According to a recent report at Inside Higher Ed, some colleges are moving to connecting students and faculty via Instant Message.  At Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana, serves more than 115,000 students a year on 23 separate campuses across the state, adopted an instant messaging platform called Pronto, from the collaborative learning software company Wimba.  Here’s how Andy Guess describes it in the article:

Like a turbocharged AOL Instant Messenger or Google Talk, it lets students chat online with their professors in text, audio or video form, for virtual office hours or impromptu question-and-answer sessions.

Unlike the free IM clients students are already familiar with, though, the software integrates with existing course management systems, such as Blackboard and Moodle, so that their buddy lists are populated with the classmates already signed up for a specific course. Students also see each other’s real names, with identities that are validated through the system — no “sk8rdude21″ who may or may not be your group partner — and they can save their chats for later consultation.

Several years ago, I experimented with being available to students via Instant Message for “virtual office hours.”  It was a new-enough idea at the time that it was sort of thrilling, for them and for me.  But, I have to admit, the thrill wore off pretty quickly.   In part, that was because of the blending of “public” and “private” personas on the IM client.  I may want to share my IM handle with friends, but it’s another thing to be that accessible to students.   And, the most frustrating part of me as a professor was that after the semester – and this experiment – ended, all my students were still on my “buddy list” and they continued to contact me via IM long afterward.   Perhaps this why I no longer use IM much.   Still, I think that a proprietary system that’s directly tied to class rosters, uses people’s real names, and  – perhaps most importantly – goes away at the end of a semseter, might have potential for creating a sense of belonging to a campus community.   This will be an interesting development in social media to keep an eye on.