Journal of Online Learning and Teaching
No. 4, December 2006
Electronic Note Passing:
Enriching Online Learning with
New Communications Tools
Director of Online Masters Program in Educational Technology
Graduate School of Education and Psychology
are caught using unsanctioned communication tools in class.
Faculty debate the implications and begin to note positive
effects. The effects are listed with examples and commentary.
Multichannel learning is also considered. Further research is
needed to understand how new technologies are assimilated into
existing online programs.
Design of Learning Spaces, Learning Communities, Learning and
Technology, Collaborative/Cooperative Learning
It was a dark
and stormy night several years ago. Inside by the fire, a few
faculty members enjoyed dinner with students in a rare
face-to-face meeting of an innovative online graduate program in
educational technology. As the evening wore on, conversation
became less guarded and then suddenly lightning flashed and the
secret was out. Students had admitted to using Instant
Messenger (IM) with each other at the same time
that they were supposed to be in online class. It was as
if they were caught red-handed passing notes on the back row.
The Dilemma and
faculty reaction was disbelief and a desire to gain control.
After all, the discussions were well planned and deserved the
full attention of all students. How would students get the full
benefit of the interaction if they were distracted, effectively
passing notes to one another electronically? The event started a
great debate enjoined and enjoyed by faculty and students alike.
And the debate brought the faculty face to face with progressive
learning theorists such as John Dewey. They asked, “What would
A brief recall
of Dewey’s traditional versus progressive education comparison
gave the faculty pause. Being progressive requires the
cultivation of individuality, free activity, learning through
experience, and engaging in a changing world. Initial reactions
mirrored traditional philosophy, including imposition, external
discipline, and learning from teachers with static aims and
materials. Indeed, “It is to a large extent the cultural product
of societies that assumed the future would be much like the
past, yet it is used as educational food in a society where
change is the rule, not the exception.” (Dewey, 1938, p. 19).
There was one
more problem. In their open computing environment, back-row IM
discussions were impossible to stop.
Evolution of Online Learning, the authors argue that
technology and learning theory inform each other in a rich dance
that precipitates methodologies for learning (Sparks, Stern, &
Tubbs, 2006). Behaviorist ideas mixed with mainframe computers
yielded drill and practice formats for learning. Cognitive
thinking combined with more versatile desktop computers created
programmed learning, complete with branching based on
understanding and appropriate feedback. Constructivist notions
and graphical personal computers set the stage for interactive
multimedia libraries. Social networking, distributed digital
devices, and the Internet have enabled collaborative knowledge
creation and learning communities.
co-evolution of technology, theory, and learning methodology
even shows up in popular culture. The classic Jeopardy,
true to behaviorist influences, required contestants to know
answers and repeat them on cue. More recent shows, benefiting
from social networking ideas, allow contestants to phone a
friend or poll the audience.
According to the
Pew Internet & American Life Project (2000), 81 million
Americans use one of the many IM networks and more than 40% of
Americans use IM on a regular basis. The project report also
notes that usage is greatest among teens and young adults who
are tomorrow’s college students. Instant messaging is overtaking
e-mail as the preferred way to communicate. Two-thirds of this
demographic send more instant messages than e-mail. It is
interesting to note that IM is banned in most K-12 environments.
thing is that instant-messaging technologies only recently
appeared in the program’s online environment. While students
were dutifully instructed at technology camp in the technologies
to be used in online class (chat, newsgroups, and Web-page
development tools), no instruction for instant messaging was
ever delivered or even recommended as a means for collaboration.
IM seemed to come automatically with the students as a backdrop
to their everyday lives.
investigation made it clear that students were uncomfortable not
having IM running in the background. Their seeming disrespect
was just their normal multichannel operating procedure. And
while students eventually admitted to a few secretly shared
negative instructor comments, most found the additional IM
channel to be stimulating and helpful. As it turns out, there
are many learning theorists who argue in favor of multichannel
learning (Clark & Paivio 1991, Hartman 1961).
educators in traditional settings can still impose quiet and
silence communication between students. Not so in online
learning environments. Many online instructors may not realize
the likelihood that their students are in constant communication
with their peers. Their students are also likely to be
multitasking at any point in their course interactions.
