Spotting a Tree Octopus

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The Critical Role of Pedagogy in Educational Technology & Product Development for Tomorrow’s Scholars

| By Lindsey Gervais, Digital Pedagogy Specialist, Gale |

Have you ever heard of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? Created back in the same day we were waiting for the yellow AOL figure to dial up the internet while someone got off the landline, this website is laden with all the best-in-show features of a “reputable website.” It includes primary sources branching back to c.100s all the way to present day—and the photos themselves are convincing enough for our young digital citizens to create validated inferences about this tree octopus. Its name even has 19 translations, enabling budding researchers to talk about it with emojis.

Here is the page in all its glory if you haven’t seen it already. The ultramotivated of you all, I am sure, opened a new tab and googled “tree octopus” and all its derivatives, finding that an octopus photoshopped onto a pine tree is, in fact, not real. Interestingly enough, however, you will also notice that this website was part of an ongoing experiment by the University of Connecticut’s New Literacies Research Lab. Their team of researchers found that students are “woefully lacking” in their ability to discern credible sources from their counterparts after students across the U.S. deemed this website a credible source.1

While most of the research performed and implications derived involved middle and high school students, it is not a stretch to assume that students are entering college ill prepared in information and data literacy. As a matter of fact, a study done by  School Library Journal found that “fewer than one of every three first-year students are prepared to successfully complete a college-level research project.”2 Furthermore, in order to fill this gap, librarians seek a progressive plan to bridge our era of hyper-information; it is one that assists students in finding the right information for aligned objectives and programming that facilitates the use of that information for various research phenomena.

So what is the solution? As we sift through an era filled with information, instructors and librarians find themselves viewing a stage of many players in technology that can meet the needs of a growing digital scholar. Through many commercial publisher platforms and open-source tools available online, students are assisted with finding and integrating primary sources into assignments. Other advanced technologies within digital scholarship enable scholars to then analyze these large sums of primary source data to develop interesting conclusions that are informed by the past to form the present, like the HathiTrust Research Center’s advanced suite of computational tools.

With that said, instructors and librarians may still find themselves at a loss as technology innovates and leaves behind contemporary pedagogical perspectives. How do we make use of technology to design an information literacy and computational analysis curriculum that will embed content within the context of learning? Let’s back up to the request of the progressive plan mentioned earlier. It is essential that innovative pedagogy be a central focus to product development, as it is driven by the needs of educators, best practices for teaching and learning, and viability within a growing education market.

Here’s where our tree octopus website comes in. This website has persisted as a tool for over  21 years, not just because it exists with high SEO and presence online, but because of its integration across the K12 and higher educational curricular space and publications thereafter. Fake as it is, institutions have embedded it into lesson plans that scaffold learning of information literacy. This learning context has made it a top tool for information literacy, driven by the University of Connecticut’s mission in new literacies to teach necessary skills by using it. Therefore, the product is not the website alone but the context of learning that drives it.

What can educational technology companies learn from this? They can learn that it is of the highest priority to develop products inspired by a framework that scaffolds student learning throughout the platform. In the case of information and data literacy, it is important that the research process, from content curation to analyses to interpretation, be reflected in a product that implements tools and learning objectives together in a journey—meeting the needs of common inquiry-based projects, making it accessible and easy to implement by instructors and librarians.

Remember, the Saving the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website (the content) could not have persisted on its own but does so with the learning framework that situates content and skills development together with inquiry. Therefore, the power of content is only as good as the situations, problems, inquiries, and frameworks we place it within.

Sounds like a dream, right? So is there anything out there that does this? The Gale Digital Scholar Lab seeks to pair high-quality primary source content with top-shelf tools in curation and computational analysis. With that, researchers can use advanced tools for building, cleaning, and analyzing large sums of data in the timely manner they always dreamed of, while instructors can use the Digital Scholar Lab to help facilitate ideas and best practices for learning digital humanities in an inquiry-based learning environment.

It’s an all-in-one research platform. Gale is situating information literacy and computational analysis into a research learning experience that can be facilitated by the product. In consultation with scholars in the digital humanities field, the product is developed with curriculum at the forefront, so instructors and students can get the help they need, where they need it throughout the research process. All of this results in strong digital scholarship combined with the application of foundational skills in information and data literacy.

  1. Krane, Beth. “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” Advance, November 13, 2006.
  2. D’Orio, Wayne. “Lacking Research Skills, Students Struggle. School Librarians Can Help Solve the College Readiness Gap,” School Library Journal, September 4, 2019.

Lindsey Gervais

Meet the Author

Lindsey Gervais is a Digital Pedagogy Specialist at Gale where she assists in the learning design and development of Gale’s Digital Scholarship Program. With a doctorate background and research recognition in the field of Cognition, Instruction, and Learning Technology, Lindsey is helping to elevate the instructional framework of Gale’s Digital Scholar Lab. She is a graduate of UCONN and taught Educational Psychology and Research Practicum for undergraduate and graduate students for 6 years. She also prides herself on her creativity, being a coffee “snob”, and endless devotion to the performing arts.

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