Friday, January 6, 2012

The octopus paxarbolis: Developing information literacy

Time is running out for the endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus. This rare creature (octopus paxarbolis) found only in temperate coniferous rain forests of the Olympic peninsula is threatened by loss of habitat and decimation by feral cats, bald eagles, poaching, and some say, sasquatch. Even though awareness of the tree octopus problem is growing, the federal government refuses to list the gentle creature as an endangered species and some environmentalists claim that the lumber industry heavily influences that decision.

Students assigned to research the problem found information on the tree octopus website and were prepared to spring into action to prevent the impending extinction of the creature. However, octopus paxarbolis is a hoax perpetrated by Lyle Zapato to test the credulity of readers.

Researcher Donald Leu used the website to test seventh-grade students’ information literacy skills. His findings (on the University of Connecticut website) revealed that students did not have the tools to evaluate information they found on the Internet and in this case continued to believe the information about the fictional octopus even after they knew it was false.

“These results are cause for serious concern,” says Leu, “because anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today’s students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there.”

The American Library Association (ALA) recognized the problem as far back as 1989 in a white paper, “The Importance of Information Literacy to Individuals, Business and Citizenship.” The authors wrote, “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”

Information literacy includes knowing how to use computers to find information and then having the skills to evaluate it in its context. It is vital to know how to find information, but that is insufficient if you cannot recognize propaganda, distortions of facts and other misuses and abuses of information. How we make sense of it all and cull the wheat from the chaff is crucial to becoming an informed citizen and maintaining our democracy.

The importance of developing critical thinking skills predates the computer, of course. Carl Sagan suggested that everyone develop a “baloney detection kit” by applying scientific reasoning to every claim or opinion. An updated kit by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse is available on the Skeptic website. The 16-page booklet includes suggestions on what questions to ask and what traps to avoid, and contains a how-to guide for developing a class in critical thinking. An entertaining 15-minute video by Shermer summarizes the 10 questions that skeptics should ask as they evaluate the trustworthiness of any claim.

If you want to have students practice their baloney detection skills and have a laugh, too, you can direct them to several hoax websites and ask them to find evidence that the information presented is not real. A few good examples: the British Stick Insect Foundation, Clones-R-US and the dihydrogen monoxide website.

Hoax or Not?
Chris Clementi has developed a WebQuest called “Hoax or Not?” in which she gives students the opportunity to investigate the veracity of several emails and websites by doing a thorough search on Google or another search engine. This is a good framework if you have time to assign a WebQuest. Make sure you are using age-appropriate materials to tailor the task and the process to your students and the opportunities for Internet access at your school.

Hoax websites are the extreme end of the spectrum; misinformation can take many other, often more subtle forms on the Internet. You’ll find helpful summaries of several approaches to evaluating web content at Education World’s “Fact, Fiction, or Opinion? Evaluating Online Information.” “Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators” offers a portal for almost everything you ever wanted to know about thinking critically about online content.

A brochure from the New York Library Association outlines standards for digital learning that can help you construct a classroom environment that will foster life-long learners who are critical information consumers.

Teaching students to question everything is the first step in helping them separate fact from fiction. Just asking “What is dihydrogen monoxide?” will reveal the truth about the compound and cut through the distortions on the website.

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