I just had an office hours consultation with a team of three calculus students working on a group project. The twist is that two of them were physically present in the office, and the other was at her house 45 minutes away. We used iChat to link up with the commuter student, and although that student’s audio link wasn’t working, I was able to pose questions to the group by entering in the text of the questions in an instant message. If the remote student could answer the question, she’d IM it to us and we’d read. Otherwise I’d type. Eventually we were able to work entirely through their questions on the project, and I was able to send them a PDF of the transcript of the chat for later use.
Instant messaging is really one of the most underrated and underused teaching tools out there. It makes students think about how their questions are posed and actually write them out, rather than just try to verbalize without having thought about them; and it lets me connect with students in ways that regular office hours visits make difficult or impossible sometimes. (The commuter student above lives on the east side of Indy and has to be home in the afternoons to take care of her 3-year old kid.) I just wish more of my students had audio or video chat capabilities.
It’s awfully nice to be able to use technology like this in ways that actually benefit student learning, as opposed to ways that are merely flashy.