A Critical Survey of Publications about Online Writing Labs (OWLs): 1987-1997

written by Bridget Robin Pool, bpool@nvcc.vccs.edu
for George Mason University’s English 701, October 7, 1998

For much of the last two decades, writing centers have actively examined how to adapt emerging computer technology to existing pedagogical practices. In the 1980’s, debate in writing center theory centered on whether it was appropriate to provide computers for student access within the writing center environment. A decade later, computers have become an accepted tool in writing centers, almost as integral to the setting as chairs and tables, and tensions over the marriage of computer centers and writing centers has been supplanted by a different concern about the role of computers and the writing center.

    Whereas during the 1980’s debate had centered on whether computers should have any presence at all in writing centers, by the turn of the decade, the focus had shifted to examining the changing dynamic of the consultant/consultee relationship in light of the established presence of computers. In the late 1980’s, several articles were published which address the role of the computer in the exchange between tutors and students in traditional writing conferences. In the relatively short period of time that has elapsed since the first references to the OWL in the early 1990’s, many different writing centers have experimented with offering tutorial services in a virtual environment. As the trend toward network communication grew, so too did the number of publications that reflected on the subject of online writing labs (OWLS). Most of these are composed by individuals who have some experience constructing an online writing lab, but other than that unifying similarity, literature on the topic is as varied as the many formats and approaches that writing centers have taken to establishing an online presence.

    Two of the articles included in the 1987 Writing Center Journal’s "Special Issue on Computers and Writing Centers" serve as a worthy point of departure for analyzing the evolution of the OWL. The first of these is a brief page and a half long statement "From the Editors" in which Jeannette Harris and Joyce Kinkead recall past fears that had framed writing centers’ suspicion toward computers and proceed to demonstrate the more positive current opinions about the role of computers. They inquire, "What happened between the once upon a time and now to enable us to accept the computer as a friend and ally?" (Harris and Kinkead 1). Answering their own question, they introduce a range of issues that many other theorists will consider in the ensuing years. The most notable of these is the capability of computers to "supplement the dialogue between tutor and writer" (Harris and Kinkead 1). The editors explain that the articles included in the special issue are intended to highlight the benefits of computers in the writing center and provoke further questioning about how we can utilize them to our advantage. This experimental, open-minded attitude reflects the tone of most of the writing that considers the relationship between computers, consultants, and consultees.

    Another article from this 1987 issue of Writing Center Journal, "Writer, Peer Tutor, and the Computer: A Unique Relationship," draws attention to more specific issues surrounding the role that the computer plays in the writing consultation. Author Pamela B. Farrell is enthusiastic about the influence of the computer in the high school writing center she directs. She enumerates several positive outcomes of utilizing computers while working with students, arguing that writers can revise text so easily that students experience writing as a fun and experimental process rather than a chore. Thus, with the computer at their side, tutors work more comfortably as facilitators and experience less pressure to help the student manufacture the writing. Farrell offers convincing arguments and examples for her claim that "The computer seems to act as a catalyst to open the dialogue necessary for an effective tutor-writer relationship" (Farrell 32). For example, she explains the "computer ploy," noting that many students working on the computers in the writing center will ask for help with the machines and end up getting help with their writing. Although Farrell does not explicitly address online consultations, her discussion of ways in which writing tutorials can be diversified and adapted to the individual needs of the learner using technology provides a good ideological foundation for that future possibility.

