Inside the Excelsior OWL: Explore the open source tools that power the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Explore the innovative free and open source software powering the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab: a customizable OER that replaces expensive textbooks with custom writing and reading resources; a learning object delivery platform with hundreds of embeddable interactive exercises; and a learning management tool for students to track OWL activities.


By day, I am Director of Web Systems at Excelsior College ( I design, build and administer a family of open source enterprise solutions and digital properties supporting the operation of a non-profit online college serving 40,000 students, 1,400 distributed faculty, and 500 staff. These properties include two web content management systems housing the College's public websites, student portal, and our employee intranet. I am also the technical architect and lead developer of the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (and it's former Executive Director). By night, I am the founder and director of The Ethnos Project (, a research initiative that explores the intersection of Indigeneity and information and communication technologies. My research covers the cultural impacts and implications of open source databases for Indigenous Knowledge management, new and emerging technologies for intangible cultural heritage preservation, information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) initiatives, and mobile technologies used for language preservation. I hold an MS in Communication & Rhetoric from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an MA in Mythology & Oral Traditions from Empire State College, and a BA in English Education from the University at Albany. Oh, and I bake bread - a lot of it. Like crazy amounts.

Extended Abstract

The Excelsior College OWL ( is a free, award-winning, mobile-friendly website with over 700 pages of text and multimedia instructional content, 220 interactive and embeddable activities, and a new Reading Comprehension Lab section. The OWL offers instructional support for college-level writing and reading skills -- students can track their progress of OWL activities through an account dashboard. Educators can create custom views of the OWL (we call them Owlets) for use in their courses. The newly minted learning activities can be embedded anywhere on the web making the OWL more than just a simple website.

The original Excelsior OWL was launched in 2013 as part of a $600,000 Kresge grant. It boasted a custom content management system, several hundred pages of original material and dozens of Flash activities. Within three years, the OWL began experiencing several challenges involving the maintenance of its custom code base, upgrade difficulties, and the waning support for Flash assets in most popular browsers. Faced with an ailing platform and a lack of funding, we dove head first into free and open source software to build the next iteration of the OWL. Our small distributed team of in-house educational technologists and instructional designers rebuilt the OWL using WordPress (a popular content management system) and H5P (an HTML5 authoring tool).

This presentation opens the hood of the Excelsior College OWL to showcase how freely available tools can be used to create a powerful collection of writing and reading learning resources for students and educators.

The introductory discussion will ask participants to share some of the challenges they face offering quality writing and reading comprehension for adult learners in online environments, flipped classrooms, etc.

Our interactive demonstration will explore the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab and the ways it has been built to answer some of the common challenges educators and institutions face in writing and reading comprehension instruction. We will demo Owlets - a free tool that allows educators to turn the OWL into custom online resources for a variety of purposes. We’ll introduce and demonstrate the incredible range and flexibility of H5P, the secret ingredient that powers the OWL’s embeddable learning objects. And we’ll showcase the account creation and activity tracking piece that allows students to keep a record of their OWL interactions.

The innovation portion of the presentation involves a hands-on workshop during which participants will use the Excelsior OWL to create their own Owlets and embed learning activities from the OWL into a live website (participants are asked to bring their own device to this session - mobile phones will work). Before the session closes, we will regroup to share and discuss what we’ve made using the OWL - and how these tools can provide immediate benefit to students.