Purpose – The purpose of this research is to determine whether instruction would be welcomed by instant messaging (IM)/chat users, whether instruction is possible in this medium, whether it can be effectively provided, and if the use of co-browsing enhances learning.
Design/methodology/approach – Two studies were conducted in which IM/chat reference transcripts were analyzed and patron surveys collected. This research paper compares results from these studies, the first based on use of text-only IM software, the second using commercial chat software with a co-browse feature.
Findings – Findings indicate that patrons welcome instruction, whether they ask for it or not, and are satisfied with chat/IM as an instructional medium. Librarians usually provide instruction, though they are more likely to do so if patrons ask for it, directly or indirectly. Co-browsing was used little and did not increase the amount of instruction provided. Patron question format had an impact on the likelihood of co-browsing. Despite a high rate of technical difficulties, co-browsing was very well received by survey respondents.
Practical implications – Findings suggest more training on the importance of instruction in virtual reference is needed.
Originality/value – Providing instruction via reference is an established practice at the physical reference desk, yet few studies of instruction in virtual reference have been conducted and none on co-browsing as an instructional tool. This study addresses the need for research on instruction in the virtual reference environment.