Banning instant messaging in schools is a mistake.

Earlier today, I was chatting to my colleague Alex Koval, the creator of the software on which this site was built. Alex lives and works in Kharkov, Ukraine so to save the phone bill we each keep instant messaging (IM) software open on our respective desktops and chat via that. We find IM quick, convenient (or ignorable when inconvenient), and handily self-documenting.

By contrast, most schools ban instant messaging outright, for fear that students will chat to each other rather than paying attention in lessons. Which many will, of course, but I still think banning IM is an overreaction.

For one thing, IM encourages students to write. Not the approved content, nor with the approved grammar, for sure, but write nonetheless. For themselves, without compulsion. And a teenager who writes for pleasure will write for life.

But that’s not the main reason I champion IM in schools. I want to see schools harness the power of IM as a teaching tool. Schools constantly struggle to deliver specialist content with (frequently) non-specialist staff. Appropriate, expert, staff are available, just not in the right part of the country.

Imagine the case of a school that wants to deliver a Latin GCSE, but has no Latin teacher. A good languages teacher can get a long way, but ultimately you need a Latin speaker to give students conversation practice. Here are some choices:

  1. Hire in a specialist for a day a week
  2. Videoconference to a specialist for (say) two hours a week
  3. Hold instant messaging conferences between students from different schools, moderated by a specialist for two hours a week.

With only a few pupils in the course, option 1 isn’t affordable. Option 2 requires specialist equipment which is expensive to run, though it certainly has merits. Option 3 requires no new equipment and allows one teacher to effectively moderate a class of up to 20 as they practice written Latin communication. I don’t present it as the complete solution, but rather as the missing piece of the jigsaw that, along with more traditional tools, can cost-effectively deliver specialist teaching into any school in the country.

It is no longer a practical necessity for teachers to teach outside of their specialisms, nor for students to struggle through specialist courses without expert support on hand. All that it takes is a reevaluation of schools’ traditional blanket bans on IM. So what are you waiting for?

Carpe diem.

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