By: 
Marcia Layton Turner
Honoree: 
Excelsior College

An internal assessment of writing in 2012 found students at Excelsior College struggling—just like many of their peers across the nation.

Recognizing the importance of writing to professional success, leaders at the college in Albany, New York, created a resource to help students improve their skills.

The Online Writing Lab, built using responsive design in an open source environment, was made available to students 24/7, at no cost.

Accessible via desktop, tablet or phone, the lab builds writing skills in eight areas: using sources, the writing process, argument and critical thinking, grammar essentials, essays, digital writing, avoiding plagiarism, and the ESL online workshop.

The website also includes a video game, Paper Capers, that helps students learn important vocabulary.

Inside the Program

  • Excelsior College saved an estimated $300,000 in programming costs by building the Online Writing Lab from scratch using open source software as the base platform.
  • The open source environment also encourages heavier use, which helps Excelsior raise funds for the project.
  • The website now consists of 700 pages and 300 activities.

The lab brings writing instruction to life, while reassuring and encouraging students, says Executive Director Crystal Sands.

In the two studies Excelsior has done regarding the impact on its own students, the college found that overwhelmingly users were engaged. “It feels like the OWL is on our side,” students reported; they felt safe, nurtured.

While built for Excelsior, 70 institutions worldwide now offer the lab and more than 10,000 users from more than 150 countries log in monthly, says Sands.

Part of the site’s success may be in the results students achieve. An independent study found students who used the lab in five states scored an average of 6.6 points higher on final grades.

And at Excelsior, the lab has replaced costly English 101 textbooks, saving students more than $150,000 a year.