‘IM here’ Reflections on virtual office hours
First Monday

'IM here' Reflections on virtual office hours by Shannon L. Roper and Jeannette Kindred

AOL Instant messenger (IM) was used over four semesters as an additional way for students to contact us during office hours. Since college students primarily use IM as a way to interact socially with their friends and family, we were curious if students would use IM to contact us, who would use it, how often they would use it, and what the content of the IM interactions would be. After two years of collecting all IM exchanges with students, we found that students did use IM to contact us on a regular basis. Both male and female students in roughly equal numbers used IM. In addition, a majority of the exchanges were task related; that is, questions and comments relating to a particular course or assignment. Results, personal reflections, and suggestions for future research are discussed.


“IM here” An exploratory look at virtual office hours
Personal reflections
Future research questions




"“IM here” An exploratory look at virtual office hours

An important and often times required aspect to college teaching is the holding of office hours. Faculty schedule specific times during the week when students can drop by, unannounced, usually to discuss issues related to the course or specific assignments. While face–to–face office hours are important, however, more and more instructors are communicating with their students online, primarily through the use of e–mail (Waldeck, et al., 2001; Jones and Johnson–Yale, 2005).

We became curious about the potential use of instant messaging systems (IM) as another online tool for instructor–student interaction after our first collaboration, a study regarding college students’ use of IM to communicate with each other. We found, not surprisingly, that IM was primarily used to maintain social relationships (Kindred and Roper, 2004). We wondered, then, if students would use IM to contact us if it was made available as an alternative to traditional office hours. As we had both been incorporating a course Web site and frequent e–mail communication with our students in all our classes, adding IM office hours seemed a natural next step.

We instituted online office hours for all our classes beginning in the Fall 2003 semester, and continued collecting IM interactions with students for a total of four consecutive semesters. Our IM (using the AOL Instant Messaging program) was turned on only during regularly scheduled office hours (eight hours per week). After each IM conversation, the entire exchange was saved, along with the sex of the student, the class the student was in, and the date, time and length of the interaction. At the end of the two–year collection period, we counted the total number of exchanges, the number from males versus females as well as the number of repeats (students IMing more than once), and examined them for general content (task versus social interaction) as well as general written/oral characteristics.

This paper will first explore some background literature related to the characteristics of online synchronous communication in general and IM use more specifically, as well as past research on student–teacher interaction outside of the formal classroom (out–of–class communication, or OOC). We will then present our findings of this two–year exploratory study, as well as reflections and suggestions for future research.




Instant messaging (IM)

AOL defines its Instant Messenger (IM) service as

“… a free online service that lets you communicate with family, friends and co–workers in real time. Using the AIM Buddy List® feature ou can see when your buddies are online and available to instant message.” [1]

It is important to note that even in the description of what IM is, there is emphasis first on it being used for social purposes — that is, for communicating with family and friends.

And for some, this usage is a given in their lives. According to the America Online Instant Messenger Web site (http://www.aim.com), participants must be at least 13 years old to participate. This means, for our students, many have been using IM for at least 5 years, if not before then, and come to see it as a normal part of their every day lives.

Characteristics of America Online’s IM (known as AIM) are similar to other chat systems, such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Much like traditional written and oral uses of language, AIM has certain rules that come into play. Searle (1969) discusses these constitutive rules as a way that a person knows and understands another person’s intentions. As we become accustomed to the different communities that we are a part of online and offline, we know what is acceptable and unacceptable and define ourselves accordingly.

“As she types furiously away in the abbreviations and slang that her online friends understand perfectly, it is clear that she is a member of a distinct social network. In fact, she is just one of millions of teens who create and manage their own social worlds through IM.” [2]

These rules can be revised or restructured over time based on the changes that occur in the individuals, the interactants, and the online communities themselves.

