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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

The Write Stuff at the Right Time: Rogue Community College Online Writing Lab (OWL) and the 21st Century Student

For over a decade, colleges have been aware of mounting pressures to expand student services as online learning and distance education initiatives have advanced in higher education. Driven by a digital era and a Web-connected world, community college educators are faced with exciting challenges, including preparing students for interaction in a new and global marketplace that is evolving at breakneck speed. In its efforts to redesign current classroom models to meet the needs of distance learners and student populations spread over vast geographic regions, Rogue Community College (RCC) is reappraising traditional ideas of what constitutes a classroom setting and a campus environment.

RCC students, like their peers across the country, are multitasking individuals with compound commitments and competing priorities of jobs, families, and education. As more and more students embrace distance learning, institutions are struggling to provide support services that parallel campus-based services. Students on campus have had ready access to a variety of academic support services, including writing labs. The Rogue Online Writing Lab (OWL) project provides an innovative solution to challenges poised by the evolving educational climate.

The OWL Solution
Writing promotes critical thinking skills while helping students master program content; however, studies show that merely giving students writing assignments within their disciplines, whether biology, chemistry, or geology, is not an effective learning/teaching tool unless it is accompanied by specific instruction relative to those writing assignments. As noted by Moore (1993), "Merely writing about biology does not necessarily ensure that students learn about biology." In fact, Moore goes so far as to state that without proper instruction regarding the writing process, students merely practice¾even perfect¾poor writing.

The Rogue OWL, a three-year, FIPSE-funded project devoted to building a community college online writing lab model, uniquely focuses on Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), with interactive instruction on the research and writing process. The Rogue OWL embraces a student-centered approach to education, and provides online interactive writing assistance to distance learning students and other nontraditional and underserved students. The OWL is significantly different in that it incorporates online tutoring; multiple interaction modalities; discipline-specific academic research and writing links; level-appropriate student writing samples; and instructions on Internet usage.

OWL Benefits for Students and Faculty
The need for student support resources in writing has been extensively documented (Mabrito, 2000; Epstein, 1999). However, those support resources have not previously supplied discipline-specific resources for writing across the curriculum at the community college level. As institutions evolve to educate a changing student body, educators must look to new models that support students regardless of time and place. Web-delivered student support is one answer; however, using the Web to deliver customized support services with content specifically crafted for students' specific needs is an even better answer.

The Rogue OWL, as a model of online interactive writing assistance, is made up of nine primary sections of learning and support. Of these nine sections, a critical foundation is the Rogue OWL (1) Writing Across the Curriculum, with discipline-specific writing and research assistance. In addition, the (2) Writer's Resources includes a bank of handouts and reference models covering a broad range of writing needs. The (3) Owl Web Aid is an instructional Web resource for beginning Internet users, offering hints and ideas supporting multiple levels of technical expertise. The (4) OWL Tutors provide timely and constructive feedback to students about their research and writing processes. Adding to professional development experiences, the Rogue OWL offers a (5) Citation and Documentation section to guide the work of inexperienced writers and prepare them for university-level writing, professional research expectations, and technical writing in the workforce. The section of (6) ESL Resources offers online support for students needing assistance with English writing, and offers instructors a place to provide models, references, and relevant materials for course assignments. A full section is dedicated to (7) Instructor Resources, and offers faculty assistance with integrating writing assignments, such as customized templates, into their course content and across multiple curricula. A special section on (8) Scholarship Writing is dedicated to tips, examples, and models of scholarship and college entrance essays. Finally, a popular and effective writing development resource is the (9) Student Forum, a moderated discussion exchange encouraging active learning through feedback mechanisms and learning communities.

As recognized through the varying sections of student-centered resources and services, OWL project developers also consider the role of the instructor as integral to the learning process. OWL is built to function as an extension of the classroom: the teacher assigns the learning goals, the Rogue OWL assists students with accomplishing their learning objectives.

Project Evaluation Strategy
As a first-year project, the Rogue OWL is based on an evaluation strategy of formative and summative assessment using both qualitative and quantitative measures. Project staff has designated six principal objectives, with annual benchmark criteria. The objectives for the three-year grant are:

1. Build a flexible online writing laboratory that meets the needs of both 
transfer and professional/technical students;
2. Create a how-to manual and training CD-ROM for implementing an OWL at a 
variety of community college settings;
3. Establish and field-test a mechanism for registering and tracking OWL users in a multiple-campus environment;
4. Cultivate the skills of faculty and staff needed to develop, manage, and evaluate online instruction, tutoring, and student services;
5. Evaluate the effectiveness of OWL, with attention to those populations who have been traditionally underserved; and
6. Disseminate the project findings and provide technical assistance to other institutions interested in replicating the project.

