To IM or not to IM?

The school year is quickly approaching. I don't know about any of you, but panic mode is definitely beginning to set in.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

The school year is quickly approaching. I don't know about any of you, but panic mode is definitely beginning to set in. I've wrapped up my vacations (I'm flying back from North Dakota as I write this) and it's time to really start scrambling. One thing teachers keep asking is for the ability to instant message. Currently, I've disabled IM clients and the ports they generally access, although students who bring their own laptops to school often have the latest software from MSN, Yahoo, and AOL; I've had less success blocking these since they're a bit smarter about finding open ports.

Similarly, I haven't blocked most of the web-based IM services since the security and networking issues associated with AIM Express and its ilk aren't quite as significant as those associated with specific IM clients. I did kill Meebo, though, since this seemed to be the kids' favorite site (next to a variety of proxies for accessing MySpace) for killing class time.

And there's the challenge. We've been hearing lately about the impending death of email, to be replaced by more full-featured instant messaging. While I'm not sure email's going to die anytime soon, the ability to send messages asynchronously in Google Talk and browse your IM conversations in Gmail does point to a shift in the way we look at IM. Increasingly, IM is a business tool for immediate, quick messages, in addition to being the communication method of choice for most of our students.

So is this another tool that we teach kids to use in a professional context, just as we have with email, or do we keep trying to block it, given its potential for abuse and distraction? Do we block it for teachers as well, since IM traffic can be pretty tough to track and manage? Keep in mind the new FRCP rules requiring us to be able to produce any electronic communications produced by teachers and staff (including IM). The dilemma is much the same as it is for student use. Young teachers especially are adept at using this tool and can effectively leverage it for collaboration and easy communication with students. Is it fair or reasonable to limit the use of this tool?

Even if we can address the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure issues via onsite appliances, software, and/or a Google Apps-style service to which your users can standardize, IM can be as big a distraction as WOW, for both teachers and students. Is a well-worded acceptable use policy enough to address abuse of IM yet make this tool available to your users?

Obviously IM and its use in schools leaves me with a lot more questions than answers. Yet I can't deny its utility or ubiquity outside of schools, both at home and in the business world. So I'll throw the questions out there for all of you:

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