“Any interaction made possible by the constitutive rules, the commands of IRC [a chat system], occurs by definition within this frame. The content of the interaction may be playful, or it may be serious, as when a group of scientists discuss their research on IRC.” [3]

As is noted above, content can determine the frame of communication online. With this being said, we wanted to know if students would use IM during our office hours to communicate with us. And further, were there any notable constitutive rules present when students IM with us?

Out–of–class communication

Out–of–class communication (OOC) is defined as "student–faculty communication in the instructor’s office, informally on campus, or before and after class" [4]. We were especially interested in the findings regarding frequency and length of OOC, who engages in OOC more frequently (male or female students) and the topics of discussion during those interactions.

Research consistently shows that OOC is infrequent. For example, Nadler and Nadler (2000) found that faculty report seven or fewer office visits from students in an average week. Fusani (1994) reported that almost one quarter (23 percent) of students never visited the instructor out of class, and 50 percent of survey respondents reported two or less contacts. Jaasma and Koper (1999) found 50 percent of their sample reported visiting the instructor’s office, while 50 percent did not. Since traditional face–to–face OOC seems to be limited, we were curious as to how frequently students would use IM to contact us during our office hours.

Reports of length of visit, however, appear to be inconsistent. Nadler and Nadler (2000) found the average length to be about 24 minutes, while Jaasma and Koper (1999) found that the most often reported length of an office visit to be between 6 and 10 minutes.

OOC interactions are usually initiated by students to discuss task or course related topics (Nadler and Nadler, 2000). Fusani (1994) reported that almost 85 percent of all OOC is course related. Fusani also found that while a very small percentage of contacts were personal in nature (e.g. purely social, or to talk of personal issues — approximately seven percent), those who did initiate these kinds of contacts made repeated visits. Nadler and Nadler speculate that students may need to feel positively about instructor (e.g. professor is approachable, displays immediacy behaviors) in order to discuss personal, non–academic matters with that instructor.

Finally, research has also examined sex differences (instructor and student) in terms of frequency of OOC. Bennett (1982, as cited in Jaasma and Koper, 2002) along with Fusani (1994) found female professors receive more OOC than male professors. Nadler and Nadler (2001) found male students report greater frequency of OOC than female students.

Fusani (1994) concludes “faculty should actively encourage ECC (extra class communication) and highlight their availability …” for students [5]. We have done just that by incorporating Instant Messaging as a way for students to contact us during office hours. For this exploratory study, our primary questions of interest were the following:

  1. Will students use IM to communicate with us during office hours, and how frequently will they use it?
  2. Who will use IM more to communicate with us during office hours, male or female students?
  3. What issues will students bring up during IM interactions?
  4. Are there any notable constitutive rules present when students IM with us?




During the four semesters (Fall 2003-Spring 2005) we used IM during office hours, students regularly contacted us through this medium. Overall, we engaged in 173 exchanges with 115 students. Forty–nine percent (86) of the exchanges were from one–time users, while 51 percent (87) of the exchanges were from 29 individuals who were repeat IMers with us. In eight cases, there were IMers who contacted us on behalf of their groups while working on class assignments.

Of the 173 messages, 72 (42 percent) were male IMers and 98 (57 percent) were female IMers with three being unidentified based on the logs/self–identification in the IM. Our experience is different than previous research, which found male students reporting greater frequency of OOC than female students (Nadler and Nadler, 2001).

Supporting Fusani’s (1994) finding that the bulk of IMs sent by students are task related, the large majority of the messages were directly related to class assignments and activities (160); however, the general tone of the messages was friendly and polite, much like how one would act if stopping by the office or calling on the phone. The remaining IMs were advising questions (eight) and questions about attending academic conferences (four). Not surprisingly, only one IM was of a purely social nature. Interestingly enough, this message was also sent by the only student — an adult student — who admitted to having technical problems and being new to IM.

