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Instant Messaging: Not Just for Kids

Instant messaging technology facilitates realtime conversations and virtual meetings

It was only 10 years ago that I wrote the first article for a leading K-12 technology education magazine on the then-new phenomenon called the Internet. I used the Internet to communicate with teacher education colleagues, participate in online discussion groups, do online research and download resources. But relatively few K-12 schools were yet involved. Therefore, in addition to explaining the fundamentals, showing examples of pioneering applications and presenting connection alternatives, I shared my belief that the online exchange of information would likely revolutionize education. The rest, as they say, is history.

In gathering information for that article, I interviewed people around the country by e-mail, and in one particular case, my message to the author of an early book on the subject arrived while we were both online. Since she happened to respond immediately, we spent the next half-hour in a unique real-time conversation using e-mail. But even though that was an awkward format for discussion, we agreed that the Internet held potential for such communication, if we could know when the people we wanted to contact were available.


The development of Internet technologies, such as instant messaging, makes real-time communications quick and easy. These services allow users to see when people in their address books or "buddy lists" are online, send instant text messages that suddenly appear on their computer screens, hold group conversations, and even transmit voice and video with the click of a mouse.

While there are presently more than 40 such services, the major free options include America Online's AOL Instant Messenger (, Microsoft's MSN Messenger (, Yahoo Messenger (, and ICQ-an acronym for "I seek you"-(, also owned by AOL. The AOL Instant Messenger is the industry's largest IM network, with more than 100 million users and 90 percent of the market. But, millions of members have also been amassed for the Microsoft and Yahoo products.

Unfortunately, the networks are largely incompatible with each other, so individuals you want to reach need to share the same service, but IM technologies that bridge several services are becoming available, such as Jabber ( and Trillian (

As the parent of a high school daughter who participates regularly in conversations with classmates and friends from several states, I see how significantly this communication form has affected young people.

In fact, Jupiter Media Metrix ( found that more than 80 percent of online users aged 13 to 18 use IM services. With many names on their buddy lists, my daughter and her friends can hardly go online without hearing the chimes that announce the arrival of instant messages, but those features can be turned off when they don't want to be disturbed.

And while much of their IM time is clearly social, the students also use the technology for school-related purposes including planning events and homework discussions.


Jupiter Media Metrix also found that 60 percent of online users age 19 to 35 use instant messaging, as do 40 percent of the users age 36 and above. Ferris Research ( predicts two-thirds of corporate e-mail users will use IM regularly in five years. It therefore represents a huge emerging market that will lead to services for Internet-linked devices including personal digital assistants, pagers and cell phones.

I use the technology increasingly for planned and chance conversations with colleagues, and for group discussions without paying for conference calls. IM technologies add exciting new dimensions to the Internet, and it is time to explore the services and consider the educational possibilities. IM technology isn't just for kids.

Odvard Egil Dyrli,, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.