    Maurice Scharton’s article "The Third Person: The Role of the Computers in Writing Centers," published in Computers & Composition in November 1989, also addresses how the computer influences writing tutorials. Using four case histories, he depicts what he considers "the four most important areas in which computers affect the process of tutoring other writers: tutor-to-client dialogue, macrostructural revision, surface editing, and printing" (Scharton 37). His central argument is similar to Farrell’s: the idea that the computer serves as a point of mediation between the tutor and the writer. He advances Farrell’s notion, though, because in one of his scenarios he describes an interaction that explicitly foreshadows the development of the online writing lab. In an account reminiscent of Farrell’s "computer ploy," he recounts working with a student who requested help learning to use the computer and ended up getting assistance with writing as well. In his experience, however, he reported moving a step beyond the traditional tutor/student conversational exchange. As he was providing computer tutorial advice, Scharton would also type commentary and questions in caps lock concerning the content of the draft. He reported that he and the student would often write back and forth to each other about the ideas. Although the consultation did not take place in a formal networked environment, the technique of interspersing commentary throughout the draft later became a convention of OWLs. Scharton contributes another interesting opinion to the debate about the benefit of computers. Contrary to popular opinion, he contends that computers are a "humanizing force" and indicates that rather than having a sterilizing effect, "the effects of computers are as various as the personalities and intentions of the people who use them" (Scharton 47). Like Farrell, his article ends by encouraging the reader to dwell on the tremendous possibility of the medium.

    Just a year after the publication of the previous article, Maurice Scharton teamed up with Janice Neuleib to produce "Tutors and Computers, An Easy Alliance" for Writing Center Journal. The article begins with a brief chronology of this history of computers in Illinois State University Writing Center. This account provides worthwhile context for understanding the incredibly rapid changes in computer technology that took place during the 1980’s. Primarily, Scharton and Neuleib discuss a survey they conducted of writing center tutors in which tutors were asked how the advent of computers had altered their composing and tutoring strategies. The authors found that nearly all of their tutors use word processors in their own writing and that in performing tutorials, the tutors assume that revisions will be made electronically. Scharton Neuleib conclude that tutorials have become more flexible and productive since students have been able to conceive of changes to their text and alter it immediately using a computer. The most important aspect of this article is that it admits that "the potential for extending center services through electronics is just beginning to be understood" (Scharton and Neuleib 50). Although they offer no specifics about the idea, they make an offhand reference to the idea of students using modems to ask for assistance during hours that the writing center is closed.

    Valerie M. Balester’s March 1992 article "Transforming the Writing Center with Computers" suggests a slightly more specific focus about the possibility for online writing labs, but many of her points are underdeveloped and her claims unsubstantiated. In contrast to the other articles from this time which consider the possibility of extending traditional writing center philosophy into a virtual environment, Balester insists that the underpinnings of writing center theory must change to make effective use of nascent computer technology. She foresees that virtual writing centers, instead of relying on traditional one-on-one exchanges, will sponsor undercover tutors posing as students who participate in online class discussions about writing. Balester proposes that this will keep individual tutors from gaining a voice of authority and will encourage students to develop their voices in a community of writers while benefiting from the insights of a knowledgeable, trained moderator—albeit unknowingly. While this proposal has some merit, it seems more closely linked to the idea of the networked classroom than to the virtual writing center. Her argument for emphasizing group tutoring over individualized instruction is not compelling.

    The year 1995 precipitated a sudden proliferation of publications about OWLS. Many of these come from Computers and Composition, whichproduced a special issue on OWLs that included an excellent range of articles. Prior to 1995, essays relevant to understanding the development of OWL focused specifically on the evolving dynamic among consultant, consultee, and computer, but from 1995 onward, the focus of the articles becomes more disparate. While some authors offer general overviews of the concept of OWLs, others provide anecdotal tales of incorporating OWLs into their Writing Centers. Some articles emphasize the role of technology and the logistics of producing a networked writing center, and other articles remain focused on pedagogy and theory.

    During 1995, Muriel Harris contributed a great deal to OWL research. Director of the highly regarded Purdue University Writing Center and editor of the Writing Lab Newsletter, Harris’ two articles and one published interview from this year, all of which discuss OWLs, provide excellent insight into the topic. For example, "From the (Writing) Center to the Edge: Moving Writers Along the Internet," is a particularly concise work intended as an introduction to the concept for beginners who may be unfamiliar with traditional writing center theory. "From the (Writing) Center to the Edge" clearly communicates a great deal of information. In three pages, Harris briefly describes the major approaches in synchronous and asynchronous communication that are utilized to extend one-on-one writing assistance into virtual communities. She gives examples of different colleges’ services and appends a list of resources for interested readers to pursue further.

