Excelsior’s Online Writing Lab is successful because it links pedagogy with multimedia that engages, not just entertains

Excelsior-College-online-writing-labEarlier this month, Excelsior College launched a highly interactive, media-rich Online Writing Lab (OWL) and opened it up for free to the public.

If the more than 20 college campuses already incorporating the OWL haven’t proven its effectiveness, the Evaluation Consortium at the University of Albany has; its nationwide pilot study found the OWL boosted final student grades by 5 points.

The secret to the OWL’s success lies in its ability to bridge pedagogy with multimedia that engages, not just entertains.

When the team at Excelsior College set out to build a new kind of Online Writing Lab, the team focused on using multimedia to reinforce key writing concepts for students. The OWL targets beginning writers who might have little experience with writing or experience so distant the writing process and vocabulary of writing felt foreign to them.

The goal was to make writing instruction simple, clear, and more memorable for these students.

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The goal was not limited to inserting multimedia into traditional writing instruction materials, however. As researchers, such as Ally (2004) point out, it is not simply the multimedia that supports learners. Multimedia that makes sense with content and is scaffolded from one concept to the next is the most effective.

This research guided a team of writing teachers and instructional designers to develop the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab in a way that supports beginning writers by providing them with open-access online writing support that is far more accessible than previous models.

A guiding principal in the development of the OWL was that every important lesson would be supported by multimedia in multiple ways; these would include visuals and images, videos, and interactions.

One example is the lesson on establishing a thesis or focus in Locating Information & Writing with Sources. In this lesson, students are provided with short textual lessons on developing a thesis or focus and then an activity allowing them to practice with thesis statements.

In the activity, students select the best possible thesis statement based on a given topic and are given immediate feedback, not only about the correct or incorrect response but also about why a response would be correct or incorrect. This activity is followed by a short video in which a student, using a sample research paper assignment, talks through her process of creating and revising a working thesis statement.

The team knew multimedia would become particularly important in terms of grammar instruction. Decades of research in writing instruction indicate grammar instruction is particularly problematic for students and that traditional grammar exercises may even be harmful to some students’ writing process. Some of this early research was summarized in Hillocks (1986), but research in grammar instruction is ongoing as writing teachers continue to look for more effective ways to teach correctness.

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The consensus in the field is that grammar instruction is most effective in context of actual student writing. The OWL team wanted to replicate an authentic experience as much as possible by providing grammar instruction in the context of actual passages of writing. Multimedia made this possible.

The programmer coded a “drag and drop” function into the site. This allowed the team to create passages with errors in need of editing. Instead of students answering multiple-choice questions about correctness, students actually edit a passage by dragging and dropping needed punctuation into passages with errors.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of multimedia activities featured in the Excelsior College OWL. This site engages students with videos, exercises, and interactive Prezis that provide both preview and review in learning areas.

The site even features a writing process mini video game, which gives students a chance to learn through role-playing, in this case as the editor of a newspaper. The game is designed to help students build their writing process vocabulary, which is essential in writing skill transfer, and to practice with issues of correctness, source integration, and appropriate voice through assessments.

As Mayer (2001) and other researchers have asserted, multimedia instruction with video and audio in combination with text is not only more enjoyable for students but also more effective. Learners with multimedia support learn better than learners who are working exclusively with simple text. The OWL not only brings this theory to life, but also provides a pathway for academic learners to follow.

Crystal Sands, PhD, is an Excelsior College faculty member and Online Writing Lab (OWL) Project Director.

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