"[T]he Purdue OWL has single-handedly saved literally thousands of my students from having to buy pricey textbooks; it has helped me to induct them—for free!—into the mysteries of crafting a thesis and writing a research paper, in addition to feeding them A BUNCH of grammar and punctuation rules."

pedagogy

Nuala Lincke-Ivic
Editor & WLAC Associate Professor

nualaAn associate professor of English at West Los Angeles College, Nuala Lincke-Ivic is the editor of West Online Magazine.


What Indiana Means to Me: The Purdue OWL

“The best things in life are free” is a popular saying that most of us have heard. Indeed, this saying is so popular that it became the title of a 1992 song that Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross sang. And...I think some other people (judging from a quick ‘Net search) have appropriated this saying for their songs, too. (There are a couple of YouTube videos that you can watch, if you have nothing better to do.) So…what are the best things in life that are free? Hm. Well…I recall reading a list of free “best things” to do with kids: go into pet stores and cuddle cute puppies; play in beautiful parks; watch a glorious sunset; go for inspiring walks. That kind of thing. Reading this list, I remember speculating about the costs of these free things; what, I wondered, would the pet store staff do once they discovered that I had no intention of paying for the pricey puppy my sons were cuddling; how much gas and time would I need to drive somewhere in the city where my kids and I could play in a beautiful park—or watch a glorious sunset or take an inspiring walk? I am, you will note, a skeptic. Few things in life are free—and even fewer “best things.” One saying I like to repeat to my students is: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And that saying is connected to this other saying, which is not original, but whose words (my own) might present a fresh (if somewhat clumsy) approach to this teacherish admonition: “Everything we do in this class is like a recipe to bake a cake. You have to bake the cake INSIDE your head OUTSIDE the classroom, and that cake is called S-T-U-D-Y.” But I digress. I was telling you that I’m a skeptic and that I believe that there are very few free “best things” in life. However, there is at least one free best thing for students and teachers—for everybody with access to the Internet: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab—or OWL.

Throughout the years, the Purdue OWL has single-handedly saved literally thousands of my students from having to buy pricey textbooks; it has helped me to induct them—for free!—into the mysteries of crafting a thesis and writing a research paper, in addition to feeding them A BUNCH of grammar and punctuation rules. Therefore, it’s not hyperbole on my part to state that I LOVE THE PURDUE OWL. (I mean, I’m anthropomorphizing this inanimate object, this well of information existing in cyberspace—the Purdue OWL—telling you that it “singlehandedly saved” thousands of my students, so I might as well love it, too, right?”) Seriously, folks…the Purdue OWL is the only thing I know about Indiana, a state that I am sure is great and has a lot going for it, but which I have always driven through without stopping on my way to another state.

And now…seriously…let’s thanks Indiana for Purdue University, and let’s thank Purdue University for its OWL, to which I and other teachers and students are deeply indebted. Thank you for making this free online resource available to all people with access to the Internet.

Students and Others: Learn about the Purdue OWL in the history of the Purdue OWL that follows, and know that “best things” in life—like the Purdue OWL—are sometimes free. Know also that “from humble beginnings come great things.” Included with this article are photographs of the Purdue OWL—an inconspicuous, but busy-looking little computer—that Dr. Linda Bergmann, Director of the Writing Lab at Purdue, was kind enough to send us, in addition to a photo of whimsical artworks of…well, owls (the bird, not the info in cyberspace).

owl

About Purdue University’s OWL…

Launching the World's First Online Writing Lab in 1994
In an attempt to bring the Purdue Writing Lab to students no matter where they were, Dr. Muriel Harris (former director and founder of the Purdue Writing Lab) and David Taylor (former graduate student in Educational Computing) started the world's first Online Writing Lab (OWL) in 1994. Dave redesigned the e-mail server and developed the gopher and Web sites. Their goal was to provide a resource for students who sought writing help but couldn't make it into the physical Writing Lab during operating hours. Since that time, our OWL has become a complement to classroom instruction, a supplement to face-to-face tutorials, and a stand-alone reference for thousands of writers worldwide.

A number of Purdue students have facilitated and effected the arduous process of getting instructional materials online. Particularly valuable were the contributions of Michael Manley, who initially developed OWL as an e-mail server; and Michelle Sidler, Norman Vierstahler, Clinton Wong and Trish Jenkins, each of whom were instrumental in the development of the OWL during its formative stages. Special thanks goes to David Elderbrock, Humanities Coordinator for the Instructional Technology Program at UC Berkeley who helped us with a survey to identify the needs of our users.

Past OWL Coordinators and Webmasters include Stuart Blythe, Teddi Fishman, Jon Bush, Liz Thelen, Matt Mooney, Dave Neyhart, Geoff Stacks, Brian Yothers, Erin Karper, Christopher Berry, Karl Stolley, Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee, and Jeffrey Bacha. Currently, the OWL staff consists of Caitlan Spronk, OWL Webmaster, Elizabeth Angeli, OWL Coordinator, and various consultants and staff.
The OWL has grown into a popular web site that received over 128 million hits from over 125 countries in 2008-2009. The number of hits grew to 161 in 2009-2010 and continued to grow to over 184 million hits in 2010-2011. OWL Mail Tutors answered over 3,000 writing-related queries via e-mail. In March 2010, the OWL launched the Purdue OWL YouTube Channel to uphold the OWL's mission of offering global writing support.

Revisions and the OWL Family of Sites
In 2004, OWL staff began the enormous task of redesigning and revising the entire OWL site. Karl Stolley, OWL Webmaster for 2004-2007, developed a database-driven content management system, along with a new site design, to house the more than 200 handouts and PowerPoint presentations available on the "old OWL." Content developers began updating the handouts and PowerPoints and generating new discipline-specific writing materials. The result was a new OWL Family of Sites.

The revisions to the OWL and the migration of materials to the new site is ongoing. During the spring 2006 semester, OWL and Writing Lab staff, with the assistance of Purdue's English 515 class, conducted IRB-approved on-site usability testing. Participant-users completed a variety of tasks designed to test the navigation and effectiveness of the new site design. Further usability testing conducted in Summer 2006 and Remote Testing by the Purdue OWL Usability Team have furthered our understanding of our users and their needs. This information will guide additional revisions which will take place during the 2007-2009 academic years. For more details about OWL revisions, please visit this page.

Link to Purdue OWL: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/


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