    Muriel Harris also co-authored a much more detailed examination of OWLS along with Michael Pemberton. Their article, "Online Writing Labs (OWLS): A Taxonomy of Options and Issues," is the best overview to date about conceiving a good OWL. In it, the authors caution against trying to simply reproduce face to face tutorials in an online environment. They advocate putting a great deal of planning into extending a writing center into a networked environment, and this article ought to be required reading material for any writing center administrator who is pondering the appropriate type of online presence. Using straightforward language, Harris and Pemberton explore several angles of the topic. The bulk of the piece discusses the most frequently employed options for providing writing tutorials in a network environment, explaining each of them (e-mail, Gopher, WWW, newsgroups, synchronous chat systems and AFR systems) in terms of an original "model of computer interactions" that contrasts the relative "degree of interaction" versus the "displacement in time" of each of the aforementioned modes of communication. Harris and Pemberton also briefly discuss other topics relevant to constructing a worthwhile OWL, including "user access, network security, computer illiteracy, institutional missions, writing center goals, computing center priorities, and computer programmers’ attitudes" (145). Touching on this range of issues reveals the extent of planning required to produce a good OWL.

    Muriel Harris’ final contribution to the field of OWL research during 1995 was an interview she had with Joan Mullin. Fittingly, some of the interview was conducted via e-mail. Harris offers worthwhile reflections on OWLs. First, she gives a brief description of the evolution of the Purdue OWL, which provides a first hand perspective of the challenges involved. She then shares her philosophy that writing centers have a duty to assist students as they prepare to enter a technologically advanced information society. Finally, Harris admits that she has been reassessing the role of online writing labs since Purdue’s OWL has not been an enormous success. The spirit of her commentary is that writing centers need to be willing to take risks, to develop and change along with the new technology. Although her comments are not particularly detailed, they provide a worthwhile informal glimpse of the role of the OWL in a prominent traditional writing center.

    Of course, Muriel Harris was not the only individual producing innovative insights about OWLs during 1995. In "From Place to Space: Perceptual and Administrative Issues in the Online Writing Center," an article from the special issue of Computers and Composition, Dave Healy analyzes the changing dynamics of writing centers as workplaces. He accepts it as a given that online writing labs will commonly supplement face to face centers, and he considers the implications of administering writing labs with these expanded services. For example, he indicates that scheduling will be simpler with an increase of computerized services, but staff supervision will be more difficult. Healy expresses particular concern over the notion that conferences may be preserved and critiqued. He admits that this archival information has positive potential for use as tutor training material or to maintain continuity between different tutors working with the same student. However, Healy cautions that saving communication may inhibit tutor risk taking since they may fear that preserved text will be used against them. Overall, he endorses the idea of the OWL, but he also warns against proceeding blindly without anticipating the new challenges it introduces into the writing center as a workplace.

    Two of the articles published in 1995 focus specifically on a common form of OWL: e-mail tutoring. "E-Mail Tutoring, a New Way to Do New Work" by David Coogan consists of three main sections. First, he gives a history of the relationship between writing centers and computers. In the second section, he speaks in theoretical terms about employing e-mail to perform consultations. He believes that the exchange of ideas by electronic means allows writers to engage in productive dialogue about a malleable text. He admires the fact that communicating in writing allows writers and tutors to exchange ideas more honestly and encourages each of them to take risks. The final section of the article is a case study of his own experience as an online tutor. Coogan includes quotes from their discussion and reflects on the interaction that took place. Because he approaches the idea of e-mail tutoring from multiple levels, Coogan’s piece is provocative. He admits that there is a great deal of potential in this medium, particularly in its ability to break down barriers between formal and informal writing, but like Healy, he cautions against embracing it without thinking through the implications.

