are on their buddy lists, students will be able to tell when you are online (as long as you have your IM application open). This open line of synchronous communication can be an excellent way of holding online office hours.

7.) Establish realistic expectations. Increased access to the instructor can foster unrealistic expectations. For example, just because students are able to communicate with you synchronously does not mean that they will get their graded assignments back any sooner. Explain your communication policies clearly in your syllabus.

8.) Don’t micromanage. Like the private conversations that take place among students before and after face-to-face classes, IM can be an informal form of communication that can help students learn and provide social connections that might not otherwise be available in the course.

9.) Keep a chat log. Not everyone can be available for synchronous discussions, but they can still benefit from transcripts of the communication that occurs in these sessions.

Do you have a tip for using IM to keep you students engaged? Please share it with Faculty Focus readers by using the Add Comment feature.

Excerpted from Tips from the Pros: Nine Strategies for Using IM in Your Online Course. Online Classroom, vol. 7, no. 2.