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Vol. 7, No. 10: June 22, 2001

The Hatching of an OWL: The Development of the UW-Colleges Online Writing Lab

by Sara Moellendorf, OWL Director,
and Prof. Greg Ahrenhoerster, Department of English,

When the UW-Colleges Online Writing Lab (OWL) began in the summer of 1999, no one had envisioned how one website and some simple e-mail communication could affect students at UW-Colleges campuses across the state.  The small but steady flow of student papers sent to the OWL in its first year has gained breadth and depth in its second year of operation. The OWL tutors, director, and tutor coordinator at UW-Waukesha, where the OWL is housed, have responded to a total of 360 papers during this academic year alone.  Students at all 13 UW-Colleges campuses, in 25 different courses, and across 12 disciplines have sought writing assistance from the OWL.   

The concept for the UW-Colleges OWL seems straightforward: set up a website with information about how to submit a paper, work with an already-existing base of student writing tutors from UW-Waukesha by training them for online tutorials, and promote the online writing service at the 13 UWC campuses.  However, the benefits and drawbacks of the OWL’s format soon became evident.

To form the website,, Dr. Greg Ahrenhoerster, the OWL’s founder, first contacted members of the UW-Colleges English department via e-mail and asked them if the OWL sounded like a good idea.  He realized that the project would never succeed without their support.  Although there were a few who expressed a fear that the project was impractical (and one who said he would not let his students use it), many, especially those at smaller campuses, said they would be grateful for the extra support.

The second step, acquiring funding, proved to be more difficult.  The UW-Colleges Central Office agreed to fund the OWL as a pilot project for a year, and 25% of Ahrenhoerster’s former 100% TRIO writing specialist position became the OWL directorship.  The position has fluctuated between a 20-25% appointment on a nine-month basis.  Recently, Central Office agreed to fund the OWL’s current director, Sara Moellendorf, during the summer session.  In the past, tutors were paid solely by the UW-Waukesha segregated fees, which the UW-Waukesha Segregated University Fee Allocation Committee has thus far agreed to continue.  As numbers of usage from other campuses continually increased, the need for monies outside UW-Waukesha became apparent, and Central Office agreed to supplement some of the tutor costs.

The actual creation of the website held its own challenges.  After surveying OWL sites at a number of other colleges and universities, Ahrenhoerster created an image of what he wanted the UWC’s OWL site to contain: some quick tips about writing, links to useful websites, and an online form for submitting a draft.  However, due to a technical error that has remained a mystery, there was no way to make the submission form operational.  Thus, he had to replace it with instructions for attaching the paper to an e-mail that included all of the necessary information (course, instructor, assignment, etc.).  Happily, we found that there are advantages to having an attached file copy as opposed to simply a “cut and pasted” version of the text, especially when the student has questions about formatting.

During its first semester, the OWL was a bit rough around the edges as both the students and the tutors struggled to find a comfort zone.  Some students were annoyed (despite a clear explanation on the website) that their drafts were not returned to them with all of the errors corrected, and some writing tutors found that they were taking over an hour to respond to a single draft as they tried to address every shortcoming. Ultimately, we realized we needed to clarify for the students and ourselves what our role was.

We have since learned that the task of training the tutors requires extra thought and ongoing guidance.  During the first few weeks of work, the OWL director monitors the writing tutors’ responses to student papers, offers guidance and feedback accordingly, and collects a sample of tutor responses.  In the online tutorial, the tutors still use the top-down format of a face-to-face tutoring session, where writing concerns such as coherence, unity, development, and organization are attended to before grammatical issues.  The key differences between the face-to-face and online tutorials are formulating the responses in written rather than spoken communication and dealing with a time gap since the tutorial does not take place in real time.  The absence of a tutor/tutee dialectic, through which feedback could be immediately questioned, compels tutors to think through and question their explanations to the student.  The student writing tutors quickly learn that writing a response requires more thought, time, and patience than a face-to-face tutorial.  The tutors rely more on the student writer’s description of the assignment and his/her concerns regarding the draft.  If the writer doesn’t adequately relate this information in the e-mail, the tutors are left to their own assumptions.  If questions of clarification arise, either for the tutor or the writer, they cannot be immediately addressed.  Occasionally, after receiving feedback on a paper, students will contact a tutor for further explanation, but this process can be slow. 

While the e-mail format makes two-way communication difficult, it also contains some benefits that are usually under-emphasized.  Through e-mail, students from all 13 UW-Colleges campuses have access to a writing tutor, a benefit that some of the smaller campuses did not previously have.  The majority of UWC students are commuters who balance families or jobs along with their education, which doesn’t leave much time for an appointment with a writing tutor.  For them, the OWL offers a faster, more convenient way of receiving input on their writing.  For the shy student who fears a face-to-face tutorial or isn’t comfortable receiving criticism verbally, the e-mail format of the OWL can be appealing.  

In addition, the student writing tutors receive advantages from the written tutorial format.  Essentially, they are writing about writing; this meta-critical process forces them to evaluate the structure of their feedback.  They are being challenged to write about their own knowledge of writing skills.  In the end, the exactness of the tutor’s written comments can mean the difference between confusion and understanding on the part of the student writer who begins to revise his/her paper using the feedback.  Unlike the face-to-face tutorial, the e-mailed feedback offers a more permanent format for suggestions.  When students leave an online tutorial, they have written feedback, not handwritten notations in the margins of their draft or mental notes of the changes they plan to make.  Since the tutors do not alter the original draft of the student’s essay, the tutors’ responses must contain suggestions for improvement that the writer can readily understand.  The use of an illustrating example becomes important when explaining an organizational or coherence problem and vital when examining a grammatical error.  Some of the tutors are using the “comment” feature in Word 2000, which allows the tutor to highlight problem sections of the writer’s paper and insert text tips that appear when the student holds the mouse cursor over the highlighted area.  This feature allows tutors to show the writer precisely where the draft needs improving without altering the student’s original text, which can be especially helpful when explaining a grammatical error.  Of course, we are only able to use this feature if students send their draft as an attached Word document. 

As we look to the future, the OWL staff continues to look for methods that will increase the students’ and tutors’ ease of use.  Creating a standard submission format and encouraging students to use uniform Word 2000 attachments will aid both the tutors and the students.  With our numbers of student use steadily growing and our funding remaining firm, the OWL looks like it is starting to soar.

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