    Jennifer Jordan-Henley and Barry Maid’s article "Tutoring in Cyberspace: Student Impact and College/University Collaboration" is much narrower in scope than Coogan’s piece. In the article, they reflect on their experiences as facilitators of a program in which community college students submitted drafts of their papers via e-mail to graduate students at a university writing center and then met for a synchronous writing consultation in a virtual writing center. The article reviews the graduate students’ experiences of adapting face to face tutoring concepts to online tutoring, and it includes the community college students’ feedback about the service. Although the discussion is almost entirely anecdotal, the authors offer some good analysis based on the experience. They highlight the possibility of using technology to find experienced and capable tutors for remote sites or smaller schools. They also indicate that both e-mail and synchronous communication provoked successful revisions in the students’ essays and that cybertutors indicated no definitive preference about which format was more valuable, though many were more accustomed to e-mail.

    A final article published in 1995 illustrates the degree to which the concept of the OWL had penetrated contemporary writing center theory. Palmquist, Rodrigues, Kiefer and Zimmerman wrote "Network Support for Writing Across the Curriculum: Developing an Online Writing Center;" in it they give an insightful account of using a writing center as a base of operations for a writing-across-the-curriculum program. They discuss how their online writing center with its extensive offerings, ranging from online tutorials to chat programs to electronic bulletin boards, contributed to the success of the WAC program. The virtual writing center, with its increased visibility, attracted students and faculty who might not have otherwise utilized the tutorial services. Palmquist et al offer further details about the logistics of coordinating WAC and OWL, information that would prove useful to those who wish to undertake a similar linkage.

    Like the 1987 Writing Center Journal and the 1995 Computers and Composition, 1996 Kairos sponsored a special issue on OWLS that included a great deal of excellent information about current trends. It is noteworthy that Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments selected to focus on this topic in its inaugural edition, but it is even more remarkable that by 1995, the primary source of valuable information on OWL research exists as a hypertext webzine rather than as a published journal. Unfortunately, the frames-based format which constitute Kairos is frustrating. Although the design is intended to enable readers to simultaneously view external links while part of their screen remains dedicated to the primary text, the effect is so cluttered that it is difficult to enjoy the intended benefits of this juxtaposition.

    Stuart Blythe’s "Why OWLs? Value, Risk, and Evolution" is the most hypertextual of the articles included in Kairos. While other pieces dictate a logical linear progression that is supplemented by some external links, Blythe’s essay is true hypertext in that it does not dictate a specific order of ideas. Although this approach is admirable because it enacts the possibility of the medium about which he is writing, it is also difficult to be certain one has read the entire piece and derived all the available content it contains. Blythe nods at the logistics of putting together an OWL; he then encourages careful consideration of the implications of instituting this innovation by offering a thoughtful, succinct evaluation of the pros and cons of OWLs. He contends that even though they are expensive and threaten to reinforce the fix-it shop mentality, the obstacles are worth trying to overcome because OWLs diversify the concept of a writing tutorial, increase visibility and accessibility to services, and offer a good starting place for students learning to use the Internet.

    J. Paul Johnson’s "Writing Spaces: Technoprovocateurs and OWLS in the Late Age of Print" is a much more traditional article than Blythe’s piece in that the text follows a linear progression with just a few external links interspersed. This brief essay begins by listing the enormous range of different services that might be offered by organizations that claim the title "OWL." Johnson proceeds to comment the OWLs at University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Texas at Austin for offering a forum where students can subvert "traditional notions of print literacy" by encouraging them to make use of "the web’s inherent multimedia, networking, and hypertext capabilities." Although this article is the seed of a fascinating idea about the relationship between OWLs and redefining the concept of literacy in a technological society, the central point is lost amidst pompous language and postmodern jargon.

