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