The Excelsior College OWL: Bringing Writing Instruction to Life

Author Information
Author(s): 
Crystal Sands
Author(s): 
Darren Walsh
Author(s): 
Michelle Abeyta
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Excelsior College
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a national, open-source online writing lab that is the first of its kind in the United States. With national and institutional research on the struggles of beginning writers in mind, the OWL team set out to develop an online learning area that would support writers as they transitioned to college writing and beyond. The OWL features eight learning areas: Locating Information & Writing with Sources, Writing Process, Argument & Critical Thinking, Grammar Essentials, the Essay Zone, Digital Writing, Avoiding Plagiarism, and the ESL Writing Online Workshop. The OWL also includes a writing process video game that provides students with the chance to learn important writing vocabulary and practice with the writing process in an engaging game environment. The team developed a cutting-edge website using HTML5 responsive design to build a learning resource for any student at any institution that would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and would render responsively on their computers, tablets, or phone. While other online writing resources are text-based or offer only flash-based multimedia content, the Excelsior College OWL is unique in that it was built from scratch to provide seamlessly-integrated multimedia content that would work on a variety of devices.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

The Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a national, open-source online writing lab that is the first of its kind in the United States. With national and institutional research on the struggles of beginning writers in mind, the OWL team set out to develop an online learning area that would support writers as they transitioned to college writing and beyond.
Businesses in the United States are reporting problems in college graduates’ communication skills, and most college students are graduating without the writing skills necessary for them to succeed in the workforce. The National Commission on Writing notes that American companies spend over $3 billion each year providing their employees with training in writing. Additionally, recent surveys of American employers indicate that writing is considered a threshold skill for many positions and for position advancement, yet these same employers report disappointment in the writing skills of their recent college graduates.

The award-winning Excelsior College OWL is bringing writing instruction to life for students struggling with writing and seeking to make a difference with this national issue.

The OWL features eight learning areas: Locating Information & Writing with Sources, Writing Process, Argument & Critical Thinking, Grammar Essentials, the Essay Zone, Digital Writing, Avoiding Plagiarism, and the ESL Writing Online Workshop. The OWL also includes a writing process video game, Paper Capers, that provides students with the chance to learn important writing vocabulary and practice with the writing process in an engaging game environment.

The team developed a cutting-edge website using HTML5 responsive design to build a learning resource for any student at any institution that would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and would render responsively on their computers, tablets, or phone. While other online writing resources are text-based or offer only flash-based multimedia content, the Excelsior College OWL is unique in that it was built from scratch to provide seamlessly integrated multimedia content that would work on a variety of devices.

But, the OWL is more than just its responsive design. The programming features state-of-the-art multimedia activities that engage learners and help them experience and practice important writing concepts in authentic ways. Content is presented in multiple formats to accommodate different learning preferences while using best practices in instructional design and education technology resulting in a truly immersive user experience.

For example, armed with research about best practices in grammar instruction, the OWL team developed the programming and content for interactive drag and drop activities in the Grammar Essentials area of the OWL that allows students to interact with text by dragging and dropping the correct punctuation into passages with errors. The OWL also features video support for lessons, interactive quizzes, narrated Prezis, interactive sample essays, and user-friendly, visual support for documentation styles.

Unlike other open-source writing resources, the Excelsior College OWL includes scaffolded lessons on important concepts and never sends users to different sites or areas for the multimedia content. Each lesson of the OWL includes multimedia content that is built right into the site, making for a better experience for students and ensuring that important lessons are reinforced. Since students are unlikely to visit outside sites and follow links when engaged in lessons, the EC OWL ensures the multimedia lessons are right at students’ fingertips. The OWL was also designed with visual appeal in mind: The colors are vibrant; images are supportive of content; and multimedia activities provide learning opportunities for students that appeal to visual, aural, and kinesthetic learners.

Memes and popular culture references are also used to help create a warm, engaging learning environment. Students are able to practice with important writing activities in an environment that is both safe and fun. The feedback in quiz activities is also encouraging, and a practical approach to topics can help make learning fun for beginning writers. Users can go in at their own pace to try activities and quizzes and find out it is acceptable to make mistakes, as this is how we all learn.

The Excelsior College OWL is also unique in that this resource is completely free, and, even though it was released in early 2014, is already being used by high schools, colleges, and universities across the country. National research indicates that people who write well are more likely to be hired and more likely to be promoted. The OWL team at Excelsior College has built an open-source resource that has the potential to change lives by helping students become better writers.

The Excelsior College OWL is a website that is open to anyone. It was developed to be easy to navigate and to provide scaffolded writing instruction that would support beginning writers. The OWL is designed in such a way that it can be used by area, making it possible to replace costly textbooks, or by page, meaning mini lessons can be used to supplement existed curriculum.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The Excelsior College OWL has been studied not only at the institutional level but also at the national level. As a part of the development grant, Excelsior College worked with an independent research team to design a study to determine the OWL’s effectiveness for students, in both online and traditional classrooms. The study involved students at Excelsior College as well as students at community colleges in New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, and Maryland. The results of the study were powerful and showed that students in treatment groups, who were using the OWL for support, scored 6.6 points on their final grades than students in the control groups, who did not have access to the OWL.

Moreover, students in the study reported enjoying using the OWL and greater improvement in their attitudes toward writing. In an assessment of metacognitive awareness of writing process, students in treatment groups improved more than students in the control groups in six of the seven areas assessed. In an assessment of final-product essays, students in the treatment groups show greater improvement in three of the five areas assessed.

