IMEJ main Wake Forest University Homepage Search articles Archived volumes Table of Content of this issue

1. OWL History & Evolution
2. The Integrated OWL at Elizabeth City State University
3. Using the OWL as an Instructional Tool
3.1 The OWL as Collaborative Tool for Student Peer Review
3.2 The OWL as a Grading Tool
3.3 The Owl as a Pedagogical Tools for Different Learning Styles
4. Statistical Evidence of the Use & Effectiveness of an OWL Experiment
5. Conclusion


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The Online Writing Lab (OWL) and the Forum: A Tool for Writers in Distance Education Environments
Karl Terryberry, Daemen College

Many colleges and universities have an online writing lab (OWL), yet many different species of OWLs exist, and some serve students better than others. For example, on some campuses, instructors have transferred many of their course handouts into HTML documents and uploaded them onto the department web pages on the main server. This attempt at creating an OWL works well if instructors only need to re-establish class materials in rich, electronic format or in a multimedia presentation; it works poorly as an OWL if students need some type of feedback or interaction.  Other OWLs include an email address in conjunction with these static web pages, and through email messaging, students can submit papers for feedback or ask questions of tutors or instructors. This type of OWL may work well for asynchronous communication, but it is difficult for the instructor to maintain quality control and manageability of documents as questions are submitted. Email messages, if they are to be reviewed later, must be saved on already crowded email servers; more important, instructors have no way of assessing the responses of tutors, checking the work of tutors, or chronicling the students' progressions. Consequently, static web pages and email services do not make an effective OWL. I propose integrating the web pages with web courseware to take advantage of threaded discussion groups that offer quality control over asynchronous environments and collaborative learning environments that writing students need.

My article demonstrates how to integrate the static web pages with the dynamic forum for an effective learning experience on the OWL. I explain, through recent research, why asynchronous feedback provides effective, individualized writing instruction to students with various learning styles and how collaborative learning is fostered through threaded discussion groups. The article then offers strategies for offering written feedback to students in discussion group environments by combining instructional material from the static web pages on the department's OWL. These include using text-editing tools from word processing programs, pasting web links into papers for instructional connections, and integrating screen-capture videos of sentence revision strategies.

About the author...

1. OWL History and Evolution
Writing support programs and English departments first established OWLs to help distribute principles of writing in web formats. Many began as nothing more than abbreviated, hypertext composition textbooks that the students already owned in hard copy. Ultimately, this kind of OWL provided a good starting point for students to acclimate themselves to the academic uses of the web. For administrators, the OWL became a tool to raise an institution's status in learning and local communities, making in-roads into high schools and community writing groups. Now, the OWL has become an indispensable tool in academic support services and an effective tool for instruction.

As the use of the web grows with an increase in Distance Learning courses and an increase in bandwidth (Moursund, 1997), students are becoming dependent on the OWL, seeing it as a place to perform a variety of tasks associated with their writing assignments. It has become a place to receive instruction concerning writing problems, a launching pad to begin research with links to databases and information warehouses, a library to gather format specifications from style manuals, a reference tool that houses electronic editions of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and thesauri, and even a support tool that provides guidelines that help incoming students who need direction with study habits. To writing instructors, these devices may not be pedagogically effective, but the collaborative element of the OWL can help students realize that writing is a process and their writing becomes more effective if approached in stages. Such effective instruction can be developed through an OWL that offers students editorial feedback from professional or peer writing tutors or writing instructors.

2. The Integrated OWL at Elizabeth City State University
By integrating web pages with web courseware, writing instructors can take advantage of threaded discussion groups that offer quality control over asynchronous environments and promote collaborative learning environments that writing students need. Creating such an OWL requires utilizing a threaded discussion group, Forum, or web board software within a course management system as an editorial device. In a two-year experiment conducted on the use and effectiveness of an OWL at Elizabeth City State University (University of North Carolina), I used a course management system (Web Course in a Box) housed on a web-server running on an NT operating system that allows users to view course materials and interact with them via a web-browser.

Sample pages in a courseware to demonstrate the integration of the two dimensions of the OWL to employ paper exchange (within a threaded discussion group, not email) and instructional pages.