According to our students, this is just how tech-savvy college
students interact in the world. While this situation might be
untenable for instructors wishing to operate online in
traditional ways, progressive leaders of learners will find rich
opportunities. The authors found many benefits once they got
around to listening to how students incorporate various
technologies into their course work.
discovered many positive uses for IM after reflecting on their
own practice and interviewing many students in the online
programs. Students were quick to relate stories showing the
value of multiprocessing. Benefits ranged from simple
clarification of terms to new ways of sharing space together.
years, Michael Schrage of MIT has been arguing, “The key
element, the key ingredient, the key medium for successful and
effective collaboration is the creation and maintenance of a
shared space. You cannot create shared understandings without
shared space. That is the real challenge” (Schrage, 1989, p.
communication tools improve and are better understood, they
start to feel more like spaces in which
to interact and learn. Many articles illustrate the use
and effects of instant messaging and other communication tools
for business environments. Nardi, Whittaker, and Bradner (2000)
describe the essential nature of interaction to enable
empirical work has shown the importance of informal workplace
communication for effective collaboration. By informal we mean
interactions that are generally impromptu, brief, context-rich
and dyadic. These interactions support joint problem solving,
coordination, social bonding, and social learning—all of which
are essential for complex collaboration. (p. 83)
to create robust shared environments for learning in distance
education is just beginning to be explored and documented. There
are exciting potential benefits to instant messaging within
distance education programs that should be addressed.
becoming more interested in
exploiting these environments. In this article, the authors
illustrate the importance of listening to students and show how
the integration of just one relatively new tool, instant
messaging, into an existing online program has made a positive
Having created a
fairly robust online learning environment that includes
synchronous as well asynchronous tools, faculty wondered what
made instant messaging so indispensable. Students reported to
have developed online support systems using IM that were both
social and educational in nature. Social, in that they allow
peers to catch people online and check in with them. Unlike
other tools, IM allows students to see who is online at any
given moment. And seeing a person online often reminds students
to contact each other.
since students are at a distance, it provides a free way to
communicate, unlike typical phone conversations that can be
costly, particularly with international students. IM is ideal
for working much more informally on group projects, homework,
and discussing ideas for papers.
commented on how comforting it was to be working on a paper and
to just see other students online with their IM connection.
Others cited instances of being calmed by other students as they
frantically completed projects in the middle of the night.
Simply checking in worked for some students, while others found
a quick answer to a question, akin to yelling over a cubicle
divider, made all the difference. Amazingly, a certain sense of
community was often conveyed by IM without any interaction at
“I think the
use of an ‘instant messaging’ software for an online class is
essential. The chat sessions allow students to interact as if
we were in a LIVE class environment.” (Student Comment)
observations and informal interviews, the authors have been able
to identify a myriad of ways that our students have used IM to
enhance learning in an online setting. The uses range from
simple digital notes to enjoying movies together at a distance
and synchronous remote video viewing. These methods are
described individually in the following section with examples
In many ways, IM takes the place of good old-fashioned note
passing. In online classes, people can have separate
simultaneous conversations independent of the official learning
environment. This communication allows students to multitask,
enriching social networking while keeping up with the class.
can be used as a device to clarify information that is missed or
unclear. Rather than having to wait until a presenter or
professor has completed his or her presentation, a student can
ask another student to clarify while the information is still in
students a way to ask quick questions about an assignment that
will get immediate answers and if the answer sparks another
question, it doesn’t take several days and e-mails to get the
questions sorted out.” (Student Comment)
foster collaboration, but more importantly, it helps those who
are less comfortable participating in class to get the
clarification that they may require.
Student 1: “Wait
what did she say that reification meant? I heard the definition
but I don’t understand it
& up Wenger’s site. Here is the link to it.”
Student 1: I can’t get this program to work!
Student 2: Calm
down. Tell me what you see on the screen.
Student 1: Ok,
it looks like this …
Student 2: Cool.
Now try this out. You can do it!
Some students have found IM to be a good tool for
group projects because of the accessibility. For example, tools
such as chat and newsgroups may not be accessible through a
firewall or places with technological limitations. Often IM is
facilitation conversation (Note that students are talking about
“Hey what are you guys doing down there? Did he say when we’re
supposed to meet
back in the room?”