Analysis is currently underway for a second study conducted at the state level in New York. While data is still be analyzed, faculty members who participated in the study report they will be using the OWL again in their courses in the upcoming year and will be working to bring the OWL to their entire programs.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Access

The Excelsior College OWL is completely free and open to any student across the United States and around the world. It is an open-source resource from top to bottom. Because the OWL is on the web and open-access, many students, teachers, and institutions have already began using the OWL to support learning in classrooms and programs. Currently, schools as diverse as MIT, Valencia Community College, and John Bapst Memorial High School are using the OWL to help bring engaging writing support to their students.

And, because the OWL was built using HTML5 responsive design, students can access the OWL from their phones, tablets, or computers from anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day.

The OWL can be linked to or embedded right into online courses and websites using an iframe code and instructions provided in the Instructor Handbook, located in the OWL site.

Faculty Satisfaction

The national study conducted in 2013 and 2014 and a New York statewide study conducted in 2014 and 2015 reveal a high level of faculty satisfaction with this open-source resource. All faculty members involved in both studies report continued use of the OWL in their classrooms, with over 90 percent of faculty members involved in the study actively working to expand the use of the OWL at their home institutions and beyond.

For example, two program directors from community colleges in New York State will be using the OWL in faculty training and in program-wide curriculum beginning in fall 2015. Another faculty member involved in a study currently works to share the OWL as a resource within the Puente Program, a statewide program in California for student success.

Faculty members have noted the OWL for is comprehensive nature, warm approach to student support, and engaging multimedia activities. Faculty members across the United States are now preparing beginning writing course curricula using the OWL as a replacement for costly textbooks.

One faculty member involved in the study said it best in an end-of-study survey, writing, “[T]he OWL invites us to relax. We are safe to have fun AND learn at the same time. This subtle invitation tricks students to click deeper into the site. There is no intimidation here, which frees up the mental capacity to learn.”

Learning Effectiveness

As noted earlier, independent, national research on the Excelsior College OWL indicates that students are responding well to the approach the OWL team has taken with this resource. In surveys from the national study, 88 percent of students reported the OWL helped them improve their writing, and additional research from the study indicates students’ perceptions are correct, as students have had measurable success when using the OWL.

In the independent study, students in treatment groups scored 6.6 points higher on their final grades in beginning writing courses than students in control groups. The study also found that students in the treatment groups outperformed students in control groups in six of seven categories assessed during a metacognitive assessment activity designed to measure thinking related to writing skill transfer.

Scale

Because the OWL is a free web-based resource, the potential for use and repeated success with the OWL is limitless. As noted, anyone is free to use the OWL’s resources in live classrooms, online classrooms, and supporting websites. The OWL team currently focuses much of its work on spreading the word about this resource and has recently completed a faculty handbook for using the OWL, complete with model curriculum and teaching strategies. The Excelsior College OWL has limitless potential to improve learning and save students money at the same time.

Student Satisfaction

Students in both a usability study and a national study reported finding the Excelsior College OWL helpful in supporting their writing processes and in providing clear, engaging examples of work that they felt was directly related to the work in their courses in college. In surveys from the national study, students using the OWL showed greater improvements in their attitudes toward writing than students who were not using the OWL. Moreover, 91 percent of students surveyed reported overall satisfaction with the OWL, and 92 percent of students felt the multimedia tutorials in the OWL were helpful

But, perhaps, students can say it best. One student in the national study reported that the Excelsior College OWL “feels like it is on our side, unlike other educational resources.” Another student using the OWL in a writing class at Excelsior reported, “I found the Excelsior College OWL to be an advantageous resource for the preparation of writing projects and during the writing process itself…I have found this resource to be more user-friendly than similar resources from other universities and have used it exclusively. It is an AWESOME resource!”

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Because the OWL is web based and developed in HTML5 responsive design, it works well on any computer, tablet, or smartphone. The Excelsior College OWL was designed with modern students in mind, and therefore, is easy to use on any device.

Content from the OWL is also supported with an app for the Paper Capers writing process game, providing students with an additional opportunity to improve their knowledge of writing. Paper Capers is available as a free app at Google Play and the Apple Store. This stand-alone app reinforces important lessons about writing process, rhetorical awareness, and writing fundamentals from the OWL.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

One thing that makes the Excelsior College OWL so unique is that this media-rich, engaging resource is free to students, teachers, and schools across the country. In fact, as opposed to costing anything, the OWL actually saves students a substantial amount of money through the elimination of writing textbooks and handbooks.

In fact, at Excelsior College, the OWL has replaced the textbook in English 101, saving students over $150,000 over the course of a year. Faculty at other colleges also use the OWL to replace textbooks, and several community colleges in New York and California are working on curriculum plans to use the OWL as a textbook program wide. As the OWL team continues to share and grow this resource, the number of faculty using the OWL to replace textbooks is expected to grow.

The OWL is also being used as free support materials for writing centers across the country, as tutors are using the OWL to help reinforce lessons learned from individual tutoring sessions.

References, supporting documents: 

Reference Information for Faculty Using and Sharing the OWL:

Christie Allred, San Diego Mesa Community College, callred@sdccd.edu

Elizabeth Johnston, Monroe Community College, ejohnston@monroecc.edu

Other Comments: 

A copy of the independent study of the OWL is available if needed. The file was too large to submit with the application, but we would love to share it if there is an interest. Thank you so much!

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Crystal Sands
Email this contact: 
crystal_sands@excelsior.edu
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Darren Walsh
Email contact 2: 
dwalsh@excelsior.edu