Campus instant messaging

MSN, ICQ, AOL, Yahoo, Skype, the list goes on and on! Instant messaging (IM) has become one of the most popular online services over the last 5 years. From the early days of plain text chat rooms and IRC people have been using the internet to communicate in real time rather than via email. Recently there has been a massive rise in online social networking and more people now use some for of instant messaging service than ever before, research last year showed that 82 million people used instant messaging in Europe alone. With IM being so popular surely there must be a use for it within education?

IT Services have been looking at an open source instant messaging system called Jabber with a view to providing a University wide instant messaging system allowing staff and students to communicate in real time via the web. After lots of testing and with hard work from Web Services to implement the back end systems we are finally ready to deploy this system.

We have decided to use a Jabber client by the name of Spark. While not as feature rich as clients such as MSN messenger or Skype, Spark offers us a great deal of flexibility as it supports an open source plug-in system which means we can develop our own features for it. The back end system is also very flexible and integrates into our network allowing us to use network login for the Spark client.

So what does all this actually mean? Well from September onwards we will be deploying Spark to all computers at the Ormskirk campus and to other areas off site. Users will be able to launch the program from their desktop and login using their usual Edge Hill username and password. Because the system is integrated you can add contacts using their Edge Hill ID so for example I could be added just by typing in goulds in the add contact field. The person you add has to accept your request before you can start sending messages (after all John Cater doesn’t want 4000 people in his contact list pestering him endlessly!).

In our trials it proved a very popular way of keeping in touch for our department as you can get information quickly without the hassle and formality of email and unlike a phone call if the person isn’t around you can see that they are offline or set to away and either leave a message for them to see when they come back or wait until they are available.

I’m quite looking forward to see how Spark performs and what the uptake is like from staff. The new GO portal will also have a jabber plug-in and I can see it being a very popular way for students to communicate with each other. Of course their are implications about its use in classrooms and potential abuse but we will have to take that in our stride as we finally start testing out in the real world.

Here is a preview of what the spark interface looks like, as you can see it’s quite similar in design to popular IM software like MSN and Yahoo Messenger: (click for bigger picture)
Spark client

12 thoughts on “Campus instant messaging

  1. This will be very useful – no more chains of emails sharing tiny bits of info or trying to sort something out like a meeting date – being able to run desktop conversations will make life a little bit easier.

    We’ve satrted a blog for future students called Spark – hope don’t expect technical posts about how the IM system works!

  2. We are putting Spark on all new staff desktops as standard and we will have an installer package available on the network in the next couple of weeks. Once we have the network install available I’ll post the info on here and anyone especially interested in using it can get a head start before we release it to all staff.

  3. How will you limit the use of it, for example if it’s that time of year and students are busy working on assignments and need access to a PC but students are using Spark and chatting to their friends, now as it is a legitimate piece of software on the uni network the students could stay on there keeping those students who need to work off them. Will staff be policing the use of the software at these busy periods.
    Also as files can be transferred using the software how will copyright etc… be handled?
    And finally what are the issues around privacy and data retention.
    Do you as the service provider have to keep a log of all conversations?
    How long will you keep data for?
    Will you be scanning these for any illegal activities which may have to be passed on to the police etc…

  4. Students are able to use Internet Explorer to browse non-course related sites and use Microsoft Word to write letters as well as essays, so the provision of an instant messaging platform on Edge Hill computers is no different to that – it’s a tool with both academic and social uses.

    File transfers have been disabled but for reasons other than copyright.

    We log session information but not messages, for example we will record that I log into the server but not the contents of a message I send. This is similar to current systems such as email. Data will be retained according to current policies.

  5. Jon – We made the decision to add an IM tool to increase communication channels for staff and students. We are aware that for young people in particular IM is more popular than email as a method of communication. It can aid collaborative work and speed up response times so we are confident it will be a welcome addition to our range of services.

    Naturally as with browsers and email it does have the potential to be ‘abused’ but we recognise students multi-task while studying and feel our services should reflect these behaviours and preferences.

    Please don’t hesitate to comment further if you have any more questions.

  6. All universities should offer IMP services to students, teachers and staff. It is already deployed in some universities, but the move has got to go on.

    Here is an example of a french university, in Nantes, a city in the west of France, were they user a modified version of Pandion as the official client, Jeti in the webmail, and jabberd2 as the server.

    Follow the tutorials, they are well done.


  7. Pingback:   Edge Hill y su proyecto de IM by Saturn Attacks

  8. Wow it’s brilliant to see a lot of discussion going on in relation to our plans for the Instant Messaging system. That information from Nantes is very interesting, thanks Nÿco!

    IM is a very important service for a lot of people these days and I think that all Universities should be looking at how then can use this technology to help with the education of their students. There are also a lot of benefits available to staff from a system like this, we recently had a successful case where a new member of staff was appointed following an interview using voice and video over MSN.

    Our international students also make good use of IM technology to keep in touch with their friends and family back home and we really want to encourage this and see what we can do to provide facilities like this for them.

  9. Pingback: Technical Services » Instant Messenger

  10. Thank you for a fantastic tool. I currently use MSN for our online students now that I have I can integrate it with contacting my colleagues across the campus too.
    Does anyone know if we can have it installed on laptops?

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