Students on computers
Students on computers. Reuters

A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut, involving a web-campaign to save a fictitious octopus species from extinction, has exposed the risks inherent in the current student generation's excessive reliance on and faith in the Internet.

The research led by Dr. Donald Leu and his team at the University of Connecticut showed how the Internet is making e-savvy students more gullible and gradually bereft of critical thinking capabilities.

Researchers in the team highlighted a fallacious study by Dr. Leu on a supposed tree octopus that roams the treetops of the Pacific Northwest and asked students in class to find more information on it. They also created a website dedicated to saving the near-extinct species and sure enough, students fell for the various claims on the website.

Some of the fabricated details about the octopus species as published on the website were as follows:

The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America...These solitary cephalopods reach an average size (measured from arm-tip to mantle-tip,) of 30-33 cm. Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are amphibious, spending only their early life and the period of their mating season in their ancestral aquatic environment.

The students were also convinced by the causes mentioned in the site behind its endangerment, which blamed the haute couture industry in part:

Their voracious appetite for bird plumes having exhausted all the worthy species of that family, the fashionistas moved on to cephalopodic accoutrements during the early 20th Century. Tree octopuses became prized by the fashion industry as ornamental decorations for hats, leading greedy trappers to wipe out whole populations to feed the vanity of the fashionable rich.

Not only did students accept all of this at face value without any further exploration, what was even more alarming is that they refused to discount the existence of the creature even after the researchers revealed the hoax. They continued to insist on the truth of the facts on the website.

In a media advisory issued by educational publishing company Pearson following the experiment, Dr. Leu, Founder- Director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut, said, that most students simply have very little in the way of critical evaluation skills...They may tell you they don't believe everything they read on the Internet, but they do.

He also pointed out that among students who do actually use search engines for research, many do not know how to use the results. Typically, students will click on the first listing at the top of the search results page and take a quick look at that, then continue down the list without looking closely at the source of the website to determine if it is the best provider of the information they need.