With the explosion of instant messaging (IM) as an alternative to eMail, school technologists foresee a number of educational applications for IM designed to give computer users simple, immediate access to a wide range of information—from homework help to what’s on the school lunch menu.

About 61 million people, or roughly half the online population, use instant messaging, according to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. Teens in particular have joined IM networks, prizing the ability to engage in flurries of instantaneous conversation with a selected list of online friends.

Now, “automated buddies” are cropping up, giving marketers an innovative way to reach consumers online. Automated buddies are a new concept that developers say will take IM in a new direction, allowing people not only to communicate with designated friends, but also to pose queries to a computer.

“We all want to believe we can ask a computer a question and get an answer,” said Peter Levitan, chief executive of ActiveBuddy Inc., a New York start-up developing the new IM buddies. Levitan says his company has not targeted the education market yet, but he believes school districts could benefit from using ActiveBuddy’s personalized “agents.”

The advantage of creating an IM agent for a specific subject, explained Levitan, is that users can ask a question and have the computer deliver the answer directly from a database.

The corporate world already has begun to embrace the potential of these “buddies” for instant messaging.

Capitol Records recently commissioned an automated buddy called GooglyMinotaur to answer fans’ questions about the rock band Radiohead. The Radiohead buddy will help Capitol reach a rabidly enthusiastic, internet-savvy fan base, said Robin Bechtel, head of new media for the record label.

The buddies are programmed to understand and answer a limited range of “natural language” sentences, written the way people tend to speak naturally. That capability is analogous to the internet search engine AskJeeves.com, which fields natural-language questions and “answers” by supplying links to other web sites.

Active Buddy’s search agents, or “bots,” operate in a narrower scope, only answering questions about a specified knowledge domain.

But, unlike some natural-language software that creates answers based on a computer’s recognition of keywords, ActiveBuddy’s programmers have created a computer script able to recognize phrases and sentence patterns, even when the same query is posed in different ways.

Computer users also will be able to communicate with ActiveBuddy bots in a shorthand format. For example, instead of asking “What movies are playing in zip code 24508?” a user could enter “movies” and “24508” and get the same listing.

Those shortcuts could get a workout, as school officials and consumers make greater use of IM on handheld computers and other wireless devices where extensive typing is more difficult, Levitan said.

“There’s also the potential to do outbound messaging, so we could send [instant messages] out to parents,” said Levitan. He said ActiveBuddy is waiting to hear from interested users, at which time the company either will build this application for them or provide them with software to build it for themselves.

Automated buddies could take IM to another level, said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services at Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan.

“Rather than a specific query application for each environment, an active buddy could be your query tool for any environment—and [because] it’s coming straight from a database, the response is nearly instantaneous,” he said.

“Public information offices should love the ‘automated buddy’ concept,” added Michael Parrish, distance learning coordinator for Guilford, N.C., County Schools.

In Guilford, a team worked for six months to create an organizational scheme for the information on the district’s new web site, Parrish said.

“The challenge was to think of how many different ways a patron might be looking for something. Schools refer to ‘child nutrition,’ while parents think of ‘lunch menus.’ This technology exponentially expands the range of questions that could be answered through a one-stop mechanism,” he said.

The technology might even have some specific educational applications in the future, according to Emily Lenzner, director of public relations for ActiveBuddy.

“One of our thoughts was to do something like a ‘study buddy,'” she said. “And one of the early demos of the technology a year ago was flashcards. These could actually quiz the kids, and the students would reply with an answer.”

Maribeth Luftglass, chief information officer for Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, said she sees a possible benefit of this new technology in online courses.

“Right now we are [offering] an online creative writing course, and the teacher has students from 14 different high schools,” she said.

That teacher has electronic “office hours” during which students can ask questions and get feedback, said Luftglass, but an automated buddy tailored for creative writing could be a great source of information for online students, especially when the instructor is offline.

“As we move toward more and more online courses, I see this as a viable way for parents and students to keep the lines of communication open,” said Luftglass.

So far, ActiveBuddy programmers have built 4,647 questions into the software powering GooglyMinotaur, whose launch is being promoted by Capitol Records on its Radiohead web site.

Developers have built the ActiveBuddy service to handle any IM protocol; Capitol Records uses America Online’s IM service.

ActiveBuddy is one of the few companies capable of building these interactive agents, Levitan said. But the company expects to release a software package that allows users to build their own agents by late this year or first quarter of 2002.

ActiveBuddy, with $10.6 million in financing, is backed primarily by Reuters Group PLC and investment banking firm Wit SoundView Group.