Purdue Writing Lab receives $1.5 million to create new interactive writing tool for high school students

January 10, 2011

Marc Dziak, at left, a second-year doctoral student in literary studies, and Daniel Nedelescu, a third-year doctoral student in economics, consult the university's Online Writing Lab during a tutoring session. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.5 million grant to the Writing Lab so it can expand its online resource to help high school students improve their writing. The site, http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/, received more than 180 million site visits last year, and it provides information on the basics of writing, grammar and mechanics, writer's block, style guides, and punctuation. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Social media, videogaming and other online interactive activities could help to improve high school students' writing, so a Purdue University professor is leading a team that will use these features to update a popular online writing lab resource.

The two-year project, called H-OWL, is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project involves creating and testing an interactive extension of Purdue's Online Writing Lab, which is an online resource that provides information on many aspects of writing, including grammar and mechanics, writer's block, style guides, and punctuation. The site, http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/, received more than 180 million visits last year.

"The goal is to create an online tool to help high school juniors and seniors meet national writing requirements and to help them make the transition to college-level writing," said Linda Bergmann, director of the project and of Purdue's Online Writing Lab. "By making the already popular OWL more interactive, we are creating a resource that students can use to help them write across all disciplines - from language arts to science. We want to incorporate new media and social networking features, as well as aspects of gaming, to engage this young audience and reach the next generation of learners. What we create could help others in education design additional learning tools."

Only 24 percent of 12th graders scored at proficient levels for writing on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. And among 18-24 year olds who enrolled in college, only 39.6 percent considered themselves prepared for college writing, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Research Center.

"Unfortunately, this is a sentiment shared by many college instructors who regularly teach first-year writing," Bergmann said. "These students' knowledge and consumption of new media is impressive, but there is a gap in their understanding of complex text, connecting diverse ideas, and writing for different purpose and audience. This new resource, thanks to help from our partners, will build on these young people's 21st century abilities to help them develop academic writing skills."

Purdue is partnering with the Center for Applied Special Technology in Wakefield, Mass., and the Minority Student Achievement Network at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the new site, which will be tested in several school districts nationwide before it is more widely released.

This site will serve as a means to transform communication technologies young students use today into useful training tools, and the initiative will help young students develop into better writers and communicators.

Using interactive, student-driven and visually appealing technologies, the online resource will offer social networking capabilities such as peer-to-peer discussions, collaborative review spaces and customized animated agents to coach students and to lead them to information they need in order to revise and extend their ideas. In addition, students will be able to use text-to-speech capabilities to listen to what they wrote. These resources could help young writers with drafting their initial ideas and refining them throughout the revising and editing process, Bergmann said.

"Almost every professional job requires writing or evaluating writing, and when students progress from high school to college, they often need to incorporate more complexity into their writing," Bergmann said. "Students often rely on writing that is formulaic, automatic and stiff, and, as a result, they neglect the content and audience. The peer interactive components of the site will help students learn about writing for an audience."

The Purdue Online Writing Lab is housed in the College of Liberal Arts' Department of English.

Other Purdue faculty involved in this project are Janet Alsup, associate professor of English education; Michael Salvo, associate professor of English and director of the Professional Writing Program; Patricia Sullivan, professor of English and director of the Rhetoric and Composition Graduate Program; and Samantha Blackmon, associate professor of English and director of introductory composition.

Also involved are Madeline Hafner, director of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Tracey Hall, project director and senior research scientist/instructional designer at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST); and Eleanor Dougherty, a lead designer on the Gates Foundation's Literacy by Design (LBD) project.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 

Source: Linda Bergmann, 765-496-2814, lbergmann@purdue.edu