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Friday, August 15, 2008

To IM or not to IM

I'm not a big user of instant messaging. I have accounts on Skype and GoogleTalk but I just don't use them very much. It's partly a network thing (relatively few of my friends are IM users) and it's partly an inertia thing (I'm very attached to my email). But I think that mostly, it's a workflow thing: when I do get IMs, I feel compelled to respond right away (and then wait for an immediate reply back) but a lot of time, I don't want to interrupt what I'm doing. With email, it feels much more OK if my response isn't immediate, and it allows me to choose who I reply to and when.

Being more active on Twitter has both reduced and increased my concerns. It's taught me that not all messages require a reply (other than perhaps an acknowledgement), and it's gotten me in the habit of having a messaging app open all the time and ignoring a lot of the notifications (I use Tweetdeck so I can see when there are new tweets from certain groups, or @replies, which I'll usually read relatively quickly but only read through the rest a few times a day). But when I get into a conversation with someone on Twitter through @replies, I do feel like I should respond fairly immediately, even though I know that with Twitter, people may not be expecting/waiting for an instant reply. I suspect that if I were using a more direct chat system, I'd feel even more that way. I know I can just set my status to 'not available' when I really don't want to be disturbed but a) there are some messages I don't mind being interrupted with (just as there are some emails that I will respond to immediately when I get them, even if I'm in the middle of something else), and b) I don't always know when I'm going to be in a 'do not disturb' period.

The main reason I'm thinking about all this is I'm trying to decide if I should give my students a way to IM me. In an informal survey of my students last spring, a strong majority use AIM for instant messaging, so if I do decide to let them IM me, I'd probably get an AIM account and then use Digsby or Meebo to manage my different accounts. Most of my own friends that do IM are on Skype or Google and I think I can set my status by network so I could still be available to them at times when I might not want to be available to my students. But is it even worth having students IM me if I'm not going to commit to responding immediately? The other problem I envision is students IM'ing with questions that really can't be answered in a few short sentences, but I suppose I could deal with that by just telling them to come see me or that I'll send a longer response via email.

For any readers who are IM users, what do you think? If you IM someone, how soon do you expect a response? How do you handle IMs in your workflow?


  1. We use IM extensively in my library. When I IM someone, I expect a pretty immediate reply. That's the point of IM. If you're busy and don't want to be disturbed, you can set your status to "available." That way your IM contacts at least know you're around somewhere and presumably coming back, so they can email you.

  2. I don't think its necessarily the best idea. The expectation of fast responses will make more students ask questions (which I guess is a good thing), but I assume most of the questions will be short and asked without the students ever looking for the answers themselves. If anything maybe use facebook. I personally have seen more people use facebook than AIM, plus facebook now has an IM system on it. You could have "Virtual Office Hours" or something.

    People can also post questions on your "wall" (Not sure how familiar you are with facebook/facebook lingo though), and if other people know the answer, those students can answer other students' questions for everyone else to see who visits your page, possibly leading to students setting up study groups of their own, or just privately messaging other students about complex concepts.

    You can also post your own "Notes". Similar to blackboard where you explain a difficult concept that many students are having trouble with, but I feel like if it were on facebook, you would get more students visiting it rather than your blackboard site. Of course, do we really need students spending more time on facebook?

    The upside is, in your big 400+ lecture class, students could conceivably be reading your explanations on facebook and be listening to you explain them vocally in person a different way, as most students understand it better a second time they hear it, or the first time they see it shown/taught a different way.

  3. I use skype with my friends/colleagues, but I have AIM to allow by students another way to contact me. I hold informal office hours in the evenings when students are likely to be online. All that means is that my IM is open and students can reach me if they wish. I don't have the number of students that you do, but they don't IM me that much, and usually only at predictable times in the semester, like before midterms and finals. For me, IM is a low cost way of providing students access to me when they need it.

  4. Thanks for the feedback all. @jim, that's sort of what I figured, that people will expect instant response. Right now, I'm just not in the habit of managing an IM account (I keep forgetting to even open up Skype!) so I'm worried that I'll forget to set my status appropriately but maybe I need to just dive in and it will get easier.
    @Matt, I've decided not to use Facebook for interacting with students - I had a lot of students say that they wouldn't want to 'friend' their professors. I'm working on a post about that so stay tuned for more...
    @Steve, that sounds like what would work best for me as well. Guess I'll go set up an AIM account...


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