DLC Series: Beyond the Northwest Tree Octopus: Multimodal Visual analysis as key to critical digital literacy



Developing young people’s critical web literacy is of utmost significance, especially at a time when there is such ease of accessibility to the Internet. Because of this, some scholars and most curricular documents urge educators to teach young people to be critical navigators and consumers of the web. There is, however, a notable gap between this urgent call and what teachers are doing (or not doing) in the classroom to help better prepare their students to navigate a vast and complex digital world. Most often, educators and teacher librarians have been resorting to the “Northwest Tree Octopus,” a spoof website created with the explicit intent of misleading visitors into believing a non-existing creature —an octopus that lives in trees. The Northwest Tree Octopus site eventually became so popular that teachers often use it to teach students about critically evaluating websites, and has also been used by popular media outlets to expose the gullibility of the so-called ‘web generation’ (e.g., Daily Mail Reporter, 2011; IBTimes Staff Reporter, 2011).

The use of a single resource to develop students’ web literacy is inherently problematic. We would argue that the reason for the gap between the call and implementation of such critical skills rests in part on the lack of resources and tools. Further, we argue the development of critical web literacy cannot simply be conducted through passive analysis of websites, but that there must also be some form of production, a consummatory experience (Dewey, 1934), which aids in developing students’ critical analytical skills. Thus, in this presentation we propose resources and methods of visual analysis and visual modes of production as helpful and effective ways for young students to be critical in the ever growing tech-saturated world.


With the advancement of technology, it has become more difficult to decipher what is real and what is not on the Internet, which can be misleading to the general public, disregarding age or experience (e.g., Estrin, 2015; Schetinger et al., 2015). As a result, we cannot ignore this unavoidable 21st century skill, and must arm our students with better tools.



Claire Ahn is PhD student in the Department of Language and Literacy Education. Her research interests include film, documentary film, ecoliteracy, visual literacy, and visual rhetoric. Prior to graduate studies she was a high school English for ten years in Alberta.

Ernesto Peña is a PhD candidate in Department of Language and Literacy Education. His research interests include digital humanities, design education, visual semiotics, visual rhetoric and visual literacy. Prior to graduate studies he was a professional designer and professor in Mexico.