    Camille Langston’s Kairos article "Resistance and Control: the Complex Process of Creating an OWL" contributes a new aspect to the literature about creating an online writing lab. She details her battle with the university administration to put up a web page. The article focuses on the power struggle involved with acquiring permission to place information on a school’s server. Although the details of the experience are specific to Texas Woman’s University, Langston’s tale should serve as a cautionary account to those writing center administrators who have not anticipated the quantity of bureaucracy they will encounter when they try to generate an online presence.

    Jane Lasarenko’s article "Pr(owl)ing Around: An OWL by Any Other Name," rounds out the collection of pieces in Kairos. In it, she catalogues her findings as "the first cyber OWL taxonomist and un-naturalist." She reports having located 93 OWLs on the web and divides them into three categories based on how well developed they are. She classifies the first group as those sites that are primarily advertisements for established traditional writing centers. Lasarenko proceeds to distinguish between "owlets," OWLS which respond to short questions, offer writing tips and provide writing-related links, and "full-fledged OWLS," which provide feedback on drafts in addition to assorted other services. The bulk of Lasarenko’s article is a select list of owlets and full-fledged owls with descriptions of each and hotlinks so that readers can peruse the sites. "Pr(owl)ing Around" is an excellent directory for sampling the range of possibilities for OWLs.

    By 1996, OWLs were no longer a purely experimental idea. Instead of grappling with basic ideas about how to construct a site or whether online tutorials are consistent with the mission of the traditional writing center, recent articles tend to examine more complex pedagogical issues. For example, Sara Kimball’s 1997 article "Cybertext/Cyberspeech: Writing Centers and Online Magic" focuses almost entirely on the theoretical complexities of virtual writing tutorials. She draws a parallel between the magical powers that ancient societies accorded to emerging literacy and the contemporary attitude that technology is imbued with a magical ability to alter our communication. Building on this idea, Kimball encourages readers to consider the assumptions they bring to online writing consultations, to analyze whether the magic we accord this new medium is truly inherent in the nature of the interaction or whether it is merely a result of our own preconceptions about its power. There are three key ideas she questions: "the magic of technology transforming cognition in a social vacuum, the magic of a computer preserving conversations intact, and the magic of networked communication effacing identity completely" (44-5). Although she does not discourage virtual writing consultations, her cautionary observations are well grounded. She expertly questions whether the intended benefits of computers are actually more harmful than we suspect. Kimball’s perspective offers a worthwhile balance to the many enthusiastic proponents of OWLs.

    Another article from this time period that reflects the increasingly theoretical bent of OWL publications is Stuart Blythe’s 1997 "Networked Computers + Writing Centers = ?" An involved and complicated piece, the article begins by discussing several of the articles I have noted in this paper. Blythe explains that although Kinkead, Jordan-Henley and Maid, and Harris and Pemberton’s logistical essays about OWLs are worthwhile, OWL research needs more theoretical foundation. Blythe then proceeds to advance and analyze several theories of his own, focusing especially on comparing and contrasting instrumental vs. substantive theories of technology. This article is reminiscent of J. Paul Johnson’s ponderous piece about technoprovocateurs. Although Blythe makes an excellent point about needing to develop a strong foundation of theoretical principles before attempting to produce an OWL, he strays too far from the key questions that guide the debate of what comprises a good online writing lab.

    In contrast to the articles by Kimball and Blythe’s cerebral writing, Elaine Handley and Susan Oaks’ article "Playing the Lynx: Creating the Writer’s Complex as a Virtual Writing Center for Students at a Distance" discusses the creation of "The Writer’s Complex," the SUNY/Empire State OWL. Whereas earlier articles tended to focus on either the pedagogy or the logistics of creating an online writing lab, this essay combines the two. Handley and Oaks first explain their conception of the OWL as source of both "hypertext as information system" and "hypertext as facilitation" and then proceed to illustrate how they constructed their website to meet this dual purpose. Hanley and Oaks’ approach results in a fascinating article that seamlessly blends thought-provoking theory and anecdotal evidence.

