I’ve been using Instant messaging as a teaching tool for well over a year now. Previous to that I had never really thought about using it at all. I was pretty happy with email as a communication tool. But the more I use instant messaging, the more I think its something teachers should use.
Why? Well, I think there are two compelling reasons: 1) it is a tool designed to make communication fluent, convenient and instant. Since teaching is all about communication, IM is likely to be a useful tool. 2) Most teenagers use it already anyway. In many cases, students are logged into MSN all night. They may not be actually chatting to anyone, but they have it on. So this is an example of how we can change our teaching methods to meet our students on their own turf, where they are most comfortable. When we do that, I think we win the respect of our students.
During orientation at the end of last year, I asked all my students for their contact details… including their MSN name. I went home and added all of them to my buddy list and encouraged them to do likewise. I promise them that I won’t IM them (unless it is something really important), but that if my status is set to ‘Available’ they are welcome to IM me. I find that most students will IM me from time to time.
Using MSN I was able to catch up with most of my incoming students over the holidays at one time or another and get to know them a little. Some of them told me they were scared of the year, some told me that they didn’t consider themselves to be very good students but were planning to have a real go. Others asked me about study tools etc. Most of the students in my class were students i had never taught before, but by the time i came back to school in January, I already felt like I had made a connection with many of them. I have heard of teachers who will visit all the students they teach at the start of the year. But MSN allows me to achieve much the same result, with a fraction of the time.
If you are not familiar with MSN (or other Instant Messaging platforms such as Yahoo IM, ICQ, Jabber, AIM or iChat), the idea is that when someone you have added to your buddy list logs into the internet, you can see that they are online. You can send them an ‘instant message’ that opens on their screen, when they reply, their message appears below yours, and so on. It’s similar to the IRC chat rooms of my generation, but much safer. People who you have not added to your buddy list cannot message you or see when you are online, and if someone is being unkind or you don’t feel comfortable talking to them any more, you can ‘block’ them at the click of a button. This gives you complete control over who can see your online status and message you.
To me IM is the digital equivalent of a student staying back after class to ask a ‘dumb question’, to make an appointment to see you for extra help, to tell you something about their life that is getting in the way of their study etc. The difference is that it’s much less threatening. If a student wants to tell me that she is thinking of dropping my class because she is struggling, she is much more likely to do so on MSN than face to face. That happened to me this week, and i was able to counsel her to stick it out a while longer, and suggest some things that might help her. At the very least, I appreciate that she was up front and honest about it. Without MSN I think she may just have disappeared from my class list – finding it too hard to find a moment to tell me.
I think MSN also has great potential for online quizzes. Last year we had a few of these. We would make a time… say 9:00 PM – and anyone interested could just join in. There were more than 12 students who turned up and played a game that was – well calling it sale of the century would be flattering myself…. but it was fun. The next morning i got an email from the mother of one of the boys saying that her son had skipped into the lounge room to tell her he had been studying online with his teacher. I think if your teaching activities can make a year 12 boy skip into the lounge room to tell his mother anything, you have engaged him.
Ohh – one of my students has just IM’d me! truly! haha how’s that for timing?