3. Using the OWL as an Instructional Tool
3.1 The OWL as Collaborative Tool for Student Peer Review
The decision to integrate the OWL with tutorial services derives from the success of collaborative learning techniques in the traditional writing classroom (Pea, 1993). In all of my traditional writing classes, I ask that students serve as editors in organized workshops when working through their drafts. Here, students work together, in groups or in pairs, exchanging papers and searching out a set of writing problems or successes. For example, in one session I may ask the editors to search out forms of passive voice and then work with authors to eliminate these, when appropriate. Other sessions can focus on issues of organization, grammar, style, or mechanics. If a problem arises out of this technique, it involves the process of building a consistent framework for criticizing the work of others. Some student editors, working in close proximity to the authors, often feel that being critical means being ruthlessly derogatory or painfully honest. Other editors may not want to intimidate other students or send messages about their academic superiority. Additionally, some students who do not have a full grasp of the concepts being edited dodge the challenge of editing. They do not want to reveal their weaknesses, and as a result, they glance over the paper and return it unmarked, often accompanied with the comment, "Sounds good to me." Such problems defeat the purpose of collaborative learning, but the Forum (threaded discussion group, or the "shark tank" as some have described it), I have found, allows anonymity in its electronic environment. Students feel uninhibited in their editing, and they learn that criticism, when not confrontational in a face-to-face environment, can easily be constructive.

3.2 The OWL as a Grading Tool
As students become accustomed to working as editors with their classmates, the instructor should understand the teaching benefits of this environment as well. With the integration of instructional pages and the Forum, the OWL becomes the place where instructors can most effectively teach writing to a student population that possesses a variety of learning styles. Using any modern word processing program, instructors can edit, mark, correct, or revise in color-coded comments, allowing students to easily see their mistakes by grouping similar mistakes in particular colors. Such a practice benefits today's visually dominant learners because they can then see their errors stand out across the page. For example, I highlight incomplete sentences and major grammatical errors in red, as has been tradition, but I mark stylistic problems, such as sentence variation problems or redundancy in blue. Organizational issues, usually paragraphs, are marked in yellow. Likewise, when I build the OWL as an integrated part of the writing experience, I use corresponding colors to build each dimension of the web site. For example, all instructional pages highlighting sentence construction and grammar issues are built with red text banners to correspond with the highlighting feature on the students' papers. Visual learners can now see their paper in color-coded fashion, which helps them edit specific charges.

A sample essay (Microsoft Word Document, 30 KB) marked in color-coded comments.

For easy reference, the OWL's instructional pages are arranged, like writing textbooks, according to sections addressing principles of writing.   A well-integrated OWL allows instructors to toggle easily between the instructional elements of the OWL and the collaborative element. For example, when I collaborate with students on the Forum, I open the OWL in my web browser in addition to opening the students' papers on the web-course Forum. Multi-tasking on my desktop allows me to toggle from the paper to the OWL and to the paper again to provide feedback. When students demonstrate a consistent error, they receive from me color-coded text highlighting the problem, a short message about the problem in brackets, and then a web address that links the problem in the text to the OWL. The coding and the comments can be brief as the web link provides a full explanation and gives the student direct access to instructional pages and exercises to solve problems through a self-directed study.

For example, students who demonstrate a consistent problem with sentence fragments will see their mistake marked in red, along with an identifying commentary from an instructor or tutor. They will be able to click on the web address that links them to the OWL's web pages (in red) and explains the characteristics of the sentence fragment and demonstrates how to correct it.

Employing screen-capture for instructional purposes among instructors, tutors, and peer editors provides another dimension of visual instruction as well. Short "movies" can be created on the OWL's instructional pages to demonstrate editing skills, sentence formation, reorganization of paragraphs, or any revision strategy that a writer can employ. For the student seeking individualized instruction, these movies can also be linked into the students' documents. In either case, screen capture "movies" can be an effective collaborative-learning tool in this environment.

Although some students find this service valuable, not all use it effectively. Only ten percent of all students used the OWL regularly for tutorial purposes in its first two years of operation. Some students are looking for proofreading services that correct problems for them while others attempt to avoid participation because of a variety of factors. In response, I encourage students in a traditional classroom to use it as a supplemental instruction tool. Conversely, I demand participation from all students taking writing courses in distance learning environments, or in "stand alone" courses, and I subsequently transfer class participation grades in the traditional setting to Forum participation grades. With all students actively involved, I can act as supervisor of editorial comments, exerting quality control over the comments of other students or over the comments of tutorial staff. Furthermore, papers are saved in a threaded discussion group on the server allowing instructors to retrace the editorial steps a student makes, checking back over drafts submitted or changes suggested by others. As an instructor, this means being dutifully involved, checking submissions and comments to the Forum regularly, all of which requires an additional commitment of time, but it allows the instructor to manage and monitor student progress and exert some control over external factors that effect students' writing.

A sample movie (AVI, ~7 MB).