A matrix model has been developed by OWL staff as a guiding reference, and includes three primary sections: Project Objectives, Outcomes, and Key Evaluation Measures. The evaluation will initially stress the organization, the overall paradigm of the OWL website, and the production of WAC modules, considering their content and structure. In the second-year evaluation, the protocol will concentrate on the implementation aspects of the OWL's production and a more detailed examination of the operating content and design of the OWL and its production. The final year will emphasize the overall usability and value of the OWL as both a student support service and as an instructional resource for both traditional and online instruction, addressing also the future direction of OWL development/modification and its place in online education.

The data collection models for project development include annual student and faculty surveys, interviews, and focus group sessions. Project staff is also committed to the development of a how-to manual and training CD-ROM for implementing an OWL at other community college sites.

Lessons Learned and Unexpected Outcomes
1. The collaboration among OWL tutors and piloting instructors has created an enormously successful online learning community. This community demonstrates the hallmarks of an effective learning community.

* The teaching/learning environment is cross-curricular: a conglomeration of History/Literature, Anatomy and Physiology, Microbiology, and Philosophy enmeshed within an OWL Tutor Training course
* Knowledge flows in multiple directions: student to student, student to teacher, teacher to student, and teacher to teacher
* The online environment is recursive and non-threatening

OWL project developers were surprised at the tremendous success of this effort. Using very simplistic technology (an online forum), the Rogue OWL created not only a place to train the tutors to tutor online, but also a space for real interaction with faculty-some of whom have not previously used writing as a teaching/learning tool within their courses. In fact, a couple of the tutors and one faculty member had never engaged with online technology beyond occasional surfing on the Net and e-mail. After introduction, this same faculty member was so impressed with the distance learning student outcomes, he now wants his students to use the OWL Forum as a supplement to all classroom instruction.

2. The interest and need for OWL in the sciences has been surprising. The need is so great at so many levels that project staff is contemplating additional funding sources and has considered applying for an NSF grant to build WISE OWLS: Writing-Infused Science Education with Online Writing Labs.

3. Another unexpected avenue where OWL coincides with changes in our education climate is the incorporation of technology into education programs at universities, to meet future requirements for tomorrow's teachers; it's been suggested that a course could be designed around OWL and integrated into Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) programs, whereby future educators not only learn about melding writing with other content curriculum, but also have solid practicum experience through tutoring online for one semester. This use of OWL would also address the question, Where are all the tutors going to come from? With Congressional mandates for teacher training that incorporates technology for future classroom use, the OWL has found a place in MAT programs. It could also be used to meet Continuing Education (CEU) requirements for teacher upgrades and/or certification.

4. Use of the OWL as a credit/tuition-bearing lab component for professional/technical programs (p/t) has come up in several college discussions. Originally, the OWL was envisioned as a strict student support service, operated similar to traditional writing centers. However, because the content is so well designed and meets the criteria of lab curriculum, project staff is investigating using OWL as a one-credit lab component within the p/t programs. Many writing requirements have been dropped over the years within the p/t program. However, writing has become increasingly important to employers, and writing well is among the top two skills employers look for in future employees, especially in the p/t fields. One way to meet employers' demands and make writing useful for the student is to use OWL as a lab component for required courses¾for instance, research and development in manufacturing.

5. As online tools, new technology applications were developed as compatible database exchanges between OWL students and the current RCC student database. Most schools do not have the capacity and/or human resources to maintain two separate databases and track usage; the RCC Information Technology Department created a seamless interface that verifies the OWL user database against the college database of registered students, to confirm student status and eligibility for FTE collection.

Ongoing and Future Evolution
Fully committed to removing time and place barriers, the Rogue OWL is in a constant state of change and development. Success in our aim of universal access depends on removal of student access barriers, and on compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendment of 1998. In our dedication to this goal of equal access for all, we have followed Web page authoring techniques and guidelines provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The OWL site design is predicated on the Seven Principles of Universal Design, focused on removing barriers to education. Once completed, the OWL will provide an online educational tool that makes every effort to compensate for users who have visual and hearing impairments or physical, cognitive or neurological disorders.

The Rogue OWL provides a model of interactive writing assistance to distance learning students and other nontraditional and underserved students. The OWL is different from current community college writing labs in that it synthesizes the best of educational technology with the best features of writing across the curriculum, resulting in a student-centered online learning community for the new century.

For more information, contact
Julie Joki
OWL Project Director
Rogue Community College
jjoki@roguecc.edu

On April 15, Visit the OWL Demo Site for a virtual tour of new developments:

 

 

 

 

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