11th November 2005 at 00:00
Pete Roythorne explains instant messaging

By now you've no doubt mastered email, text messaging and maybe even had a go in a chatroom or forum. So do you really need another form of electronic communication? Well, obviously yes, as I haven't yet mentioned instant messaging.

Instant messaging, or IM, is a form of online communication that combines the live nature of chatrooms and the personalisedprivate contact of email. When you send a message it appears directly on the other person's screen, like email, but with IM you only communicate with people that you know are online so you're guaranteed an immediate response.

When you use IM you have a list of contacts you wish to exchange messages with, called a buddy list. You must invite people to be on your buddy list and agree to be listed on theirs (it shouldn't be possible to add anyone to your buddy list or for you to be added to anyone else's without consent).

When one of your buddies logs on to the internet their IM service registers them as being active and you will see that person as online.

To start using IM you need to download a piece of software called an IM client, as will anyone you want to communicate with. Popular packages include Google Talk, MSN Messenger and Apple's iChat. There are some factors worth noting at this point: not all IM clients are compatible with all others; some systems allow you to adjust the privacy settings; and some allow you to send attachments. So you need to decide what factors are important.

Although one normally associates this technology with young people socialising, it is being used increasingly to foster collaboration in school time. For example, you can host online chats with schools in other countries or with remote guest speakers. On top of this, students can work together on projects and IM gives them the opportunity to discuss topics arising from homework.

Some teachers create IM conference rooms to facilitate online study sessions for students. You could even use it to communicate with other teachers discreetly during school hours.

IM is not without its problems and it's worth reading Becta's Signposts to Safety report for advice on this, at =1pubid=194cart=

Some IM clients are starting to offer voice and picture capabilities so full videoconferencing is not far away. So there's plenty more scope for its use in class.





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