The Online Tutor as
Cross-Curricular Double Agent

The Grant

The DSU OWL was part of a four-part Bush Foundation Faculty Development Grant. The text that follows is the part of the grant proposal that deals with the OWL.


Dakota State University's commitment to incorporating computer technology in higher education makes it an ideal location for the development and implementation of an Online Writing Lab (OWL). The OWL will provide writing assistance to both faculty and students through Dakota State's Local Area Computer Network (LAN). The OWL will accomplish several purposes, but three central objectives will be foremost: (1) establishing an on-line resource center providing faculty with professional consultation in implementing writing in their classes; 2) establishing an on-line writing center providing easily accessible help for students who desire help in their classroom writing assignments; and (3) providing a vehicle for faculty to monitor student writing problems and reinforce the writing principles they are emphasizing in their classrooms.

The implementation of the OWL will serve to re-emphasize the importance of writing in all academic areas and provide the kind of support that is needed to establish the strong writing consciousness fundamental to higher education. Faculty in all disciplines will have access to information and assistance in all aspects of teaching writing. Conversely, students undertaking writing tasks in their classes will have access to assistance. In consequence, faculty who utilize the OWL will necessarily be made more aware of the teaching efforts of other faculty members, leading to more discussion of the problems and successes of writing throughout the entire university.


In a world where communication abilities are vital, the university writing center plays an essential role in developing fundamental communication skills. However, few if any university writing centers take advantage of the computer-mediated forms of communication that are rapidly transforming higher education and the world. Business, government, and education are incorporating the speed and convenience of computer-mediated communication (CMC), and written communication is becoming increasingly important.

The computer network at Dakota State University presents an ideal environment for the establishment of the OWL. All faculty offices are linked through the LAN with all of the computer labs and have access to the full resources of the library. In addition, many students have their dorm computers linked to the system, and more and more students are taking advantage of this link every semester. The OWL will take full advantage of DSU's networking capacity: high speed 32-bit servers will transmit students' messages to faculty and student tutors and return responses; all messages and responses can be stored on network disks for future reference and research. Software for word processing, communication, and writing analysis will be available to all users.

Unlike most other university computing environments, all Dakota State University faculty and students have access to the network. There is no charge for computer time and users have unlimited access to the LAN.

Although a few other universities are considering an online writing center, Dakota State University will be the first to implement a online environment to provide extensive writing support for faculty members. Since writing courses, as well as many other courses, are already being taught using CMC, a writing center using computer technology would be a logical extension. In addition, almost without exception, the faculty are computer literate and will easily adapt to the use of an OWL.


The Online Writing Lab will have two facets: one for faculty and one for students. The success of the OWL will be reinforced by this two-faceted approach, though only the faculty component will be funded by the Bush grant. The two components are described below:

Faculty OWL:

The purpose of the faculty OWL is to encourage, implement, and facilitate the use of writing in courses throughout the university. The consultant/directors of the OWL will be available online daily to help faculty members research writing in their disciplines, to devise appropriate writing assignments for their courses, to suggest a variety of evaluation approaches, and to assist in locating further electronic sources for enhancing their courses. In addition, the consultant/directors will work with faculty members to adapt the OWL to fit their diverse needs.

As an incentive, faculty will be offered the opportunity to apply for $500 mini-grants to develop detailed writing strategies for their classes. Faculty members submitting proposals for these grants must demonstrate a willingness to incorporate writing in at least two courses, and be willing to present their plans for incorporating writing at a faculty conference. Each proposal must include a description of the evaluation measure that will be used to determine success. The faculty members must also indicate commitment to serving as an OWL mentor in a specific discipline, thus enlarging the academic base from the English Department to include other academic areas.

Most of the grants (8) will be offered the first year when interest is high and demand for a corps of experienced teachers is greatest. Five grants will offered the second year, and four the third year.

Student OWL:

This online facility will be attended primarily by student tutors (English majors, minors, or education majors with English specializations) who will serve as respondents during those hours when regular English faculty are not usually available for consultation. Participating faculty will be responsible for sending copies of their writing assignments to tutors with special instructions they think helpful. Tutors will correspond with faculty members to discuss particular challenges an assignment is creating.


Faculty: The two OWL consultant/directors will each require a one-quarter release time during the three-year duration of the grant. They will be responsible for encouraging faculty to use the OWL , providing the online pedagogical assistance for faculty, training the tutors, promoting the OWL to students, and maintaining day-to-day operations. Professors James Swanson and Patricia Ericsson will be the initial consultant/directors for the project. As other faculty members, especially those who receive mini-grants, gain expertise, they will share leadership in the promotion of writing through the OWL. Responsibility for promoting and utilizing the OWL must be shared by not only the members of the English Department but by faculty from all academic areas to be viable and credible.

Student Tutors: The OWL will be staffed forty hours a week by four student tutors. Though student tutors are not funded in this grant, they will play an important part in the success of OWL for two reasons: 1) They will serve as assistants to teachers who simply do not have the time or the expertise in teaching or monitoring writing activities in their classes. 2) Their services will emphasize the need for campus-wide collaboration and ownership. Though tutors will initially be English majors or minors or education majors with English specializations, students from all academic areas will eventually involve themselves. Applications for this position will require at least one letter of recommendation from a member of the English faculty.

Space and Equipment:

The OWL will be located in Beadle Hall 110, which also houses a small publishing lab. Beadle Hall has both classroom and office space. The faculty responsible for the OWL have offices in this building. The lab used for composition instruction is also located in Beadle Hall. The OWL requires one dedicated 486 computer equipped with a network card and suitable desk and work space.


The Dakota State University Online Writing Center will begin operating during the Spring 1994 semester. During the first semester, the focus will be in the College of Liberal Arts. The entire campus community will be introduced to the OWL, but its use by the Liberal Arts Faculty will be targeted as an introductory step.

The OWL will be intensively promoted among faculty in the other academic areas during the Fall 1994 orientation sessions, and the focus from then on will be active participation by all academic areas.


Student Tutors:

Training of the student tutors will include 10 hours of instruction during the first week of the semester and weekly meetings for the rest of the semester. The OWL will be available for student use the second week of the semester. Students with writing questions will be encouraged to use the OWL.


The effectiveness of the OWL will be measured by several means. The evaluations included in each of the mini-grants will be compiled, and the mini-grant recipients will be surveyed. All faculty will complete attitudinal surveys to determine faculty acceptance of the OWL.

Overall evaluation will include projected increases in student performance in the CAAP assessment tests in the area of writing skills and critical thinking. Carrie Ahern, DSU assessment specialist, will cooperate in this assessment project.

Detailed user statistics will be collected. The number of inquiries to the OWL will be logged. Specific information on the types of inquiries will also be collected. Student users will be surveyed upon their first inquiry to the OWL and again at the end of the semester.

At the end of the second year of the grant, the consultant/directors will assess the educational value of the tutoring experience to determine the viability of a special class or internship in tutoring. Data from such schools as the University of Minnesota, Duluth indicates that student tutors are enthusiastic about taking special training as a requisite for tutoring. DSU tutors, primarily English majors and minors, can also use the credits as electives. It is the intent of the OWL project to use this incentive to maintain an adequate supply of qualified tutors after the OWL has been soundly established at the end of the three-year grant.


Two one-quarter release time faculty will be required for supervision, faculty consultation, and the operation of the OWL during its first three years. Anticipated salary for the two onequarter release time staff is estimated at $12,000 for the first year, $12,600 the second year, and $13,230 the third year. Other costs are detailed in the budget for the OWL.