Characteristic of the IM culture, most messages were in lower case and with spotty grammar, even when IMing a faculty member. We know this to be the norm in this online environment (Postmes and Roper, 1999). For many IMers, if a person is using upper and lower case and proper grammar all the time, she is often thought of as being a newbie to IM. The other characteristic that is a staple in most IM conversations is the use of acronyms (Theil, 2005). Surprisingly, there were little to no acronyms used in these messages. However, the lack of usage could be because students were contacting a faculty member instead of a friend, which is considered a more formal interaction situation due to the status level of the professor. Danet, et al. (1997) found similar characteristics in IRC. Along those same lines, most of the students identified themselves by name and class name/day and time, and almost all conversations ended with “thanks” and/or “see you in class.” The students’ opening and closing statements suggest a more formal IM structure than they perhaps engage in with their peers, yet seeming to still follow a set of constitutive rules (Searle, 1969) regarding how to communicate via IM with a professor. Another possibility for the lack of acronyms could be that, as the professors, who are older in age and did not grow up with IM as part of their every day worlds, the students might not think we’re Internet savvy enough to understand such jargon.



Personal reflections

Prior to this research, our personal experience with IM was limited; one of us had no experience with IM or online chat at all, while the other had some experience speaking with a family member via Yahoo IM, as well as interacting via chat systems, such as IRC. So, for one of us, the multitasking and using of multiple windows when receiving messages from IMing students, as well as the shorter sentence structure response, was not a difficult adjustment.

For both of us, however, the largest challenge with using IM for virtual office hours was being able to keep all the available communication lines going at the same time. For our own sanity, we both prioritized in–person visits over phone and IM. However, if we were IMing with a student and someone came to our office or tried to call, we would let the student know we were IMing with another student right now and ask him or her to wait. Students were generally amenable to these rules, which is in part, a reflection of the acceptance of the Internet as a norm in these students’ lives.

The other very real possibility is that students were patient with us ...

The other option in IM we did not fully take advantage of was the use of the Away Message. We generally kept to the standard messages, such as “BRB” (be right back) or “in a meeting-back by 1 p.m.” We did not employ Away Messages until the second semester of using IM, however, so there were times when we were away, but left no indication on our IM screen. Thus, the IM a student would send would not be answered immediately. Here again, it seemed as if those who were using IM did not take offense if we did not reply right away, which could be because they were also IMing other individuals, as we have heard is common (Kindred and Roper, 2004) or they were multitasking at the time, so the lack of instant response was not offensive to them. The other very real possibility is that students were patient with us “older” folks, as they assume we’re not Internet savvy enough to understand how to use IM the “right” way.

Though we do not have any hard data to back it up, we both feel, based on personal perceptions, having IM available allowed for more contact with students than if it had not been available. We believe this will continue to be the case, since this is such an acceptable form of communication for the traditional undergraduate student who has never known life without the possibility of IM.



Future research questions

As can be seen from our reflections, our collections of IM messages over the last two years have uncovered some interesting aspects of student–instructor communication via IM. There are many more questions to ask and more formal research to undertake, however.

First, we would like to uncover generally motives of students who choose to IM their instructors and students’ perceptions of communicating with instructors via this medium. This could be accomplished through survey or interview data. How comfortable are students with the idea of using IM to communicate with their professors? What influences a student to use IM to communicate with a professor (if it is not required as part of the course)? Additionally, what causes a student to choose IM over an in–person, e–mail or phone interaction with a faculty member? Hwang (2005) studied motives for IM use among college students and found convenience and social utility were the primary motives (that is, it’s a convenient way to maintain their social contacts). Intuitively, convenience would seem to be a likely reason for students to IM us, but are there other motives as well?

Second, and somewhat related to motives, more information needs to be uncovered regarding who is using IM for instructor–student communication. Does the sex of the professor matter in communicating with that person via IM? We found students would IM us on a regular basis, but would that have been different if we were males? Future research should explore not only the sex of the student and instructor in these exchanges, but also if students and instructors are more likely to use IM to interact if they are proficient and comfortable with the technology. Finally, Jaasma and Koper (1999) found student motivation was positively related to the frequency of office visits, informal contact, length of visits, socializing informally, and overall student satisfaction. With that in mind, do motivated students engage in online OOC communication more than unmotivated students, specifically using IM?

