Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Boundaries of IM and SMS messaging with students

Yesterday I had a 40 minute commute each way to the school district where I was sharing workshops, and enjoyed listening to Show #30 from The Seedlings, the “snow day” show, on my iPod. (I absolutely LOVE snow days, btw. For more on this, see my post from Feb 2005, “Snow Days are the Best Days.”) Kern Kelly brought up some great questions in the show about the boundaries which are needed when teachers share their IM userids and cell phone numbers with students, opening up the possibility of students sending SMS messages to teachers.

When I was teaching college classes in 2005 and 2006 for WBU in Lubbock, I created a separate Yahoo account and shared that address with students for IM purposes. Since I use Adium as an IM client, which supports multiple accounts, I could choose WHEN I wanted to be online and “available” to students with that account. I told students that if they saw me online using that account, it was OK for them to message me, since I was virtually “opening up my office” for conversations and Q&A. I found this technique of establishing a “boundary” with my college students to be effective. At the time I did not keep strict “virtual office hours,” but I did get online with that IM account frequently and received some messages from students that were helpful to us both.

K-12 contexts are certainly different from higher ed contexts in many ways, and I think Kern is wise to suggest caution when teachers choose to share IM info with students. I liked Bob Sprankle’s idea shared in the show, of virtually “waving” back to students when they contact you via IM at a time when you can’t or don’t want to talk, or at an inopportune time. Bob likened this to seeing a student at the mall and waving to them. Messaging a text wave ([waves]) to a student can be a similar gesture. You are acknowledging the student and being friendly, but at the same time if the situation is not good for a conversation you are letting them know that. You see them, you acknowledge them, but can’t talk right now.

We certainly live in a demanding information and communications landscape, when many people (especially young people, but not just the young) want and even expect 24/7 accessibility to teachers and instructors. When you are responsible for teaching large numbers of students, this can become overwhelming in a hurry. It is VERY important, in my view, to establish and maintain professional communication boundaries with students. As with many other things, students will “test” those boundaries from time to time, and that is normal. It is critical to have some boundaries, however, or the “positive potentials” of these communications technologies can quickly become negatives and headaches. Email can be another case in point. If students email every little question to their teacher or instructor, AND the teacher/instructor answers many of those emails, a pattern of behavior is being reinforced which keeps the student in a DEPENDENT role on the educator for help and assistance. Certainly educators want to help, but ultimately one of the most important things we can do for our students is help them become more autonomous and independent learners. I also liked Cheryl Oakes’ idea in the show, taken from her experiences with the Webcast Academy, of setting up an ongoing Skypecast which members of the class can join and use to provide asynchronous and synchronous support to each other. This type of communication forum (a skypecast room) is likely more appropriate for adult learners and college students, but the idea is very sound. As we increasingly blend our learning, we need to find ways to help support our students reaching out and assisting each other. If those support messages can be shared with the group and archived, then those virtual “just in time” learning moments can benefit multiple folks, and not just one person.

international boundary

We have critically important needs to maintain professional relationships with our students, especially in K-12 contexts but also in higher education. I highly commend this Seedlings show to you, it provoked some new thinking for me about IM, SMS, and professional boundaries. Additionally, the Seedlings crew (and special guest) shared some amazing “geeks of the week” which I am eager to make time to explore soon too!

With respect to SMS (text messaging) I interviewed a wonderful teacher yesterday during a break between my presentations about the ways she is using SMS this year with her high school theater students, and the boundaries which she has established and maintains with them. This is a great success story. The podcast recording is only about six minutes long, and I’ll try to get that published here later this week.

Have you had experiences, good or bad, using IM or SMS messaging with students in classes you’ve taught, or in classes you’ve taken? How have you established boundaries or seen others establish boundaries with regard to IM and SMS effectively?

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3 responses to “Boundaries of IM and SMS messaging with students”

  1. Glenn Moses Avatar

    I’ve been IMing with my 9-12 students since 2001. From Y!IM only, to Trillain, to GAIM, now to Adium. I’m on, a lot and lots of my students use it

    Although I think the idea of waving is a good one, I’m not worried about it. If I can’t talk I tell my student what I’m doing and ask them to hit me up later. It hasn’t been a problem.

    Early on I got an abusive IM or two, but learning the power of “warning and ignoring” has solved that very small problem.

    The value: being there for my students at the exact moment they need me and perhaps more importantly having lots of conversations that have little to do with the curriculum and breaking down that wall between teacher and human.

  2. Dan Avatar

    I have to agree with Glenn, I am in constant contact with Current and Former Students. Ron Clark is the one who has inspired me on this front. He has stated that his job as an educator is to educate his students for life. Do I keep in contact with every student? No… Just the ones who want to and maybe more importantly, the ones who need a positive figure in their life. I have now been able to Teach 7th graders who are trying to figure out what college or Law School would be best for them. As a Christian I have another front, is to minister to them as a fellow Christian and help them down their walk with God.

    Myspace, Facebook, IM, Text messaging are all useful tools an educator should look at to teach their students . Even if it is to teach them how to act on Myspace and Facebook, be GOOD POSITIVE ROLE MODELS

  3. […] Some thoughts from Wesley Fryer on boundaries in IM and SMS use for teachers and students. […]