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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Instant Messaging Re-Visited

Well, these past two weeks have been a trip down memory lane as we re-visit a number of different issues that we have considered before here at Virtual High School Meanderings (see Virtual School Course Development, Teaching in Virtual Schools, Virtual Schooling Questions, Virtual Schools Not Generating Revenue, These New Students of Our's). I guess this entry is no different.

Back in May, I posted an entry about instant messaging (see Using Instant Messaging), which was actually in response to a discussion between Sebastien Paquet (see Fighting for Attention) and Stephen Downes (see Should We Ban Instant Messaging in Schools?). The main discussion point was an issue that Stephen raised that went something like this:

You know, it's funny - I read so much about teachers trying to find ways to get students' attention, and when they find a device - a communication device - that captures students' attention, they want to ban it.
In my response, I referenced some research that I had conducted with two virtual school teacher about four years ago now. Based on this research, we felt that instant messaging was a tool that students felt comfortable in utilizing, given the amount of use during their personal time and that students personally felt that instant messaging assisted in both their learning and their sense of “knowing” their virtual classmates. Based on these trends, we recommended that teachers in virtual high schools should give consideration to adopting a more formal role for IM in their e-Learning environments.

I raise this issue again because of an entry at Online Learning Update entitled 7 Things You Should Know About Instant Messaging - Educause Learning Initiative. The main thrust of the article at the end of the link trail is basically a "how to" guide on what instant messaging is and how to use it. There is actually little in there on how a teacher, particularly a virtual school teacher would use it effectively.

However, seeing this entry triggered my mind back to one of the keynote speakers at the Virtual School Symposium in Denver in 2005 (see The Notes from Mark Milliron's Keynote). Or rather, two things in particular about his keynote - his discussion of the disruptive tehnologies and his notion of persistent partial attention or a blend of multi-tasking with mindfulness .

In terms of the idea of a disrupive technology, most of his conversation during the keynote was about e-mail and how we can literally spend the entire day checking e-mail and disrupting our normal work patterns. I would think that for instant messaging this would be even more so, as most instant messengers have the box for each conversation that pops up or flashes on your toolbar or even makes a sound everytime something new is written. And given the fact that these conversations are usually short and choppy interactions, that's a lot of popping up or flashing or chiming going on. It was actually this disruptive technology that Chris Dede witnessed in his daughter's own computer use that first got him talking about a neomillenial learning style (see Students with neomillennial learning styles).

On the other side of that coin, the use of instant messaging for personal use, academic use, or even business use does demand from use persistent partial attention. We have to be mindful of the various conversations that we have going on with one of more individuals, along with the paper we are writing or the e-mail we are answering or the blog we are reviewing or the online paper we are reading or any combination of those. At no time can we devote complete attention to any one of these tasks while we are multi-tasking to accomplish all of these at the same time.

Is this practice of persistent partial attention a socialization (i.e., a habit) that we have formed or have our brains adapted to the nature of the digital age and we just think that way now? If you can answer that question, you're one step closer to answering the question I posed in the entry These New Students of Our's.

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