“I think people are funneling back here right now. Might be a
good time to come on
“Okay. We’re just finishing up the last slide for our PowerPoint
presentation. We’ll be
down in a second!” (IM Transcript)
can be used both within and outside of class to plan social
outings. If people are in close proximity, they may meet and go
out together outside of scheduled face-to-face session. This
helps create cohesion among a subgroup of the class that is able
to meet face to face more often, but may end up alienating those
“I chatted with
other classmates quite often. Got to know them on a personal
basis. Got a chance to get help where I was having problems with
a certain chapter.” (Student Comment)
“Hey, so did anyone have a thing planned for Saturday night
“There was some talk about going out to dinner, but I don’t know
if anyone finalized
anything. Let me check with Stephanie.”
“Okay, I just IM’d her and she said she thought someone was
planning for us to go out
to dinner but she wasn’t positive!”
conversation is clearly social, the evening will almost
certainly include discussion of course topics and strategy
sessions for getting group work done.
For group presentations, IM can be used for
last-minute details and instructions before presenting projects
to the class. “Who is going to introduce us and give the
overview?” is a common question that comes up in that situation.
One student reported that she received simultaneous feedback
from three separate IM conversations on a presentation that she
was giving in a chat window to the whole group.
The authors also
found that IM is often used as a supplement to chat rooms when
doing group presentations. Often, users will have both the chat
and IM windows open and will discuss the presentation with group
members and ask questions while giving a presentation in the
course virtual space, Tapped In (TI).
particularly good for working out homework assignments. Those
that involve reflection and interpretation lend themselves well
to this medium. For instance, if a student is stuck on writing a
paper, discussing ideas about the topic or the paper with
someone else may help to unleash ideas.
“I use it to
learn w/ other students, to exchange ideas with them.” (Student
The notion of
bouncing ideas off of someone and getting feedback in real time
seems much more effective than the lag that occurs in simple
Catching up and checking in is important in
online environments. Because of the time-zone differences and
geographic separation, calling people to catch up does not work
out either financially or logistically. Many students use IM
instead as a means to check in with each other.
“It helps to
have a mental picture of other people in the class, so when they
say something in a forum it means more.” (Student Comment)
If a user is
logged on, another student can typically feel out the situation
and see if he or she is available to talk. Immediate
interaction, relevant communication, and a sense of presence
foster social aspects of learning. Students often reported
seeing a fellow student online in IM when they were feeling down
and lost in the middle of the night. After a quick chat and
brief pep talk, their moods were elevated. The feeling that
others are online passing in the virtual hallways has a strong
remote video viewing.
asked students to watch a movie that showcased various mentoring
techniques. After the assignment was done and submitted, he
realized that the students had invented yet another creative use
of IM. Students had obtained the movie, synchronized the start
of the movie and then watched it together to discuss the
techniques in the movie in real time using IM.
Chat backup is an alternative to communication
when Tapped In, the preferred software for synchronous chat, is
down. There have been many occasions when this software has been
unavailable. Oftentimes, it is the user’s ISP that has problems,
especially in more rural areas with lower bandwidth. Many
students use IM to bridge with other students, or to inform the
instructor that he or she is trying to make it to class.
Business articles point to the use of IM as a
functional administrative tool. Professors use it for
student/teacher conferences and virtual office hours for
distance students. Many libraries have introduced IM-based
reference desk assistant features at their campuses. This is
especially valuable for distance students who may pay high costs
to call in and ask for an extensive search for literature.
Some professors have mastered the ability to
conduct multiple IM sessions at one time. This can actually
increase productivity by holding several conversations at one
have also taken to IM as a way to collaborate with each other
and seek help in real time.
Prof 1: Can I
ask you a quick question?
Prof 2: Sure.
Prof 1: I’m in
one of my online classes and wondered if I can sort
Prof 2: I don’t
think so …
students were the true educational innovators, even if
unwittingly. They have taken a new communication tool and
enriched their learning environment. Perhaps technology in the
form of ubiquitous communication tools will render traditional
education obsolete. Control of online learning environments has
shifted to students.
There is more
change ahead. Greater mobility with wireless hotspots and mesh
networks will allow students to be in constant communication.
More creative channels will support constant voice and video
communication as well.
evening wake-up call brought awareness of IM to the faculty
working online. The authors’ investigation brought acceptance
and incorporation into their online program. And the faculty’s
commitment to progressive learning keeps their eyes open to even
use of online communication tools and the need to support them
in learning environments begs additional research. How are new
tools adopted by students? What attributes make the tools useful
in educational settings? How do we evaluate their
effectiveness? The field holds many possibilities for ongoing
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Manuscript received 04 Sep 2006; revision received 20 Nov 2006.
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