Ever tried chatting on the trusty old IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and came away feeling slightly sobered and unimpressed? Online chatting has come a long way since the early days. Three mighty peer-to peer-messaging applications ICQ, MS Messenger and Yahoo Chat now rule the realm.
Chat Gets Serious
IRC chat, plagued by massive Net splits (service dropouts), endemic lag (response delay) and a rather arcane command line interface has lost ground over the last few years. With the advent of P2P software, also known as "buddy programs", chatting has become 'serious' business. These days everyone has free access to professional, high capacity chat services. They interface with fully featured software applications and the Web. What the Mighty Three offer us is much more than a range simple text chat tools - these are full-blown peer-to-peer 'communication clients'.
So who are the mighty three? ICQ ("I seek you"), Microsoft Messenger and Yahoo Chat globally support vast chat communities grouped by interest, as well as providing many families, friends and even businesses and organisations with a convenient way of communicating on the Net. Due to the ubiquity of these programs there are also opportunities to make use of them in the delivery of online training.
Trying Them Out
The mighty three are in constant competition with each other. Consequently differences in features and capabilities have become almost marginal, with ICQ possibly being slightly ahead of the pack in terms of innovation. You may wish try each one out and choose the one with the interface that personally appeals to you most. Or even better, install them all and have all your real time chat options covered when the need arises.
So where can you get them?
MS Messenger: Automatically installed with Internet Explorer
Yahoo Messenger: http://messenger.yahoo.com
(If you're not sure about downloading software, check out our Software Banks article for more information).
Installation and Configuration
Once you have downloaded and installed your P2P program it is time to set yourself up as a user so that others can find you. After having done this, all three applications provide a way of adding friends, family and associates to your 'buddy list'. In future people on this list will show as being online or offline. A central server keeps track of the status of all users. All three programs have a variety of settings that allow you to customise exactly how you'd like to appear to other users, what they are permitted to do when contacting you and whether you'd like to be listed in any public chat directories or not. If you intend to only chat privately and don't want the intrusion of people randomly initiating chats, it's best to adjust your settings accordingly. All three programs are strong on privacy so it simply a matter of customising the settings as you like.
As mentioned before, the programs are not confined to one-on-one text chatting alone. The option to conference in real time with several users simultaneously is also available. Additionally a range of generic interactive peer functions is provided:
- Notification when others are available for chat
- Sending and receiving files in real time (File Sharing, music, photos etc.)
- Initiating audio calls (computer to computer or Computer to telephone)
- Browsing the Web together
- Sending and notification you of new e-mail
- Sending messages to mobile phones (SMS messaging) or pagers
- Integration with free web based services such as diary, calendar, file storage, address book and the like.
To take advantage of audio communications, such as voice telephony, make sure your computer's sound card, microphone and speakers are enabled and properly adjusted. Volume and microphone settings on a Windows computer are normally available from the little speaker icon residing in the tray at the bottom right of your screen. You may also have to run the 'audio setup wizard' of the program concerned to ensure that sound is working correctly. While computer-to-computer audio calls are free, computer to phone telephony services are not. Normally cheaper than Australian carriers, you'll have to set up an account with credit first before making such calls.
In order to be able to easily locate received music, photos or documents while communicating with your online peers, it is advisable to configure a location, such as a special directory or the Desktop in the program settings.
If you are concerned about personal details such as phone numbers and addresses being made public, don't provide such details when you set the options of your peer-to-peer client. Double-check your chat profile and security settings and you're quite safe from unwelcome contact.An e-moderator tool?
Once you've learnt the ropes you'll begin to see the potentialities that P2P chat offers when it comes to online learning. The programs offer advanced chat features such as inbuilt emoticons, active hyperlinks and the option to format text to your liking. This makes P2P chat a powerful alternative to most web-based chat clients commonly in use in Australian online training systems. The capability to record a log of your 'conversation' is a particularly useful feature when it comes to interviews and online assessment. Add to this the ability to exchange digital content, such as documents, recorded lectures as well as telephony and you have one of the most advanced all-purpose communication tools currently available on the Net.
Is it suitable for all students? That depends. In our experience it is a generational issue. The younger the student the more successful your use of P2P in online delivery is likely to be. Due to the fast-paced, evolution and newness of these applications very little formal research exists. Could this be your next LearnScope project? Now there's a challenge!