Third, the influence of the relationship between students and instructors and their propensity to use IM should be investigated. Does an established relationship (such as having the professor for a previous course) affect IM use? How does IM use affect the student-teacher relationship? Students who engage in OOC with instructors report having a different type of relationship with that instructor versus those that do not engage in OOC (Dobransky and Frymier, 2004). Dobransky and Frymier found students who take part in OOC report greater perceptions of intimacy and shared control, arguing “when they engage in face–to–face interaction, there is the opportunity for their relationship to become more interpersonal” [6]. Would this be the case if the out-of-class interaction was primarily online, and not face–to–face?

Additionally, do the verbal and nonverbal immediacy cues of the professor influence students’ use of IM to interact with their professors? Jaasma and Koper (1999) found the frequency of office visits as well as the length of these visits was significantly correlated to verbal immediacy, whereas length of office visits was found to correlate to nonverbal immediacy. Overall satisfaction with OOC was significantly correlated to both verbal and nonverbal immediacy (Jaasma and Koper, 1999). In fact, Jaasma and Koper (2002) found students who were satisfied with OOC perceived their instructors to be more verbally and nonverbally immediate.

Finally, more in–depth research could uncover the similarities or differences between the amount, content, and length of interaction of IM OOC and face–to–face or phone OOC. In fact, length of an IM interaction may need to be defined differently than simply minutes, as length of face–to–face interaction is defined. For example, should we consider the amount of time of the entire online exchange, or take other factors into consideration, such as the number of lines, number of entries, and outside influences on the interaction (computer lag time, other students in room/on phone, multitasking while IMing)? Additionally, more investigation into the content of IM exchanges seems warranted, especially since most of the IMs sent by students revolved around course content. In one study, Jones and Johnson–Yale (2005) surveyed over 2,000 faculty and found many believe e–mail and IM to be a “means by which they can continue the educational process outside the classroom” [7].




Much of the information we found confirmed our existing beliefs about IM in terms of student usage with us and the constitutive rules present in online interaction. Over the course of four semesters we have found, for our students, the use of IM as virtual office hours was beneficial and appeared to aid us, as faculty members, in maintaining even more contact with our students outside of class. Since we are a teaching–focused institution which requires a minimum of eight office hours per week per full–time faculty member, this additional means of connecting with our students seems to be a very viable option we can foresee being more integrated at our own institution, as well as other colleges and universities. Online interaction with students, whether it is part of the online course or as a form of out of class communication, seems to be growing as the incoming student population are more and more integrated into this means of communication as a part of their everyday lives. End of article


About the authors

Shannon L. Roper is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her research interests include interpersonal aspects of computer–mediated communication and gender studies.
E–mail: Shannon [dot] Roper [at] marist [dot] edu

Jeannette Kindred is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her research interests include qualitative investigations of online relationships and the use of computer–mediated communication in education.
E–mail: Jeannette [dot] Kindred [at] marist [dot] edu



1. http://www.aim.com/help_faq/starting_out/getstarted.adp.

2. Theil, 2005, p. 179.

3. Danet, et al., 1997, http://jcmc.huji.ac.il/vol2/issue4/danet.html).

4. Jaasma and Koper, 2002, par. 1.

5. Fusani, 1994, p. 248.

6. Dobransky and Frymier, 2004, Discussion section, par. 2.

7. Jones and Johnson–Yale, 2005, p. 7.



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Editorial history

Paper received 11 October 2005; accepted 26 October 2005.
HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, Shannon L. Roper and Jeannette Kindred

'IM here' Reflections on virtual office hours by Shannon L. Roper and Jeannette Kindred
First Monday, volume 10, number 11 (November 2005),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_11/roper/index.html

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