Online Writing Lab marks 20 years of instruction, innovation

September 23, 2013  


Online Writing Lab

From left: Tammy Conard-Salvo, the Writing Lab's assistant director; Muriel Harris, retired director of the Writing Lab; and Linda Bergmann, director of the Writing Lab, discuss the 20th anniversary of Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL). The anniversary will be commemorated with events throughout the fall and spring. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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This academic year marks the 20th anniversary of Purdue's Online Writing Lab -- a resource that began as emailed handouts and is now an invaluable tool that includes innovative resources such as YouTube videos.

The beginning of the Purdue OWL was fairly nebulous, says Muriel Harris, professor emerita and retired director of Purdue's Writing Lab. Its seeds were planted in the 1970s, when the Writing Lab opened. Harris and the lab's tutors, who were graduate students, began creating instructional handouts to use in tutorials with students. Eventually, the lab made these instructional resources available via email.

OWL's first incarnation was as an email address: owl@sage.purdue.edu, which Purdue students could use to request copies of Writing Lab handouts. The email address went live in early 1994 and quickly generated astonishing interest, Harris says.

"Once we started using the email address, it caught the attention of various scholarly magazines and publications, which then publicized it," says Harris, who founded the Writing Lab in 1976 and retired as director in 2003.

"Suddenly, we started getting requests from all over the world -- it was truly remarkable. We had no idea the audience for our services was so wide and varied."

Writing Lab administrators are planning several events to celebrate OWL's 20th anniversary, says Tammy Conard-Salvo, the Writing Lab's associate director. The first, scheduled for 1:30-3:30 p.m. Friday (Sept. 27), is a public open house of the OWL office, which is in the Writing Lab in Heavilon Hall. Subsequent events will take place in the spring; details will be determined soon.

Because the original, emailed handouts amounted to an online writing lab -- a concept that was novel in 1994 -- the graduate student who created the email system suggested the acronym OWL for the email address, and the name stuck.

A short time later, when the earliest Web browsers began gaining popularity, Harris and the graduate-student instructors created http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl and posted the OWL documents to that site. It soon blossomed into dozens of instructional documents on writing skills, and they were available to anyone who could access them online.

OWL began as a way for Purdue students get help without coming into the physical Writing Lab. To this day, OWL's content is created with the University's students in mind, although writers from across the world use its resources, says Linda Bergmann, director of the Writing Lab.

"OWL's resources cover a huge variety of topics that can be useful to students and other writers -- from general writing tips to research and citation information to job-search and subject-specific help," Bergmann says.

The website links to OWL's YouTube page, which has been offering helpful, writing-related videos for the past two years.

In addition to information for students, OWL's website offers resources -- including PowerPoint presentations -- for teachers and tutors. They include information on how to write effective letters of recommendation for students applying to college and tips on how to prevent plagiarism. Notes accompany the PowerPoint presentations to make them easier to use.

OWL offers more than 300 writing resources, Conard-Salvo says, and that number will continue to grow.

"OWL is one of the most comprehensive online writing resources in the country," she says. "We've also heard from people across the world -- many of whom don't have access to English textbooks or formal English instruction -- that OWL has helped them write resumes and apply for jobs. OWL really makes Purdue's work in writing centers visible to the world, and that's extremely valuable."

OWL will continue to evolve as a hub for writing resources in various forms, Bergmann and Conard-Salvo say. Creating new content is a constant process, as is evaluating how that content should be delivered -- as a PDF file, PowerPoint, video or other emerging type of digital media.

"As technology advances, OWL's staff will continue to find enhanced ways to help writers write better and to spotlight the importance of communication skills using multimedia," Harris says.

"We view OWL as a fulfillment of Purdue's land-grant mission and of one of academia's missions, which is to provide accessible educational resources to the public and to keep improving those resources as much as we can."

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu

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