3.3 The Owl as a Pedagogical Tools for Different Learning Styles
The shifting role of the OWL corresponds with the changes in the population of college students and the institutions' willingness to meet the population's demands. Judith Boettcher, from the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking, sees modern colleges and universities "focusing on students as active participants in the learning process" ("The Shift," 50) and demonstrates that "instructors need to package information to meet the varying learning styles of students" ("21st Century," 18). Asynchronous environments, provided by the OWL and the Forum, allow instructors to individualize writing instruction and cater to the specific learning styles of various students. Supporting this idea is Sarah McCormick who cites a study by Michigan State University indicating that within the last thirty years, student preferences in learning have changed. A population that was once audio-dominant in learning style is now 69% visual-dominant (McCormick, 1999, 55). Sarasin (1998) demonstrates that some people rely on various stimuli to build an understanding of new concepts: some use visual input, some use auditory, some use tactile input, and some people require kinetics or movement in order to build an understanding of new concepts. If different people use different mechanisms to learn, then improved learning can result by matching a student's learning style with the appropriate instructional methods (Claxton & Murrell, 1987). If learners can identify their own individual learning styles, they can develop strategies to foster understanding of course content, and instructors can learn how to work more effectively (Kaml, 2001). Although Merriam and Caffarella (1999) cite a lack of uniformity regarding what constitutes a learning style, they emphasize that having an awareness of learning styles helps both learners and instructors become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. As students and instructors recognize personal learning styles, they can both enhance the learning process, making it more enjoyable, and consequently more effective (Bonham, 1989). Ultimately, such research calls attention to the fact that various students learn through various styles, and new technology might best serve to accommodate students who prefer a multimedia platform for learning. [For further reading, see also O'Conner, T. (2000). CTL Learning Styles Site.]

An external link to CTL Learning Styles

New technology gives students new ways to interact with each other, and collaborative learning environments such as Forums or threaded discussion groups build communication bridges between students and between students and instructors. Recent research conclusions demonstrate that collaborative learning environments, such as the integrated OWL, establish electronic learning communities that foster communication and serve as motivational tools (Dede, 1996).

4. Statistical Evidence of the Use and Effectiveness of an OWL Experiment
Over a two-year period, those students working in first-year composition courses addressed the following issues with the tutorial staff through the OWL:

26% stylistic errors.
29% grammatical errors.
32% organizational errors.
13% research and documentation errors.

In the same two-year period, students working in upper-division writing courses addressed the following issues with the tutorial staff through the OWL:

38% stylistic errors.
38% grammatical errors.
19% organizational errors.
6% documentation or research errors.

At the end of each semester, students who used the OWL were polled to assess the value of their experiences using the OWL. Based on a response rate of 85% (250 surveys submitted; 213 returned) over the span of two years, the results were positive. Ultimately, students who worked with tutorial staff across the OWL's threaded-discussion groups and through the OWL's instructional devices experienced an increase in paper grades of an average of one letter grade, or a 25% increase.

5.  Conclusion
The asynchronous environment of electronic forums allows for effective collaboration between students, editors, instructors, and tutors and provides writing instructors with control over the quality of information exchanged. Additionally, the Forum, or threaded-discussion group, when housed on a separate server, should provide more space to store various editions of student documents or large instructional devices such as screen-capture video. The Forum has become the focus of my distance learning courses, and it has become the support tool that I need for traditional classes. The OWL that integrates the Forum with instructional web pages manages a wealth of information for dynamic and effective instruction.

6. References
Boettcher, J. (1999). The shift from a teaching to a learning paradigm.
Syllabus, 13.1, 50-51.

Boettcher, J. (1999). 21st century teaching and learning patterns: What will we see? Syllabus, 12.10, 18-24.

Bonham, L. A. (1989). Using Learning Style Information, Too. In E. Hayes (Ed.), Effective Teaching Style (pp. 29-40). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Claxton, C. S. & Murrell, P. H. (1987). Learning Styles. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education.

Dede, C. (1996). The evolution of distance education: Emerging technologies and distributed learning. The American Journal of Distance Education, 10.2, 4-36.

Kaml, Craig. (2001). Faculty development efforts in support of web-based distance education among the schools of education within the University of North Carolina system. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, East Carolina University, Greenville.

McCormick, Sarah. (1999). The case for visual media in learning. Syllabus, 13.1, 55-57.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R., S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mourusund, D. (1997). The future of information technology in education. Learning and Leading with Technology, 25.1, 4-5.

Pea, R. (1993). Seeing what we build together: Distributed multimedia learning environments for transformative communications. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3.3, 285-299.

Sarasin, L. C. (1998). Learning Style Perspectives-Impact in the Classroom. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

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IMEJ multimedia team member assigned to this paper Yue-Ling Wong