Using multimedia and gaming to improve writing instruction

Excelsior College launched its Online Writing Lab, a comprehensive, media-rich, open-source resource designed for the transition to college-level writing

In March, Excelsior College launched its new Online Writing Lab or OWL , a comprehensive, media-rich, open-source resource designed for students making the transition to college-level writing. Developed with funding from the Kresge Foundation, this free, publicly available OWL uses extensive multimedia and gaming activities to help reinforce important writing concepts and skills, and provide students with a warm, engaging online environment in which to learn.

Within the past few months more than 20 college campuses and dozens of high schools have adopted the OWL as a resource for their students. Results from an initial pilot study on the OWL’s effectiveness are quite promising, demonstrating not only the lab’s positive impact but validating a development process that may serve as an effective template for other educators and developers looking to incorporate multimedia into their own projects.


Excelsior began the process of building the new lab during the fall of 2012. Our goal was to use research on writing instruction and skill transfer, as well as multimedia pedagogical design and best practices for gaming in education, to build a resource that would have a positive impact on modern learners.

We wanted to make writing memorable.

Prior academic findings on writing instruction guided our efforts at every step, in particular the strong correlation between motivation, enjoyment and student writing improvement. And as Ally (2004) argued, context would also be critical with multimedia: videos, photos and other interactions must relate to the material.

We brought together an OWL team, consisting of Excelsior experts in writing instruction, instructional design, and multimedia, as well as a video game company, 1st Playable Productions, to develop a learning environment that put these theories into practice. The result? Highly interactive, scaffolded instruction infused with enough humor and pop culture references to bring typically dry content, such as grammar rules and punctuation, to life.


The Grammar Essentials section provides students with clear instruction on grammar rules and usage, as well as guidance on punctuation, different parts of speech, and even the “20 Most Common Errors.” However, as Hillocks (1986) first argued nearly 30 years ago, traditional grammar exercises are not only ineffective but can prove harmful to writing instruction.

Thus the team set out to build new types of exercises that simultaneously teach students to apply what they’ve learned while challenging them on their mastery of the material.

In one such exercise, students are presented with passages of text that contain errors. Instead of answering multiple-choice questions, the user must manually edit the passage by dragging and dropping appropriate punctuation into the text. This type of multimedia adheres to pedagogical best practices for grammar instruction and makes for a more authentic interaction with punctuation rules.

Paper Capers, the OWL’s video game, takes academic theory – and user engagement – one step further. In the game, students play as owners of a writing company who must teach their employees an effective writing process. By requiring players to respond to their employee’s questions on everything from appropriate tone of voice to sentence structure, students develop a deeper understanding of fundamental concepts and their practical use in real-world situations.


The question remains though, does this multimedia have a measurable impact on learning?

The initial pilot study results indicate an emphatic, yes. Conducted by the University at Albany’s Evaluation Consortium, the study found that students at Excelsior and five partner colleges demonstrated the equivalent of a half-grade increase in their final grade through use of the lab, compared to a control group. In addition, the students showed improvement across each key writing skill metric.

A separate usability study also indicates users found both the OWL’s lesson content relevant to their education and the multimedia relevant to the content. These results are equally encouraging as students who feel instruction is relevant are more likely to return to a resource. Moreover, the instruction is more likely to transfer to other situations, a critical step to any learning process.

Clearly, the OWL provides students with an opportunity to engage in writing instruction and practice lessons in a way not before possible in open-source writing resources. But our experiences also illustrate the extent to which multimedia instruction, in combination with text, is both more enjoyable for students and more effective.

—Crystal Sands is an Excelsior College faculty member and Online Writing Lab (OWL) Project Director.


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