    Over the past decade, a varied collection of work has been produced regarding online writing labs. In the coming years, as computer technology becomes increasingly advanced and colleges and universities grow more reliant on the use of the worldwide web as an educational tool, OWLs will doubtless become a standard feature of the educational environment, just as traditional writing centers are now. There is still a great deal of thinking and writing to be done in this exciting new field. Now that the initial furor over the innovation of the OWL has subsided, it is likely that Blythe’s recommendation that more publications be produced which examine the pedagogy of the medium will become reality.

Works Cited

Balester, Valerie M. "Transforming the Writing Center with Computers." Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. March 1992. ERIC ED345258

Blythe, Stuart. "Networked Computers + Writing Centers = ? Thinking About Networked Computers In Writing Center Practice." The Writing Center Journal. 17.2 (Spring 1997): 89-110.

---. "Why OWLs? Value, Risk, and Evolution." Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments 1.1 (1996). 16 July 1998 <http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.1/owls/blythe/owl.html >.

Coogan, David. "E-Mail Tutoring, a New Way to Do New Work." Computers and Composition. 12:2(1995): 171-181.

Farrell, Pamela B. "Writer, Peer Tutor, and the Computer: A Unique Relationship." Writing Center Journal. 8:1(1987) 29-33. Special issue on computers and writing centers.

Handley, Elaine and Susan Oaks. "Playing the Lynx: Creating the Writer’s Complex as a Virtual Writing Center for Students at a Distance." Journal of Educational Technology Systems 25:5(1996-97): 109-116.

Harris, Jeannette and Joyce Kinkead. "From the Editors." Writing Center Journal. 8:1(1987): 1-2. Special issue on computers and writing centers.

Harris, Muriel. "From the (Writing) Center to the Edge: Moving Writers Along the Internet." The Clearing House. 69:1(Sept/Oct 1995) 21-23.

Harris, Muriel and Michael Pemberton. "Online Writing Labs (OWLS): A Taxonomy of Options and Issues." Computers and Composition. 12:2(1995): 145-159.

Healy, Dave. "From Place to Space: Perceptual and Administrative Issues in the Online Writing Center." Computers and Composition. 12:2(1995): 183-193.

Johnson, J. Paul. "Technoprovocateurs and OWLS in the Late Age of Print." Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments 1.1 (1996). 16 July 1998 <http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.1/owls/johnson.html>.

Jordan-Henley, Jennifer and Barry M. Maid. "Tutoring in Cyberspace: Student Impact and College/University Collaboration." Computers and Composition. 12:2(1995): 211-218.

Kimball Sara. "Cybertext/Cyberspeech: Writing Centers and Online Magic." The Writing Center Journal. 18.1(Fall/Winter 1997): 30-49.

Langston, Camille. "Resistance and Control: The Complex Process of Creating an OWL." Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments 1.1 (1996). 16 July 1998 <http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.1/owls/langston/langston1.html>.

Lasarenko, Jane. "PR(OWL)ING AROUND: An OWL by Any Other Name." Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments 1.1 (1996). 16 July 1998 <http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.1/owls/lasarenko/prowl.html>.

Mullin, Joan. "Interview with Muriel Harris." Composition Studies / Freshman English News. 23:1(Spring 1995) 37-53.

Neuleib, Janice and Maurice Scharton. "Tutors and Computers, An Easy Alliance." Writing Center Journal. 11.1(Fall/Winter 1990): 49-58.

Palmquist, Mike, et. al. "Network Support for Writing Across the Curriculum: Developing an Online Writing Center." Computers and Composition. 12:3(1995): 335-353.

Scharton, Maurice. "The Third Person: The Role of the Computer in Writing Centers." Computers and Composition. 7:1(November 1989): 37-48.

Works Consulted

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Wright, Anne. "Terminal Writing in the Writing Lab?" Writing Center Journal. 8:1(1987): 21-28.