Students Think, Therefore They IM

Author: Ed Cohen

It started getting serious around 1997.

Workers wired up the final residence halls, and then any residents with a computer and ethernet card had free, high-speed access to the Internet at their bedside.

The time had long since arrived when computers were nearly universal in dorm rooms. But with a high-speed connection, the machines grew beyond super typewriters, calculators and toys into a virtual milieu.

Many students today leave their computers running continuously so as to broadcast a kind of all-points-bulletin on where they are and what they’re doing.

The America Online program Instant Messenger, whose IM acronym is as familiar to anyone under 23 as TV, lets users amend their online identity (known as a screen name) to signal to all who keep the name on their buddy list (a roster of people the user cares to interact with) that they are “away.”

That could mean they are actually physically distant from their keyboard or just that they prefer not to converse at the moment. Either way, one is almost obligated to post an “away-message,” which should either provide useful information for locating them or at least show creativity. Senior Justin Dill kept a log of every away message he’s posted this year at his website. The address is (January 20, 2003: “Have you ever woken up with your hair so messed up that it looked like a crop circle was on your head?”).

Students say IM has largely replaced the erasable white board of dorm doors because it’s so much more likely to be up to date. Plus you can read it from anywhere on earth.

Some students spend two hours or more each night scanning friends’ away messages. This is believable when one considers that buddy lists typically comprise more than 100 names (200 is the maximum the program accommodates). Such keystroke pals generally include not just campus acquaintances but classmates studying abroad, old friends from high school, even tech-savvy parents or siblings.

The walkie-talkie-like back-and-forth of IM-ing is not confined to long-distance conversations either. One senior recalls conspiratorially messaging her roommate freshman year, while both were in the same room, about a third roommate, also in the room. They were joking about the third roommate snacking on popcorn and tuna again.

“IM is the death of every college student,” declares one current women’s hall resident in a tone that suggests she isn’t entirely exaggerating.

The time-gobbling temptation of IMing, e-mailing and web-surfing is one reason most students today opt to study somewhere other than their dorm rooms. (The most common motivator is still to escape the noise of traditional goofing around.)

One student admits he checks his e-mail—which can be done from any computer with an Internet connection—five to six times a day. He’s starting to wonder if he has a problem.

“When I get back to my room I check if the phone light’s blinking (signaling a message). Then I check IM. Then I check my e-mail. If there’s nothing there, I feel a little unloved.”

Such communications technology does not, however, destroy the academic enterprise. It can actually help.

With a click of a mouse, professors now routinely shoot out e-mails to all members of a class—reminding them about a project deadline, clarifying an assignment, pointing out a useful resource. Many class assignments are now turned in electronically. Some faculty print out their PowerPoint slides for students to use as lecture notes, saving them the trouble of copying them down by hand.

Students in first-year calculus and other courses take practice tests online through a campus site called WebCT. The site not only scores the exam but records when the student took it and how long it took to complete.

Some instructors direct students to supplemental reading materials stored online. These can be read either onscreen or printed out (undergraduates get 1,000 sheets of paper free per year at the printers in the campus computer clusters, which can be linked to from dorm rooms). Such readings are the kinds that in years past students would have to trek to the library reserve room to read.

In fact, for many students the library has become little more than a big quiet building in which to study. That’s because they can do so much from their rooms using electronic journals and online reference materials.

One sophomore estimates that he has spent only 30 minutes in the library so far in his college career. And that was only because he had a class that met there once.