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It's tough to keep up on your workload, whether you're a faculty member responsible for several classes or a student juggling a full schedule. The logistical dance becomes even more daunting for those learning remotely -- from computers hundreds of miles away, or another campus in the same college system.

Yet those are everyday problems for students and instructors at large, sprawling community college systems, especially those that offer a significant portion of their courses online. The country's largest singly accredited system, Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana, thinks the solution is already staring many of its students in the face: instant messaging, hardwired into every teenager since the heyday of America Online.

The community college system, which 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. 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.

"I use it for my online office hours, I have it on whenever I’m at a computer; I helped at least eight students last night after midnight," said Bonnie Willy, an assistant professor in Ivy Tech's computer information systems and computer information technology department. "It’s there. It dings when they come in so you can hear it. My cat’s trained, so whenever it dings she comes and gets me."

Instant messaging, ubiquitous as it remains in many students' social lives, has yet to catch on in a big way as an official means of communication in the university setting. Grand Rapids Community College, with over 14,000 students in Michigan, and Arizona State University, among others, use Pronto. But Ivy Tech's example -- unusual on such a wide scale -- illustrates the possibilities of using IM at a community college with a large number of distance learners spread across many campuses.

At institutions like Ivy Tech, it's easy for students -- many of whom are nontraditional and most of whom don't live near campus -- to remain part of the faceless procession churning in and out of the institution. Many educators see one-on-one contact as an important part of keeping them engaged, with office hours seen as a central front in the struggle to boost retention -- enough that Pronto is not the only software package to emerge as a potential solution.

"To me, the real key is it just provides a platform for students to remain in close contact with faculty," said Idris Smith, an adjunct instructor who teaches a course on integrated medical office systems at Ivy Tech's Richmond campus. "Hopefully, too, it will help me hang on to those students who kind of get lost along the way. Hopefully, I’ll catch them online sometime and we’ll talk about where they’re at," and make sure they don't "get behind in assignments, too."

Ivy Tech rolled out Pronto about a year ago, said Kara Monroe, executive director of the college's Center for Instructional Technology. Since then, the institution has upgraded to a new version that incorporates video conferencing and file sharing capabilities. Until now, most faculty members have used mainly the text-based features, she said, but she expects that to change as the new features become better known.

Use of the platform is spreading organically. A bit over 8,000 users are registered with Pronto, most but not all of whom are distance learners or students taking a class from a remote campus. (Over 23,000 students are enrolled in the more than 2,000 available online courses, including hybrid courses and video feeds to classes held on campus.) That number also includes instructors from among the 833 so far who have Blackboard accounts, Monroe said.

Its use is expanding steadily, she added, with an average of 215 new accounts a month, either because some faculty members require it or students encourage their instructors to adopt it. Beyond facilitating interactions between students and their instructors, Monroe noted that instant messaging is becoming a useful tool for students to keep in touch with classmates on their own -- and for faculty to stay connected among themselves, too.

Not all institutions that want instant messaging functionality turn to a professional academic solution. Even at Ivy Tech, Monroe noted, instructors and students used to swap AIM or Google screen names (sk8rdude21, anyone?) for out-of-class communication. "We’ve actually been doing that for years," she said. But other colleges looking for similar functionality have turned to Wimba and other providers for more integrated solutions, including Blackboard itself, which includes the text-based Collaborative Tools. Other colleges, focusing on virtual office hours, have opted for software packages like Elluminate Live!.

Some instructors, like Smith, have built Pronto into the very structure of their courses, requiring their students -- in her case, all distance learners -- to download the necessary software in the first week of the semester. It's "just much quicker than sending e-mails back and forth," Smith said. "I’ll have sessions during the semester where they actually have to be online during a specific week."

But one drawback, she pointed out, is that relying on IM as a chief means of communication disadvantages distance learners who don't have their own computers at home and work instead from labs on campus or the public library. It's important, she acknowledged, to "be kind of careful, too, in that we’re not creating an additional technology gap there.”

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