I know I shouldnt, but Im giggling over the plight
of the poor Pacific
Northwest Tree Octopus. The poor endangered creature is nearing
extinction, and here I am laughing at it.
Okay, Ill let you in on the secret. Were supposed to laugh at this
animal. There's no such thing as a Pacific
Northwest Tree Octopus.
This fictional octopus is the object of a satirical website. The problem with the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus isnt that such hoax sites exist. Its that students can be fooled by them if they dont know how to evaluate sources. “The New Literacies” in this months District Administration explains that “25 seventh-grade, high-performing online readers, when directed to the [Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus] site in a recent study by the New Literacies Research Team at the University of Connecticut, all thought the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was real.”
The idea of evaluating resources isnt new. Before online resources seemed to become omnipresent, students made plenty of mistakes choosing materials for their inquiry projects. A student might use a fictional rendering of an historic event instead of a nonfiction account. Students might choose popular magazines for research papers rather than more authoritative journals and books. As a result, in the past, teachers talked about evaluating resources with students as part of their inquiry projects.
What's different in the Internet age is that anyone can publish a relatively polished and believable site. Its very easy to be taken in by sites that look like they refer to authoritative sources and present objective information. The democratization of online publishing means that Internet-savvy readers have to be even more careful as they evaluate the resources that they encounter.
What can teachers do to help ensure students arent tricked by the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? Read the ALAs School Library Media Research journal article “Evaluating Information: An Information Literacy Challenge” for a librarians perspective on evaluating online resources, and tap your school librarian for help in emphasizing the importance of evaluating sources. Go over the typical features of reliable Internet sources and talk about how hoax sites work—just as you discuss the importance of evaluating any other resource that students use in their research. Here are some materials to get the discussion started:
- The Illinois District 124 site Avoiding
Fake Web Sites outlines seven steps, with example hoax sites, that students
can follow to avoid being taken in by hoaxes. Exploring some of these example sites with students is one fun way to talk about the importance of evaluating sources.
- The Website Evaluation Form from ReadWriteThink asks a series of five analysis questions that students can use to determine the reliability of Internet resources.
- The UC Berkeley site Evaluating Web Pages:
Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask provides a 5-part evaluation process for online resources, with a link to an online checklist.
- For a more complete exploration of website analysis, the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Inquiry on the Internet: Evaluating Web Pages for a Class Collection outlines a series of activities students can complete as part of a larger research project.