Adios AIM: Tool to Create Constructive Virtual Presence

Adios AIM: Tool to Create Constructive Virtual Presence

AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) silently ceased to exist on December 15th, and most of the tech pundits I heard appeared to either be happy to see it go or spoke of the service with low regard. I mark this passing from a different set of experiences.

When I got my Master’s degree online in 2002 and later when I worked on my doctorate in 2005, AIM was my life-blood and for at least the decade following it was how I stayed connected to my friends and classmates who were spread across the world. Long hours working on projects on my computer at any hour of any day, having an open chat window gave me a sense of presence with my friends who were also engaged in similar endeavors across the whole world. Unlike previous academic experiences, listening to hours long monologues in crowded impersonal lecture halls with virtually no connections to those around me, because of AIM & AOL chat rooms, I spent hours with my friends during our group lecture sessions, exchanging snarky comments and quips, which didn’t belong in the main session. I came to appreciate the powerful social component in a meaningful learning experience using AIM and AOL chat rooms. I even employed AOL chat rooms when we were all sitting in the same physical classroom. I first did this during my Master’s program, and the five of us who met in our own AOL chat room for our weekly full-class session bonded in a way that I have never experienced in all of my years as a student. We called ourselves the Back-row and we’ve remained good friends 15-years after our graduation. I can’t say that about the other five universities I’ve attended or graduated from.

Too often pundits demean technologies because they cannot see a rational use of said technologies. My experiences with virtual learning communities via AIM/AOL chat rooms was strong enough that when I began teaching online at the Master’s level I required that my students post their AIM handles and as part of the curriculum 30% of their grade was based on their level of interaction/posting meaningful comments on each other’s work. Others may dismiss AIM/AOL chat rooms as something that was used by teens trying to work around parents monitoring their phone use, but I used it as a tool to create and support learning communities that significantly helped my students during their Master’s degree program.

Alas, the world has gone mobile and while I can still communicate with anyone at anytime via the powerful online tools and communities that are currently available, there’s something missing now that I don’t depend on having a list of those online floating on a part of my computer screen whom I could chat with via a single click on their avatar. We have better tools that allow for full audio and video connections (remember AIM was entirely text-based and having great speed at typing was an advantage), but I rarely feel like I have my virtual pals on the ready just one click away. I guess the closest experience would be Slack. Close, but not the same.

I put “Constructive Virtual Presence” in the title because I’m aware that there’s an element of real-time “virtual presence” possible with FaceBook and FaceBook messenger, but everything else (distractions) about FaceBook makes it such a time-suck that I feel like FaceBook hinders more than helps when it comes to creating virtual connections and communities. It’s a necessary evil, but again, more of a hinderance than a help. Adios AIM, thanks for helping me experience the real power of learning with friends spread across the whole earth. Despite the dismissive comments of others, you helped change my life.


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